GENEVA — The Human Rights Council held an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, and the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.
Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, presenting her report, said that the Government of Myanmar had refused to further cooperate with her mandate and to allow her access to the country. There were now more Rohingya people outside Myanmar than within. Ethnic minority groups in other areas of the country, such as Kachin, Shan and Kayin, were much like the Rohingya, victims of the military campaign.
While Myanmar said it had constructed facilities to receive verified returnees from Bangladesh, there appeared to be a policy of forced starvation in place, designed to make life in northern Rakhine unsustainable. Considering that crimes against humanity had been occurring since 2016, Ms. Lee recommended a comprehensive review of actions by the United Nations system regarding the implementation of its humanitarian and protection mandates.
Marzuki Darusman, Chairperson of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said that over 600 in-depth interviews with victims and witnesses of alleged human rights abuses had been conducted, although the Mission’s request for a visit had been denied by the Government.
The escalation of violence had magnified the longstanding humanitarian crisis in Kachin and Shan states. Credible reports had been received of indiscriminate attacks, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and inhumane treatment, and rape and other forms of sexual violence. Turning to the situation in Rakhine state, Mr. Darusman reminded that credible accounts were rife of the State’s various security forces having committed gross human rights violations in the course of those operations. In all likelihood, those violations amounted to crimes under international law.
Myanmar, speaking as the concerned country, said the present Government had been able to make progress in the peace process and implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine state for a sustainable solution. The terrorist attacks in Rakhine state in August 2017 had abruptly changed the state of affairs; restoring law and order to provide security had become a priority for the Government. Most of the ethnic groups and their villages remained intact in Myanmar, as witnessed by the United Nations entities in their recent visits.
In the ensuing discussion, speakers strongly condemned the use of violence that had led to the mass expulsion of hundreds of thousands of civilians from Rakhine state, but also from other regions. They urged the Government of Myanmar to cooperate fully with the Special Rapporteur and the Fact-Finding Mission and to ensure unimpeded access for humanitarian aid.
Speakers welcomed the signing of the arrangement on the return of displaced persons from Rakhine state between the Governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh, and the recommendations of the Kofi Annan Advisory Commission. Several speakers noted that there should be accountability for violations of international humanitarian law, and those had to be referred to the International Criminal Court. They asked the Special Rapporteur to further elaborate on how the international community could assist in the creation of a structure that would document human rights violations for future criminal proceedings.
Presentations by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar
Yanghee Lee, presenting an oral update, said that while before she had been the only Special Rapporteur to have access to Myanmar, during the last few visits tactics of the military past had been adopted and last September the Government of Myanmar had refused to further cooperate with the mandate holder. Thus, the Special Rapporteur was declared as unwelcomed and accused of being unfair and biased.
There were now more Rohingya people outside Myanmar then within. The alleged August attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and ensuing attacks by security forces led to record numbers of people fleeing Rakhine state in the weeks that followed. Speaking with over 100 refugees in Cox’s Bazar who had fled the violence in Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathidaung townships in northern Rakhine, the Special Rapporteur heard first hand of attacks in which homes had been set ablaze by security forces and entire villages had been razed to the ground. The repatriation process for the refuges had to be voluntary.
While Myanmar said it had constructed facilities to receive verified returnees from Bangladesh, it seemed that Myanmar had been also engaging in large-scale development projects in former Rohingya villages and there appeared to be a policy of forced starvation in place, designed to make life in northern Rakhine unsustainable.
Ethnic minority groups in other areas of the country such as Kachin, Shan and Kayin had been, much like the Rohingya, victims of the military campaign. Information on a new ground offensive was received last week in an area controlled by the Karen National Union, which was a nationwide ceasefire agreement signatory. There had been no progress on legal and judicial reform. The Special Rapporteur had also been a target of hateful and violent threats on social media.
The Council had been notified four years ago about the possible commission of crimes against humanity regarding the Rohingya and the High Commissioner had made the same warning about war crimes in other parts of the country in 2016. The Council had established the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar in March 2017, yet this had not stopped the ongoing persecution. The crimes committed in October 2016 and August 2017 bore the hallmark of genocide. He recommended the establishment of a structure in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh under the auspices of the United Nations to investigate and document human rights violations, in order to facilitate independent criminal proceedings.
The Special Rapporteur stressed that the international community had to ask itself whether it could have done more? To that end, a comprehensive review of actions by the United Nations system during the events of October 2016 and August 2017 was recommended regarding the implementation of its humanitarian and protection mandates and within the human rights up front framework. This was in line with the Secretary-General’s own priority on advancing a preventive approach to human rights.
