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End of mission statement by Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar

Dhaka 8 July 2018

I am pleased to present my end of mission statement as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. Thank you for your attendance and the opportunity to address you this afternoon. 

Since December 2017, the Myanmar Government has not allowed me to visit Myanmar to carry out my work mandated by the Human Rights Council.  Following renewal of my mandate in March, I had also requested the Government of India to facilitate a visit to India so I could meet with Myanmar refugees in New Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir and Mizoram, but received no response.

Before I proceed further, let me take this opportunity to thank the Government of Bangladesh for always welcoming me and facilitating my visit.  The UN entities in Bangladesh, particularly the Resident Coordinator’s Office, have been extremely helpful in facilitating my visit, and I am grateful to the Inter Sector Coordination Group and those who provided support in Cox’s Bazar. As the Government denied my access to Myanmar, I was only able to meet people in Bangladesh, the neighbouring country that hosts over one million refugees from Myanmar. In Dhaka, I met with Government, UN agencies and INGOs, and in Cox’s Bazar I met Rohingya refugees in a number of camps and settlements as well as the Government, UN, humanitarian and protection actors and NGOs. I also thank the UN Country Team in Myanmar for speaking with me. I took many photos of what I saw, and will upload them on Flickr, the link will be on my Special Rapporteur webpage.

What I am presenting today are preliminary findings resulting from this visit. My report to the Third Committee of the 73rd UN General Assembly in October will contain more detailed findings.

Recently, I have received more questions than ever about my mandate and work on Myanmar. I have also read reports that state that I no longer hold the mandate, or that I have been replaced by the Special Envoy of the Secretary General of the United Nations. At the outset, I would like to clarify that my mandate was established by the Human Rights Council, a body that was established in 2006 pursuant to the resolution 60/251 of the General Assembly. My mandate was renewed in March this year for a period of one year. The Special Rapporteur is an independent expert who is mandated to monitor and report on the situation of human rights in Myanmar to the Human Rights Council and General Assembly every year. 

My role is therefore different to that of the Special Envoy, an individual dignitary who is appointed by the Secretary General “to provide good offices and to pursue discussion” on a range of issues. 

Additionally, through my recent discussions, I see the need to provide clarification on two other issues. First, the critical issue of status. The people who fled decades-long systematic discrimination and recent extreme violence in Myanmar and now live in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh are Rohingya refugees. International law is very clear. The definition of refugees provided by article 1 of the 1951 Refugee Convention applies the refugees from Myanmar living in Bangladesh and other countries. The Rohingyas in Bangladesh fled Myanmar owing to a well-founded fear of persecution and as a result of ongoing persecution by the Government and the military for reasons of their ethnicity, race and religion. They must be recognised as Rohingya refugees by all, including by host Governments such as Bangladesh, and they must be referred to as refugees in all public and private statements by all actors, as well as on any documentation issued to them. Refusal to recognise their identity, their ethnicity and their current status denies them rights to which they are entitled, not least the right of non-refoulement to Myanmar. 

Second, we must all acknowledge not only the Rohingyas’ status as stateless people, but the way in which their statelessness came about. Rohingya citizenship rights have been systematically wound back since the 1970s and they have been effectively barred from accessing them since the introduction of the 1982 Citizenship Law. The Myanmar Government has discriminatorily denied citizenship to them since that time, and continues to do so. 

While I was in Cox’s Bazar, I met with refugees who showed me documentation related to citizenship held by previous generations, including their parents and grandparents, that they have carefully preserved. When we speak of the future of the Rohingyas’ citizenship, we must speak of its restoration by the Government of Myanmar, and not use vague terminology such as a “pathway to citizenship”. Doing so denies the reality of what has happened, as well as the dignity of the people that it happened to, and does not provide a durable and long-lasting solution for the Rohingya population. 

The Myanmar Government has committed to ensuring a “pathway to citizenship” for the Rohingya people. However in reality, for years, successive governments have placed the Rohingya on a pathway away from the citizenship rights that they previously enjoyed.

