GENEVA (IDN) - The recent wave of reforms in Myanmar has had a positive impact on the people of what is popularly known as Burma, but serious challenges remain and must be addressed to improve the human rights situation and deepen the country's transition to democracy, according to a senior United Nations (UN) official.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, in fact warns: "There is a risk of backtracking on the progress achieved thus far." Concluding his fifth mission on February 5, he said: "At this crucial moment in the country’s history, further and sustained action should be taken to bring about further change."
"Moving forward cannot ignore or whitewash what happened in the past," noted Ojea Quintana from Argentina, who was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in May 2008. As Special Rapporteur, he is independent from any government or organization and serves in his individual capacity.
"Facing Myanmar's own recent history and acknowledging the violations that people have suffered will be necessary to ensure national reconciliation and to prevent future violations from occurring," said Ojea Quintana. It remains his firm conviction that justice and accountability measures, as well as measures to ensure access to the truth, are fundamental to the process.
The UN human rights expert said that the upcoming by-elections on April 1, 2012 will be a key test of how far the Government has progressed in its process of reform. "It is essential that they are truly free, fair, inclusive and transparent," he stressed, revealing that he had been informed that "the use of international observers was under consideration."
Prior to its assumption of the Chairpersonship of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014, he said, "I would encourage Myanmar to demonstrate concrete progress in improving its human rights situation. The international community should remain engaged and should support and assist the Government during this important time."
Since his last visit in August 2011, he said, there had been a continuing wave of reforms in Myanmar, the speed and breadth of which has surprised many international observers and many in the country. The impact of these reforms on the country and on its people is immediately perceptible.
During his latest six-day mission to Myanmar, Ojea Quintana not only held talks with Government ministers, members of Parliament, the Attorney-General, the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, and representatives of the Union Election Commission. He also met with Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma's independence hero Aung San, members of the recently-established National Human Rights Commission, and representatives of civil society organisations and ethnic parties.
During his mission, Parliament was meeting in its third regular session and was discussing a number of important issues, including, for the first time, the country's budget. Legislative reforms were underway, including a new draft media law which he was told would abolish censorship and provide some guarantees for the freedom of opinion and expression.
Campaigning for the by-elections scheduled on April 1 had begun in earnest and Suu Kyi’s activities and statements were covered in the national media. She remained under house arrest for almost 15 of the 21 years from July 20, 1989 until her release on November 13, 2010.
An initial agreement had been reached with another armed ethnic group and negotiations continued with others, Ojea Quintana said. "It was therefore important to assess the human rights situation in light of these developments and at this key moment in Myanmar’s history."
He also met with three prisoners of conscience in Insein Prison, as well as with released prisoners of conscience, including members of the 88 Generation Students Group, some of whom he had previously addressed in his reports or had visited in prison.
He added: "While I was informed that prison conditions had generally improved, I also received allegations of continuing ill-treatment by prison officials and the continuing transfers of prisoners to prisons in remote areas, often without their prior notification and without proper notification of family members."
The UN Special Rapporteur said the information he received of remaining prisoners of conscience being held not only in Insein but also in other prisons was of particular concern. "I therefore reiterate that the Government should release all remaining prisoners of conscience without conditions and without delay. This is a central and necessary step towards national reconciliation and would greatly benefit Myanmar’s efforts towards democracy," Ojea Quintana said. He pleaded for "a comprehensive and thorough investigation" to clarify "continuing discrepancies in the numbers of remaining prisoners of conscience from different sources."
He also faulted insufficient attention being paid to ensure the effective implementation of the newly-promulgated and reformed laws. "There is also a lack of clarity and progress on reviewing and reforming the laws that I have previously identified as not in full compliance with international human rights standards, such as the State Protection Law, the Electronic Transactions Law and the Unlawful Associations Act," said Ojea Quintana. "These laws impinge upon a broad range of human rights and have been used to convict prisoners of conscience," he added.
The UN Special Rapporteur said regardless of efforts made to reform legislation, an independent, impartial and effective judiciary within the powers of the Constitution is needed to uphold the rule of law and act as a last guarantor for safeguarding fundamental freedoms and human rights in Myanmar.
The judiciary is also essential for Myanmar’s transition to democracy and should play an important role in ensuring checks and balances on the executive and the legislative. He urged the judiciary to seek technical assistance from the international community, particularly the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and other organizations.
During the mission, the UN human rights expert also had the opportunity to engage with members of the National Human Rights Commission for the first time since its establishment by Presidential Decree in September 2011. He was informed of some actions undertaken by the Commission, including prison visits, visits to internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kachin State, the northernmost state of Burma where, according to Human Rights Watch, the country's armed forces have committed serious abuses against ethnic civilians.
Concerns regarding the ongoing tensions and conflict with armed ethnic groups in border areas, particularly in Kachin State, were consistently raised during Ojea Quintana's mission. He received "continuing allegations of serious human rights violations committed during conflict, including attacks against civilian populations, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, internal displacement, land confiscations, the use of human shields, the recruitment of child soldiers, as well as forced labour and portering."
He added: "I received reports of violations being committed by all parties to the conflict. While I welcome the Government’s commitment to peace talks and the progress made in this regard, such as the agreements reached with various groups, including most recently, the Mon, it is vital that these allegations and reports be urgently addressed. I was informed that action had been taken on some cases involving military personnel, but much more needs to be done. It is also vital that the authorities and all armed groups ensure the protection of civilians in conflict-affected areas.
Ojea Quintana said he was encouraged to hear that the resources available to the National Human Rights Commission may be increased significantly, including an increase in the number of staff supporting its work.
He said: "Despite these positive developments, I am concerned that there are no indications as yet that the Commission is fully independent and effective in compliance with the Paris Principles. At present, it seems that the Commission cannot fully guarantee human rights protection for all in Myanmar. I was informed that the Commission’s draft rules of procedure were being examined by the judiciary, and were awaiting the approval of the Council of Ministers. This sends the wrong signal that the Commission is not fully independent from the Government."
Also, he was informed that its prison visits were dependent on presidential authorization. Moreover, while the President appointed Commission members representing different ethnic minority groups, the vast majority of the Commissioners are retired government civil servants. And some informed him that they were neither consulted nor informed in advance of their appointment. There also doesn’t seem to be clarity on its procedures, including for handling complaints and conducting prison visits. In this respect, he was informed that interviews were conducted in the presence of prison officials.
"There is clearly a strong need to enhance the technical and substantive capacity of the Commissioners and its staff on human rights issues. I welcome the willingness of the Commission to seek training and technical assistance from OHCHR and the international community as a whole on the Paris Principles and other important substantive areas, such as handling human rights complaints and prison monitoring."
The Paris Principles were defined at the first International Workshop on National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights held in Paris October 7-9, 1991. They were adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Commission by Resolution 1992/54 of 1992, and by the UN General Assembly in its Resolution 48/134 of 1993. The Paris Principles relate to the status and functioning of national institutions for the protection and promotion of human rights.
Picture: Aung San Suu Kyi gives speech to supporters on November 17, 2011
Credit: Wikimedia Commons