For too many years, while the scale and severity of the violations in Burma have required sustained effort by the international community, the world has done little to address these human rights abuses. UN Special Envoys and UN Special Rapporteurs have travelled to Burma over 40 times to discuss democratisation and human rights. Over and over again, UN resolutions and Special Rapporteurs have spoken out about the abuse in Burma. Furthermore, UN bodies have consistently acknowledged severe human rights violations and used legal terms that associate them with international crimes, including ‘widespread’, ‘systematic’, and ‘part of a state policy’. Despite the recognition of the existence of these violations by many UN organs for over a period of 15 years, the Security Council has failed to act to ensure accountability and justice (IHRC, 2012). The perpetrators in Burma continue to avoid both. For more information on international crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma, see War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity.
Despite the annually released UN resolution (1991-2015) calling on the Burma Government to respect human rights, many local people have lost hope for the UN to help the people of Burma:
“The UN can’t do anything… Ban Ki Moon didn’t even meet our general. He (Ban Ki Moon) is in the most powerful position in the world! Gambari came many times but nothing happened; it is useless!” (Young Arakanese man from Rangoon;, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, 2010, p. 188)
In order to address deep-seated mistrust and grievances in Burma, the perpetrators must be held accountable, and victims must be able to seek redress. The UN Security Council should declare that the situation in Burma constitutes a threat to international peace and security and initiate a formal investigation through a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) to investigate international crimes committed in Burma, and then act upon the findings and recommendations made by such a Commission. The UN Security Council has, however, repeatedly failed to move the process forward as it has done in similar situations elsewhere, such as in the former Yugoslavia and Darfur. Despite the UN being aware of the widespread and systematic nature of the violations in Burma, there has been no such action. In 2007, the UN Security Council failed to adopt a draft resolution on Burma, owing to negative votes by China and Russia (United Nations Security Council Press Release, 2007).
A number of organisations and governments have called for a CoI to investigate alleged international crimes in Burma. In March 2010, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar [Burma], Tomás Ojea Quintana , called on the UN to “consider the possibility to establish a commission of inquiry with a specific fact-finding mandate to address the question of international crimes” (the Special Rapporteur in March 2010; UN General Assembly, 2010, p. 21). 16 countries have publicly called for a CoI: Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Slovakia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (Human Rights Watch, 2011). Organisations calling for CoI in Burma include, amongst others, Human Rights Watch, KHRG, KWO, FIDH, ALTSEAN-Burma, BLC, and IHRC.
According to IHRC: “In light of more than fifteen years of condemnation from UN bodies for human rights abuses in Burma, the Security Council should institute a Commission of Inquiry to investigate grave crimes that have been committed in the country” (IHRC, 2012, p. 2).
Despite some positive developments that have taken place in Burma since the reforms started in 2011, Ms. Yanghee Lee, the current Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar [Burma] warned in July 2014 that “there are worrying signs of possible backtracking which if unchecked could undermine Myanmar’s efforts to become a responsible member of the international community that respects and protects human rights” (UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, July, 2014).
The election of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD-led government in 2015 similarly did little to improve human rights in the country, despite the State Counsellor’s rhetoric of prioritising peace and reconciliation. The by-and-large peaceful and democratic elections led international community members to revise their stance regarding Burma, in recognition of the new political developments. In 2016, the European Union also declared that it would cease to submit the annual human rights resolution for Burma to the UN General Assembly (see e.g. Myanmar Times, September 2016). In August 2016, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi instituted an Advisory Commission on Rakhine/Arakan State, chaired by former UN chief Kofi Annan, tasked with providing recommendations to facilitate conflict resolution, humanitarian assistance, national reconciliation, the promotion of human rights and development (Advisory Commission on Rakhine/Arakan State, 2017).
Despite the warm welcome expressed by numerous states in the international community, many NGOs and rights activists remained wary of the changes occurring in Burma;
While we note general elections carried out on 8 November were largely peaceful, we remain seriously concerned about the wider human rights situation in Myanmar. During 2015, the Myanmar authorities failed to deliver on human rights reforms and to implement most recommendations in previous UNGA resolutions, including the 2014 UN Resolution 69/248. Human rights violations, in particular of the right to freedom from discrimination, freedom from arbitrary detention and freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly have continued. This situation underscores the need for sustained international engagement, including through the adoption of a strong UNGA resolution to remind the Myanmar authorities of their obligation to end human rights violations. (Federation Internationale des Droits de l’Homme (FIDH) and Amnesty International, 2015)
The June 2016 Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recognized “systematic and systemic discrimination and policies of exclusion and marginalization” and that the new government is responsible for stopping “discriminatory policies and practices and repealing discriminatory laws” (Human Rights Council, Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2016).
The November 2016 crackdown by Burmese security and military forces in Arakan State, which led to the displacement of around 70,000 people to Bangladesh, marked the end of the relaxation of State policies towards Burma. The European Union brought a new resolution to the UN Human Rights Council, which was adopted in March 2017 and saw the creation of a fact-finding mission to investigate allegations of killings, rape and torture by Burmese security forces (for a Q&A about this mission, see Human Rights Watch, 2017a). Shortly after the UN Resolution, the government declared it would not cooperate with the mission or issue visas to the appointed members. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has strongly upheld that international involvement would fuel domestic tensions and that domestic mechanisms have not been exhausted.
In July 2017, UN special rapporteur Yanghee Lee made her sixth visit to Burma amid what she amid what she recognised as an “escalating security situation”. In her end-statement Lee called on the government to stop using old tactics previously used by the military regime, such as surveillance and restrictions on access, and urged for more international actors to support the country’s democratic transition (UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2017).
At this point in time, the government of Burma continues to reject the UN-mandated fact-finding mission despite the demands from rights activists and international community members. Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the United Nations, has stated on this issue:
No one should face discrimination or violence because of their ethnic background or religious beliefs. It is important that the Burmese government allow this fact-finding mission to do its job. The international community cannot overlook what is happening in Burma – we must stand together and call on the government to fully cooperate with this fact-finding mission. (United States Mission to the United Nations, July 10, 2017).
As the government continues to uphold the principle of sovereignty to prevent the international community from interfering in the country’s human rights situation, Burma has relied heavily on the Koffi Annan Advisory panel to justify its refusal of the UN fact-finding mission. In an interview with The Irrawaddy newspaper, NLD spokesperson U Zaw Htay stated: “Whenever there is an accusation from the international community, we say we are taking action in line with the recommendations of the Kofi Annan commission. The commission is serving as a shield for us” (The Irrawaddy, July 10, 2017). By abiding to some of the recommendations issued by the Commission, such as when the government allowed some members of the international media to tour restricted conflict areas this July (RFA, July 2017), the NLD-led Government endeavors to keep international involvement at bay.
Updated August 25, 2017Continue to International Community Role for the Future