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Myanmar – a fork in the road

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

As Myanmar this week hosts the ASEAN summit in Naypyidaw in the presence of regional leaders, as well as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and US President Barack Obama, the world will see just how far the country has come.

The symbolic significance of the venue cannot be overstated.

Just three years ago, anyone suggesting Myanmar would emerge so rapidly from the diplomatic cold to reach a level of engagement with the international community that would allow it to host such an august event would have been accused of being utterly unrealistic. But indeed, it has.

In one particularly welcome sign of this rapid evolution, President Thein Sein in November 2012 announced that the Government would invite my organization to establish a UN human rights country office in Myanmar. On the eve of this important summit, I call on the President to deliver on his promise, and to accept our outstretched hand so that we can accompany the country on its path to greater promotion and protection of human rights for all those within its jurisdiction.

The UN Human Rights Office has 68 field presences, of varying sizes, around the world. In most of these, we operate under a comprehensive monitoring, reporting and technical cooperation mandate. Quite a few countries where we are present are in transition and undergoing accelerated reform, like Myanmar.

Tunisia is just one example of a country where we recently established a major office that has been playing a key role in helping redesign laws and institutions in line with international human rights standards. Despite some bumps in the road, some of the benefits are now clearly visible in the country’s new constitution, laws, human rights institutions, vibrant civil society and the peaceful elections that took place just two weeks ago.

A constant and substantial presence is invaluable for identifying and better understanding human rights issues, conducting on-site visits, examining the laws and how they are applied, and working closely with the authorities to find and implement solutions to a range of existing problems. The presence of a strong human rights office can also help prevent new problems from emerging. It enables us to develop long-term relationships with in-country partners rather than just issuing ad hoc reports and statements on individual human rights issues.

In the past few years, we have developed important partnerships with the Government of Myanmar and have deployed staff to advise on reforms, and on justice and accountability, to help build the capacity of the Government and civil society on matters relating to human rights and to conduct training. But until we have a full mandate in the form of a country office, we are unable to support the reform process as holistically as we have been able to do in a number of other countries.

A recent police training conducted by UN human rights staff in Sagaing Region in northwest Myanmar clearly illustrates the need for such a holistic approach. While the police officers from 20 townships understood and appreciated the human rights standards they were being taught, they had a frank exchange with the trainers about the difficulties of actually implementing those standards. Such friendly, sustained interactions, in which we learn about the real, daily, nuanced, often systemic challenges on the ground, would enable us to tailor our assistance, and to address the broader context in the long-term. This would make our training more practical and its benefits more sustainable.

No country, rich or poor, has a perfect human rights record and each one would benefit from such advice and attention. But this is clearly even more important in the context of a country like Myanmar, which is at a crucial point in its democratic transition, with an unprecedented opportunity to entrench human rights in every aspect of reform. We can draw from our experience in other countries, with clear knowledge of what has worked well and what has not, and apply our expertise to the particular context of Myanmar.

Since my staff began visiting Myanmar in 2010, we have engaged with the authorities, civil society and UN partners in a spirit of dialogue and trust. We have witnessed important advances, but we are also painfully aware of a number of serious ongoing human rights challenges. These include continuing discrimination and outbreaks of communal violence, as well as curbs on people exercising their newfound freedoms of speech and peaceful protest.

The UN Human Rights Office, with its global mandate, is obliged to raise the alarm wherever there is potential for grave human rights violations. It can either do this while working very closely with the Government to mitigate the damage, or it can do it from the outside. While both approaches are adopted in a constructive spirit, clearly being present in the country and working continuously with national partners is preferable for all concerned.

As Myanmar proudly hosts ASEAN, President Thein Sein should seize upon the opportunity to confirm that Myanmar is indeed ready to host a full-fledged UN human rights country office by early next year. That would be a concrete deliverable, sending a clear message to the international community that Myanmar is firmly on the path towards solid and sustainable protection of human rights – including social, economic, civil, political and cultural rights, as well as the right to development – for every man, woman and child within its jurisdiction.