Reporters protest as they call on Myanmar government and military authorities to release reporters who were arrested in Yangon, Myanmar June 30, 2017. Photo credit: Soe Zayar Tun / Reuters
Amid a catastrophic human rights crisis, the space for civil society and human rights defenders is shrinking as protests in Yangon are banned, a land rights defender is beaten to death, and spurious charges are used to silence those who speak out against the military's violations.
In early November 2017, Yangon Region Security and Border Affairs Minister – a military-assigned position in local government – issued an order that all applications for public assembly are to be denied in eleven townships in Myanmar's biggest city. By effectively banning peaceful assembly, the Yangon authorities are contradicting domestic legislation – specifically the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law – which although problematic still gives people of Myanmar the right to peacefully assemble. Furthermore, the ban is in violation of Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which gives everyone the right to "freedom of peaceful assembly and association."
It is not just urban areas where space for civil society is shrinking. In conflict-affected Kachin State where the Myanmar Army has committed a litany of human rights abuses over many years, to speak out against this violence is to face charges. Dashi Naw Lawn, an ethnic Kachin man who is the General Secretary of the Kachin National Development Foundation, has been charged with criminal defamation under the Section 500 of the Penal Code after his organization distributed pamphlets outlining the abuse and destruction that the Myanmar Army has committed in Kachin State.
In certain cases, to be a human rights defender means facing death. In a tragic case, Htay Aung, a land rights defender who was a focal person with the Federation of National Peasant Union was beaten to death by a mob of 20 men during an inspection of disputed land that had been confiscated nearly 30 years ago and reallocated to a different community.
It is vital that civil society space is expanded and the rights of people are protected, not restricted if Myanmar is to move towards a democratic society with transparency, accountability and checks and balances of the powerful. Those human rights defenders who bravely and tirelessly work for the rights of the most vulnerable populations are becoming more and more at risk. Through repressive legislation, arbitrary judicial harassment, and violence, the Myanmar military, government authorities and their associated businesses are able to avoid accountability and ensure that the vulnerable populations they abuse, whether through land confiscations, destruction of property, arbitrary arrest, rape and sexual violence, torture or extrajudicial killing, do not find justice. This only illustrates how important the work of rights-based civil society and human rights defenders is.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) Government may be restricted in its overall power vis-à-vis the Myanmar Army, but it can work towards repealing and/or amending legislation that the Myanmar Army can use as a tool for repression. It must utilize their legislative power to further protect human rights defenders against spurious charges. Furthermore, the international community must seek to support those at risk who work with grassroots communities to protect the most vulnerable, including providing support for protection mechanisms and preventative measures for activists and human rights defenders. Ultimately, it is the work and sacrifice of those working on the ground with their own personal security at stake that will make the most progress towards the promotion and protection of human rights. Given the huge power imbalance between them and the perpetrators of human rights abuses, these courageous human rights defenders and activists on the ground must be given all the support possible.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term 'Myanmar' in acknowledgment that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of 'Myanmar' rather than 'Burma' without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten.
Open Letter Member and observer states of the UN Human Rights Council
20 November 2017
To: Member and observer states of the UN Human Rights Council
Re: Call for a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on the deteriorating human rights situation in Myanmar
We, the undersigned human rights organizations, strongly support calls for a UN Human Rights Council special session on the deteriorating human rights situation in Myanmar and urge your delegations to support holding such a session as soon as possible. In light of serious reports of human rights violations, including crimes against humanity, committed by Myanmar security forces – including unlawful killings, rape and other crimes of sexual violence, widespread burning and destruction of Rohingya homes and property, mass deportations and the unlawful use of antipersonnel landmines – and given the unprecedented exodus of over half a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar into Bangladesh, we believe that a special session is imperative to launch decisive action and ensure international scrutiny and monitoring of the situation.
While the Council must pay particular attention to the situation of the Rohingya and to Rakhine State, it should not restrict itself to addressing one region, in keeping with past resolutions on this issue. It is important that the Council acknowledge and express concern over the deterioration of the human rights situation in other parts of the country, including over reports of violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law in Kachin and Shan States – which in some cases have implicated the same military units as in Rakhine State. These have included torture, enforced disappearance, extrajudicial executions and killing civilians through indiscriminate use of force by the Myanmar military.
Such a comprehensive approach would contextualize larger patterns of violations and address more effectively structural issues in Myanmar that have contributed to the current crisis and overall deterioration of the situation in Myanmar. Therefore, in keeping with past resolutions on the situation in Myanmar under Item 4 and item 2, the Council should pass a resolution that covers serious human rights concerns in Myanmar as a whole, or at minimum the human rights of the Rohingya, Kachin, Shan, T'ang and other minorities across the whole country.1 Failure to do so would not only overlook the situation of other people in Myanmar including other ethnic and religious minorities but also risk further isolating the Rohingya within Myanmar and further jeopardizing them.
In light of the above, our organisations call for the special session resolution to:
Recognise serious concerns expressed by: the High Commissioner for Human Rights in his address to the 36th session of the UN Human Rights Council; the UN Secretary General in his September statement to the UN Security Council; the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar in her October report to the UN General Assembly; the October rapid response report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; and the Presidential statement of the UN Security Council on 6 November. In doing so, the resolution should also acknowledge the likelihood of the commission of crimes against humanity, consistent with recent findings by UN bodies and human rights organisations;
Call on the Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar – established by this Council – to offer its expert advice to relevant UN bodies seized of the situation in the country including to the UN Security Council for consideration of appropriate action and further invite the UN Fact Finding Mission to include recommendations on an appropriate accountability mechanism for alleged perpetrators of crimes under international law in its final report;
Recognise the 1Dth October joint statement by the UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide and the UN Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect – which calls on Myanmar to "take immediate action to stop and address the commission of atrocity crimes that are reportedly taking place.t The resolution should call on the UN Secretary General to update the Council on the follow up to this statement at the Council's 37th session; and
Call on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to update the Council on Myanmar's cooperation with UN human rights mechanisms at the 37th, 38th, and 39th sessions of the Council.