Marzuki Darusman, Chairperson of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar said that the longstanding conflict had radically intensified following the attacks in 2016 and 2017 by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and the Myanmar security forces’ so-called “clearance operations.” Credible accounts were rife of the State’s various security forces having committed gross human rights violations in the course of those operations. In all likelihood, those violations amounted to crimes under international law.
Information collected so far regarding the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army activity in the region strongly suggested that the security forces’ response, and in particular its use of force, had been far in excess of the actual threat and in violation of international norms and standards. The Fact-Finding Mission called on the Myanmar Government and military to heed the Government’s promise not to condone impunity for serious human rights violations and abuses, no matter how senior those who were responsible. The Mission regretted that the steps taken so far had been utterly insufficient.
At no point had the Myanmar authorities held genuine consultations with the people concerned to hear from them about their experience, understand their needs, and dispel their fears. Nor were the authorities allowing the international community to play a role in ensuring that the return of refugees was voluntary, safe and dignified. The displaced people should not be returned without adequate guarantees for human rights protection in place.
European Union urged the Myanmar Government to cooperate fully with the Fact-Finding Mission and grant full and unrestricted access to all areas and interlocutors, as well as to create conditions for voluntary and safe return of displaced persons. How could the international community assist in the creation of a structure in Cox’s Bazar which would investigate evidence of human rights violations to allow criminal proceedings?
Liechtenstein called on Myanmar to cooperate with the Special Rapporteur and the Fact-Finding Mission and said that presentations had put a spotlight on the grave crimes that had led to forcible displacement of the Rohingya. What were the recommendations to the Security Council for ensuring justice for the grave crimes committed?
Germany remained worried about widespread human rights violations in Rakhine state but also in several other regions, leading to the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of civilians. Was there a chance for national courts to use the findings on mass human rights violations in order to facilitate impartial and independent proceedings to guarantee accountability? Finland called on the Government of Myanmar to ensure free access and commended the governments of Malaysia, Bangladesh and Thailand for their cooperation. What could be done to ensure access of victims of sexual violence to long-term health services and psycho-social support?
Norway was deeply worried about the human rights and humanitarian situation in Rakhine state and encouraged the Government to resume its cooperation with the Special Rapporteur. There was a pressing need for the authorities in Myanmar to end all violence, ensure full protection of all civilians without discrimination, and fully observe international human rights and humanitarian law. Croatia deeply regretted that the Government of Myanmar had denied the Special Rapporteur’s subsequent visit in January 2018, and encouraged it to grant full, unrestricted and unmonitored access to all Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. It called upon the Government to uphold the right to freedom of religion and to prosecute those responsible for gross violations. Estonia said the grave situation of the refugees in Bangladesh remained disturbing. Any return needed to be voluntary. There needed to be accountability for all those responsible for violations and abuses of international humanitarian law, and these had to be referred to the International Criminal Court.
Denmark regretted that the Government of Myanmar refused to collaborate with the Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar. It condemned in the strongest terms the human rights abuses and violations in Myanmar, including the recently increased control of the media, such as the case against Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who uncovered abuses in Rakhine state. Belgium urged the Government of Myanmar to provide equal protection and treatment to people from all communities who suffered from attacks by extremists or excessive action from the military. All parties to the conflict must facilitate unrestricted humanitarian access to those in need. The ethnic cleansing continued, according to sources. Canada informed of its readiness to work closely with the international community and Myanmar under the auspices of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, presided by Kofi Annan. It was in this light that it had appointed the Honourable Bob Rae as a Special Envoy to Myanmar with a view to engage in the diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis. The crimes against humanity could not go unpunished.
Spain noted grave human rights abuses in Rakhine state, including extrajudicial executions. Spain urged an end to human rights violations and called for victims to be protected in line with international humanitarian law, especially Rohingya children. Switzerland called on Myanmar to cooperate with all relevant United Nations entities. Myanmar was reminded of the urgent need to carry out investigations of alleged violations as a means to ensure the accountability of those responsible. Czechia regretted that the Special Rapporteur was denied entry into Myanmar and stressed the need to put an end to all human rights abuses and military operations in Rakhine state. Those forced to flee their homes must be assured that they could return to their places of origin.
Japan said it repeatedly urged Myanmar to expand access to humanitarian assistance, promote safe and voluntary return, and conduct reliable investigations of alleged violations. Japan asked how the credibility of information from the field could be increased. Viet Nam encouraged Myanmar to build people-oriented policies as part of an approach to resolve the situation in Rakhine state. Vietnam stood ready to assist Myanmar in its nation-building process. Poland supported democratic and market economy reforms in Myanmar in the hopes that such approaches could bring stability to the country and asked what were the most pressing issues in Myanmar.