During this mission, I have had the opportunity to have teleconferences with various individuals and groups in Myanmar. I am alarmed by what I was told about the developments affecting the human rights of those in Myanmar by all the people I spoke to on this trip in person and by phone. Overwhelmingly the message that they gave me is that enough is enough; the reprehensible situation that exists for the people of Myanmar today must end. 

It was reported to me that the democratic space in Myanmar continues to sharply deteriorate. Repressive laws, for example the Telecommunications Law, the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law and the Unlawful Associations Law continue to be used to suppress the legitimate exercise of the rights of freedom of expression, assembly and association, and freedom of the press. I have received credible information that at least 6 persons were charged under section 66(d) of Myanmar’s Telecommunications Law in June 2018 while exercising their legitimate freedoms. The arbitrary and subjective interpretation and applications of these laws to supress political dissidents, youth, human rights defenders and activists has resulted in there continuing to be political detainees and prisoners, despite so many members of the NLD having been political prisoners themselves. I urge the Government to repeal and amend the problematic laws that I have repeatedly flagged and undertake the necessary work to ensure people in Myanmar do not live in a climate of fear while exercising their fundamental democratic rights.

I am told that on 9 July, the two Reuters journalists who have faced prolonged legal proceedings since December last year will finally hear whether there is a case against them, or if they will be discharged. They have reportedly been deprived of medical support and subjected to sleep deprivation in contravention of the prohibition against inhuman and degrading treatment and the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. 

I have recently received reports that police violently suppressed a protest against the erection of a statue of General Aung San in Kayah State, home to ethnic Karenni people. Ten youth were arrested and charged with incitement under section 505(b) and (c) of the Penal Code in relation to a letter that they distributed to the protestors. This is the latest in a series of arbitrary arrests of young demonstrators around the country who are seeking to exercise their right of peaceful assembly in the causes of peace and respect for ethnic minority rights. The topic of minority rights had been slated for discussion at the upcoming Third 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference, however reportedly it is now off the agenda. With minority rights issues, including discrimination, being at the core of so many problems faced by Myanmar, I urge all the relevant stakeholders to begin to have these difficult discussions, as resolution of these issues will be critical to Myanmar’s peaceful future. 

I have spoken with people in Kachin and Shan States who have informed me about the terrifying new tactic of the Tatmadaw, where it uses civilians trapped in conflict zones as human shields. This is a serious violation of international humanitarian law and must be stopped immediately. The 20,000 people who have been newly displaced in these States remain unable to safely return home and have very little assistance, with humanitarian access being increasingly constrained, including for national organisations. This occurrence is a violation of Myanmar’s obligation under international humanitarian law to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need. In Shan State, I am told of persistent arrests of individuals in rural areas who are suspected of supporting Shan armed groups on the basis of their having hunting rifles which were reportedly lawfully obtained.

Land confiscation by the military has long been a serious issue in Myanmar. However it is apparent to me that some very concerning trends are emerging whereby people displaced by violence or conflict around the country are effectively being deprived of their land by the Government. In Kachin, the number of banana plantations being established on the land of those who fled is increasing. Several hundred IDPs in Myitkyina reportedly have recently been relocated to land chosen by the government, not their places of origin or choosing, and given no assistance other than three months of food rations. I am greatly worried about what the future will bring for these people, and others if this trend continues in conflict-affected areas of the country.

During this visit to Bangladesh, I spoke to some refugees who arrived in Cox’s Bazar in recent days. What they told me indicates that the situation in northern Rakhine is far from stable or safe; systematic violence targeted against the remaining Rohingya population continues. These refugees told me that Myanmar security forces had entered their villages and told them that they must accept the National Verification Card (NVC) – a form of documentation that does not provide citizenship rights and which the Rohingya reject – or leave. Several of the women I spoke to told me that the security forces searched for their husbands, who had been staying out of their houses in fear. They said that they had then been raped when their husbands were not found. I was horrified to be told by one woman that her 12 year old son had been chopped to pieces when he visited the family’s fish hatchery, after the family had been told by security forces that they could not go there unless they accepted the NVC. Such brutality, and to a child, is deplorable. 

