Monday, February 24, 2014

Weekly Highlights: UN Special Rapporteur’s Recent Mission to Burma Underlines Continuing Importance of Mandate


17-23 February 2014

Weekly Highlights

UN Special Rapporteur's Recent Mission to Burma Underlines Continuing Importance of Mandate

The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, last week concluded his final mission to Burma, having served the maximum of six years permitted under his mandate. His end-of-mission statement, issued at Rangoon International Airport on 19 February, provides a thematic summary of some of the most pressing human rights issues that Burma currently faces, as well as an overview of certain key stops on his itinerary, most notably Kachin and Arakan States.

Special Rapporteur Quintana's statement highlights two salient points. First, the human rights situation in Burma is evidently still very serious indeed, with little or no progress made in some areas. As Special Rapporteur Quintana says: "For the time being, the military retains a prevailing role in the life and institutions of [Burma]. State institutions in general remain unaccountable and the judiciary is not yet functioning as an independent branch of Government. Moreover, the rule of law cannot yet be said to exist in [Burma]. Tackling the situation in [Arakan] State represents a particular challenge which, if left unaddressed, could jeopardize the entire reform process. A critical challenge will be to secure ceasefire and political agreements with ethnic minority groups, so that [Burma] can finally transform into a peaceful multi-ethnic and multi-religious society." In other areas, such as "the release of prisoners of conscience, the opening up of space for freedom of expression, the development of political freedoms, and important progress in securing an end to fighting in the ethnic border areas," reforms are in grave danger of backsliding, as Special Rapporteur Quintana says was acknowledged by a senior government official in Naypyidaw.

Second, it is clear that the Special Rapporteur plays a vital role in monitoring what is happening inside Burma, analyzing and condensing the information for the international community, and in mobilizing relevant actors such as the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to take appropriate action. It is hard to make the argument that Burma no longer requires a Special Rapporteur mandate based only on some tentative reforms in certain areas, such as the release of political prisoners. Set among the smorgasbord of unsavory issues on Burma's plate, such reforms are little more than garnish intended to make Burma palatable to the international community.

Furthermore, not only is a Special Rapporteur still entirely necessary; one with a full monitoring mandate under Item 4 is needed to ensure continuing monitoring and reporting to the HRC on human rights developments in Burma. Since Item 4 is intended for countries requiring the HRC's continuing attention, it is clear from Special Rapporteur Quintana's statement that Burma still merits an Item 4 mandate. Moreover, a country-specific resolution on Burma must be drafted and passed during the HRC's upcoming session.

By the same token, the need for the establishment of a UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Burma is indicated by the litany of human rights concerns, and anything less than an office with a full promotion and protection mandate cannot currently be justified. The UN and Burma government are currently at an impasse regarding the establishment of such an office, with the Burma government unwilling to accept an office with a full mandate. It is also trying to negotiate, as part of such discussions, a reduction in the mandate of the Special Rapporteur – to an Item 10 mandate which entails only "technical cooperation" – or the abolishment of the Special Rapporteur mandate altogether.

It is clear that the Burma government's ideal scenario would be no Special Rapporteur and no OHCHR office. That way, it would have carte blanche to commit or permit all manner of human rights abuses without anyone interfering, while at the same time sitting at the top table of international legitimacy. However, if it is serious about its stage-managed political reforms, the Burma government should pay close attention to Special Rapporteur Quintana's expert and independent advice, appreciate the severity and fragility of the status quo in Burma, and do everything that it can to improve the human rights situation for the benefit of the people of Burma. If not, the so-called reforms thus far will reveal themselves to be nothing more than an elaborate charade.

On the other hand, the human rights community of Burma and their solidarity networks across the world are enormously grateful to Special Rapporteur Quintana for his years of hard work, commitment and persistence, for his principled and balanced stance, and for his bravery in the face of some fairly serious obstacles. We wish him all the best for his future, and hope that Burma is fortunate enough to be allocated a new Special Rapporteur of a similar caliber and with equivalent credentials when the HRC meets in March.


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