Australia said that as a regional friend of Myanmar, it had been ready to help in addressing the underlying issues in Rakhine state, including through the implementation of recommendations of the Advisory Commission. How could the international community best cooperate with Myanmar to build on the recommendations of the Kofi Annan Advisory Commission? France said that the report was enlightening in showing the crimes against humanity which had been committed.
China supported the path chosen by Myanmar, in line with its national situation, and was hoping for a peaceful resolution of the situation. The international community had to respect the national sovereignty of Myanmar and its stability and provide constructive support as the Rohingya issue was a domestic one.
Qatar expressed concern over the attacks against Rohingya Muslims and called for the respect of international humanitarian law. The Government of Myanmar was urged to cooperate and take all necessary measures to end the violence against Rohingya, including by ensuring their right to citizenship by amending the citizenship act.
Sweden shared the deep concern expressed by the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner concerning Rakhine state and other reports of systematic and coordinated violence. Current conditions were not conducive for any large-scale return of refugees and Government efforts towards ending discrimination were obviously not sufficient.
Remarks by the Special Rapporteur and Members of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission
Yanghee Lee, referring to a question on the documentation structure, said this would be part of a larger effort. There needed to be significant funds to adequately submit this structure. Its establishment had to be expedited and the Mission had to be appropriately staffed – in terms of quality as well as quantity. What was important was for them to prepare cases for criminal proceedings and to ensure that accountability would take place later on.
Regarding the Security Council, she strongly suggested that the Human Rights Council visit Cox’s Bazar and urged and pleaded with China and Russia to stand on the side of the protection of human rights of all people. The international community could best assist by providing technical assistance for psycho-social and health services for children, providing assistance to Bangladesh, continuing to cooperate with the mandate holder, and ensuring an amendment to clarify that the return to places of origin or choice had to also be integrated in the November 23 Repatriation Agreement.
People in Cox’s Bazar needed to be interviewed, informed appropriately, and granted the right to an informed decision. Human rights monitors must be in the process of repatriation. Myanmar should abide by the Rabat Plan of Action. In order for the voluntary sustainable return process to happen in dignity, all the discriminative legislation, policies and practices in place in Rakhine state had to be dismantled.
On how to resume dialogue with Myanmar, the Special Rapporteur said despite her continuous efforts, she had not been granted access this time. She hoped that Myanmar would revisit this decision.
Marzuki Darusman acknowledged the presence of Myanmar’s delegation and ensured his willingness to cooperate with the Government. An international division of labour was established within the Fact-Finding Mission, he noted. Ensuring credibility of information obtained from the ground focused on conducting interviews and collection of multiple accounts from various villages.
Satellite imagery was also used to confirm details of accounts. The Fact-Finding Mission was now moving to the evaluation and authentication phase of findings as it worked towards its final report. Turning to questions over ethnic cleansing, he noted that the Fact-Finding Mission would not use the term “ethnic cleansing” until its findings were confirmed. He noted that there was a continuous flow of people fleeing Myanmar into Bangladesh. The international community must support the work of the Fact-Finding Mission by continuing to spotlight issues in Myanmar. He appealed to Member States to reach out to Myanmar and encourage its cooperation with the Fact-Finding Mission.
Radhika Coomaraswamy, Member of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, noted the prevalence of reports of sexual violence in Rakhine state. She dismissed claims that sexual violence was not a common occurrence.
Christopher Dominic Sidoti, Member of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, said it was premature to state what follow-up measures could be taken following the Fact-Finding Mission’s final report. The Fact-Finding Mission was not in a position to determine what mechanism would be most appropriate to address concerns identified in the report. He assured that the Human Rights Council would be advised on the Fact-Finding Mission’s views on follow-up activities in its final report.
Iraq shared the concern of the High Commissioner about the mass exodus of civilians from Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh. Bangladesh was commended for its efforts to contain the crisis of the displaced Rohingya persons and the international community was called on to invest efforts towards finding a peaceful solution.
Mexico advised the Government of Myanmar to redouble its efforts to ensure freedom of expression and association as well as to eradicate statelessness by registering the birth of all children, including children of refugees or migrants.
The Government of Bangladesh was commended for its efforts in housing over 1 million refugees. United States said that ethnic cleansing of Rohingya and violations against members of ethnic and religious minorities in Kachin and Shan states was appalling. The Special Rapporteur was asked to elaborate on her recommendation for the establishment of a structure that would collect evidence on human rights abuses.