The resolution should also call on the Government of Myanmar to:
1. Immediately cease all human rights violations, including crimes against humanity, in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States as well as other parts of the country; and call on all parties to refrain from further abuses;
2. Immediately allow full and unfettered access to all parts of the country for international and local humanitarian organisations;
3. Fully cooperate with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Fact Finding Mission, including by allowing them full and unhindered access to all areas of the country, including Rakhine State, and to all individuals and relevant documents they deems necessary for their work; and to prevent and seek accountability for any threats, retaliations or reprisals against individuals for engaging with the UN, including the Fact Finding Mission;
4. Ensure all refugees and internally displaced persons are able to return to their homes voluntarily, in safety and with dignity; without discrimination of any kind and in accordance with international human rights law, and with full access to international observation and government support in rebuilding homes and destroyed infrastructure;
5. Postpone economic and infrastructure projects – including the setting up of any new special economic, industrial or trade zones – until necessary safeguards are put in place to ensure that they are for the benefit of all communities without discrimination, and in particular do not prejudice the land and property rights of Rohingya and other communities that have been displaced from their habitation as refugees or as internally displaced populations;
6. Initiate prompt, impartial, independent and effective investigations into all credible allegations of violations and abuses of international human rights law and crimes under international law. Where sufficient, admissible evidence is found of individuals (including those with command and other superior responsibility) committing offences involving such violations, and in particular those constituting crimes against humanity, ensure that such individuals are prosecuted, in fair proceedings before independent civilian courts and without the imposition of the death penalty – while acknowledging that currently no investigation by the Myanmar military and security forces could reasonably be seen as independent or impartial. Myanmar should further be urged to cooperate fully with all international efforts to ensure accountability including through investigations and prosecutions by international tribunals or foreign jurisdictions;
7. Ensure that such prompt, impartial, independent and effective investigations duly address allegations of rape and other forms of sexual violence including gang-rape by multiple soldiers, forced public nudity and humiliation, and sexual slavery in military captivity. Furthermore, ensure that the survivors of gender-based violence have immediate access to health services and psychosocial support;
8. Take immediate action to address the long-standing and systematic discrimination and segregation of the Rohingya and other Muslims in Myanmar; including by ensuring that the right to a nationality is granted free of any discrimination; and removing arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions on freedom of movement; access to healthcare, education and other services;
9. Condemn unequivocally all advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence and to take effective measures to tackle and counter it, in line with international human rights law; and
10. Immediately and unconditionally release all individuals deprived of liberty solely for the peaceful exercise of their human rights, and revoke all pending criminal proceedings against such peaceful activists. Review and amend laws which arbitrarily restrict the peaceful exercise of these rights and take appropriate steps to ensure the safety and security of journalists, civil society activists and human rights defenders and their freedom to pursue their actives without fear.
The resolution should further:
1. Call on all States to exercise universal jurisdiction in investigating, prosecuting or extraditing any person under their jurisdiction who may reasonably be suspected of committing crimes against humanity or other crimes under international law in Myanmar, while ensuring that all proceedings meet international standards of fairness and do not involve seeking or imposing the death penalty;
2. Call on all States to use all their influence and all diplomatic tools at their disposal to urge Myanmar to immediately work to implement the recommendations listed above;
3. Call on all States to assist with meeting the humanitarian needs of persons displaced within Myanmar and in other countries including Bangladesh, including as regards protecting women, children, and others at risk of sexual violence, trafficking, and similar abuses;
4. Call on all business enterprises, including transnational corporations and domestic enterprises, to ensure they are not, intentionally or otherwise, contributing to violations or abuses of human rights addressed by the resolution, and call upon home States of business companies operating in Myanmar to set out clearly the expectation that all business enterprises domiciled in their territory and//or jurisdiction are to respect human rights throughout their operations, highlighting the need for particular scrutiny of any operations or commercial relationships that could prejudice the rights of Rohingya or other displaced communities.
Please accept, Excellencies, the assurances of our highest consideration,
1. Action Birmanie, Belgium
3. Amnesty International
4. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
5. Article 1D
6. Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), India
7. Burma Acton Ireland
8. Burma Campaign UK
9. Bytes for All, Pakistan
10. Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO)
11. Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria
12. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizenship Participation
13. Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (kontraS), Indonesia
14. Commonwealth Human rights Initiate
15. Conectas Direitos Humanos, Brazil
16. European Rohingya Council
17. Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
18. Info Birmanie
19. INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre, Sri Lanka
20. International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)
21. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
22. International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
23. Korean House for international Solidarity
24. Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN)
25. Odhikar, Bangladesh
26. Partnership for Justice, Nigeria
27. Peoples' Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), India
28. People's Watch, India
29. Programme Against Custodial Torture & Impunity (PACTI), India
30. Progressive Voice
31. Pusat KOMAS, Malaysia
32. Rohingya Community Ireland
33. Savitri Bai Phule Women Forum (SWF), India
34. Stefanus Alliance International
35. Swedish Burma Committee
36. International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI)
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