Maldives said that since 1992 United Nations Special Rapporteurs had documented numerous human rights violations against Rohingya. Myanmar’s security forces were facing allegations of rape, torture, murder and other extreme human rights and humanitarian crimes. Iran reiterated the need to avoid politicization and double standards in the Council, even as it regretted the deplorable human rights violations against Rohingya Muslims. The Government was called on to adopt appropriate policies to bring peace and stability.
Lithuania was worried about the erosion of the freedom of expression and urged the authorities to free the two unlawfully detained Reuters journalists. Myanmar was called on to ensure a credible and independent investigation to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea noted that genuine dialogue and cooperation should be pursued for the promotion and protection of human rights, and the resolution of humanitarian issues. It welcomed the bilateral approach and agreement reached regarding the repatriation of refugees to Myanmar.
New Zealand recognized and commended the efforts made by Myanmar to advance its broad political, economic, social and administrative reform agenda. But events in Rakhine state in late 2017 had caused serious concern and had cast a shadow on Myanmar’s commitment to protect the human rights of all its citizens.
Thailand encouraged constructive dialogue between Myanmar and Bangladesh to expedite the repatriation process to avoid “a crisis within a crisis” due to the arrival of the monsoon season. It also encouraged Myanmar to continue making necessary preparations for an eventual voluntary, dignified and safe return and resettlement of those displaced from Rakhine state.
Indonesia expressed deep concern about the ongoing humanitarian crisis faced by the Rohingya community, and welcomed various steps taken by Myanmar to address the underlying causes of the situation in Rakhine state. It encouraged the authorities to restore stability and security in that province.
Netherlands strongly condemned the ongoing widespread and systematic human rights violations committed by the Myanmar military and security forces. Reports of grave violations needed to be thoroughly investigated and perpetrators had to be held to account. Algeria regretted the ongoing human rights violations against the Rohingya and other minorities in Rakhine state. It encouraged the Government of Myanmar to end impunity, protect all its citizens, and to pursue dialogue with all concerned countries in the region, namely Bangladesh, to promote a lasting political solution for the question of the Rohingya.
Luxembourg urged civilian and military authorities to allow unrestricted access to all United Nations mandate holders. Violence against civilians was widespread and systematic and Myanmar authorities must accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.
Turkey said more Rohingya now lived in Bangladesh than Myanmar. The international community must assist in the implementation of the Bangladesh-Myanmar agreement on the return of the displaced persons to their places of origin. Afghanistan said Myanmar’s lack of cooperation and increased restrictions on journalism were encouraging ongoing ethnic cleansing. Myanmar and the international community must pursue genuine accountability processes to ensure justice for victims of human rights violations.
Bangladesh said Myanmar was not cooperating with United Nations entities and violence and starvation were forcing Rohingya to flee Myanmar. Since the signing of a repatriation agreement with Myanmar, no credible efforts had been taken by that Government. United Kingdom said actions in Myanmar constituted ethnic cleansing and asked what could be done to protect the rights of children in camps in Bangladesh. Ireland expressed concern over recent reports of mass graves in Rakhine state and underscored the importance of urging Myanmar to cooperate with United Nations bodies. Ireland asked what recommendations must be made to address reprisals in Myanmar.
Lao People’s Democratic Republic was closely following the developments in Myanmar as a neighbouring country and fully understood the complexity of the issue. The Government of Myanmar was commended for its efforts to find a sustainable solution and peace through constructive dialogue. Belarus in principle did not support country resolutions and country mandates as they were not universal nor did they fully facilitate an effective way to settle a crisis. Myanmar needed support in its difficult transition period and regional and bilateral formats of cooperation and assistance had to be used. Iceland said that the Council had held a special session in December to pass a resolution on the human rights situation of the Rohingya Muslim minority and other minorities in Rakhine state. If the High Commissioner was right and the genocide had been taking place since last August, all States had to ensure that the Government of Myanmar ended the violence.
Slovakia was alarmed by the allegations of forced starvation which was used by the State authorities as a method of oppression against the Rohingya people. The Government of Myanmar was urged to refrain from recruiting child soldiers in its armed forces.
Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s Permanent Human Rights Commission said it had visited Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh in January 2018 to meet with Rohingya refugees and obtain first-hand information. The Government of Myanmar was reminded that it could not get away with the denial of fundamental rights of its Rohingya population. Republic of Korea appreciated the progress made in the meantime, including signing of the agreement on the return of displaced persons from Rakhine state between the Governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh and the implementation of the recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Rakhine state. Still an array of challenges on the ground required the reaction of the international community. Libya strongly condemned the events affecting the Rohingya in Rakhine state in Myanmar, and forced expulsions and displacements. It called for the end of impunity and racial discrimination affecting the Rohingya.
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development welcomed the Special Rapporteur’s call for a field based structure in Cox’s Bazar to investigate and document violations, and noted that it was impossible for refugees to return in safety and dignity in the deteriorated conditions in Rakhine state in Myanmar. Such return would only be possible when full citizenship and identity of the Rohingya were recognized by law.
Human Rights Watch noted that the Government of Myanmar had shown an increasing indifference to human dignity and basic rights, and it urged the Security Council to refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court.
The Myanmar Government’s attempts to bury the evidence of abuses showed the need for immediate international action to facilitate future prosecutions. Christian Solidarity Worldwide remained concerned about the rising Buddhist nationalism, which had created an atmosphere of religious intolerance. The violence against the predominantly Muslim Rohingya in 2017 followed decades of severe persecution and was now a humanitarian crisis involving ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
Amnesty International reminded that in northern Myanmar the military had been responsible for serious violations of international law, adding that the overwhelming majority of those violations had gone unpunished. The civilian-led Government had proven itself unable and unwilling to hold those responsible to account.
Plan International, Inc said life-saving humanitarian assistance in Myanmar must be the priority of the international community. Plan International urged Myanmar to allow access to humanitarian actors as a means to ensure all children in need could reach their full potential.
International Federation for Human Rights Leagues said security forces had almost entirely emptied Rakhine state of its Rohingya population. Claims that the mass exodus was the result of terrorist activities were preposterous. International Commission of Jurists said Myanmar must fully cooperate with all United Nations bodies. While Myanmar requested evidence of violations it continued to deny access to organizations seeking to assess the situation.
Presse Embleme Campaign drew attention to the arrest of two Reuters journalists in Myanmar. The detention of the journalists was just one approach being taken by Myanmar to censor information about the humanitarian catastrophe taking place in Rakhine state. Article 19 – The International Centre Against Censorship said Myanmar’s attempts to control the free flow of information must be considered a major obstacle to resolving the ongoing crisis in the country. Asian Legal Resource Centre said the Special Rapporteur’s report accurately reflected facts on the ground. Noting ongoing abuses by Myanmar’s security forces, the Asian Legal Resource Centre stressed that evidence pointed to ongoing genocide in Rakhine state.
Human Rights Now said it had visited refugee camps and surrounding areas in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, and had spoken with numerous Rohingya who had fled from the violence in Myanmar since August 2017. It had heard multiple accounts of atrocities witnessed and experienced by Rohingya at the hands of Myanmar’s security forces, including killings, rape, arbitrary detention, torture and arson.
Maarij Foundation for Peace and Development said the Rohingya were among the people whose rights were most denied in the world. The State of Myanmar was exercising terrorism on its own citizens in Rakhine state. The perpetrators had to be brought to justice in order for them to be able to go back to their villages.
International Organization for the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination EAFORD shared the Special Rapporteur’s concern regarding the Bangladesh-Myanmar repatriation agreement, which would force Rohingya refugees to return from camps in Bangladesh to so-called “temporary accommodation”, expected to be prison-like camps in Myanmar where Rohingya had previously been returned to. It called upon all relevant actors to ensure that returns should take place only under the supervision of international human rights monitors.
Child Foundation said with the current situation, immediate action had to be taken to help the Rohingya by the international community. It called upon the Council to focus negotiating efforts on ensuring the clear passage of humanitarian aid into Myanmar. In order to assist those who faced the reality of deportation, the Council should issue a statement asking the Bangladesh Government to cease its participation in the repatriation plan. International Educational Development, Inc had addressed the situation in “Burma/Myanmar” since the 1990s and had focused on ethnic nationalities. It reminded that “Burma/Myanmar” was not a unified country and the ethnic nationalities all had armies and controlled vast tracts. A “stand alone” session on this, with reference to the Geneva Conventions and all universally recognized rules of armed conflict, would be very useful.
Yanghee Lee stated that the structure for addressing human rights violations in Myanmar should follow the timeline of repatriation, while the mandate of the Fact-Finding Mission should be renewed. Expediency was key, in light of the upcoming monsoon season. As for facilitating access to the country, Ms. Lee noted that countries should reach out to Myanmar and try to urge the Government to cooperate with the international community.
Turning to humanitarian assistance, Ms. Lee reminded that some 58 per cent of the Cox’s Bazar refugee population were children who needed long-term psycho-social assistance due to the serious human rights violations they had experienced, including rape. Those children also needed educational assistance.
Christophee Dominic Sodoti said there were concerns over the archiving of the evidence being collected on Myanmar. He noted that there were budgetary constraints that limited the Fact-Finding Mission’s ability to archive evidence.