I also visited “No Man’s Land” between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Approximately 4,200 Rohingyas are living there, the majority of them are on the Myanmar side and approximately 20 percent on the Bangladeshi side. They told me about the difficulties they face. I saw Myanmar Border Guard posts that watch them from overlooking hills, and the reinforced barbed wire fence recently built by the Myanmar Government. Some of people’s homes are just 10 minutes from where they are sheltered now. They told me that each day, loudspeakers on the Myanmar side of the fence play a recording telling them that it is illegal for them to be there, and to leave, as well as playing recordings of Buddhist sermon. I also met with a young boy who was shot by the Myanmar border guard just a few days ago. He had been alone and looking for something in the grass, his friends having just returned to the camp after playing football. A single shot was fired from the Myanmar side and hit him in the hip. Targeting a child in such a way is an illegal and truly cowardly act, and must be strongly condemned.

In Cox’s Bazar, the refugees who have survived years of heinous violations and abuses in Rakhine State have been visited and interviewed by countless celebrities, high profile individuals, politicians, researchers, human rights organisations, journalists – the list goes on. While it is crucial to speak to the victims and human rights monitoring is essential, I was told by several victims that they have been repeatedly interviewed by multiple people. I am very concerned about this, and I would like to urge all international and national actors to treat the victims with dignity and not ask them to repeatedly recount traumatic experiences. They have endured some of the most horrific experiences and must not be continually exposed, re-victimised and re-traumatised, particularly without access to necessary psychosocial support.   

As it is now clear that the Government of Myanmar has made no progress or shown any real will to dismantle the system of discrimination in the country’s laws, policies and practices, and to make northern Rakhine State safe, the Rohingya refugees will not be returning to Myanmar in the near future. There must therefore be a shift to medium and longer term planning in Cox’s Bazar. I am concerned that the humanitarian response remains in the emergency phase with the focus on providing basic assistance to the community. It is now time to work with the community so that it can assist itself – as it is more than capable of doing. It is not true that the community is leaderless and unable to speak for itself. During this mission, I met with impressive, inspiring, determined groups of emerging community leaders who are mobilising and clearly articulating their demands. These groups must be given space and support to develop so that they can meaningfully represent their communities in different fora, including in the humanitarian response, repatriation planning and implementation and in discussion of accountability options. 

From my discussions with refugees and humanitarian actors, I see that there are three things that are urgently needed to ensure the future of Rohingya refugee community. First, education for all; this means girls and boys commensurate to beyond primary education to the maximum level possible, as well as older people who were denied education in Myanmar. Second, there must be access to meaningful livelihood opportunities and vocational training for women and men. Third, and critical to both of these issues and the ability for the Rohingya to live a dignified life, is freedom of movement. This is not just about being able to move from place to place, but is about freedom, humanity, being able to access services, receive medical treatment and fulfil basic personal needs like meeting relatives who live in other places. In other words, living a dignified life.

I commend the humanitarian community in Cox’s Bazar that is working tirelessly to support the refugees; the work they are doing is incredibly difficult and I am very impressed by their dedication. The Bangladesh government and its humanitarian partners have worked hard to reinforce the camp infrastructure and prepare for the monsoon. However, with the rain and cyclone season underway, the conditions are getting worse as a result of landslides and floods. While I was in the camps, I experienced both heavy rain and very hot weather. Needless to say, the monsoon and cyclones will return every year. Additionally, the camps are so severely and inhumanely overcrowded, I am very concerned about protection and gender based violence risks. I received very troubling reports of violence in the camps, allegations of trafficking of women and girls, domestic violence, exploitation and widespread sexual and gender based violence. As people continue to arrive, the congestion only increases, as do the risks to public and individual health. I urge all humanitarian actors to put protection and gender at the forefront of their work. The Bangladeshi authorities should also step up their efforts to address ongoing violence, trafficking and other forms of illegal activities in the camps that affect the lives and wellbeing of Rohingya refugees. These efforts must be consistent with international standards.

The Joint Response Plan (JRP) is only 26% funded; I appeal to the donors to step up and provide the funding that is urgently needed to move to medium and longer term planning. I was concerned to be told by disability organisations that inclusion of persons with disabilities is not a priority across all sectors in the JRP; this must be rectified if we are to live up to the principle of leaving no one behind. The international community should not forget the host community in Cox’s Bazar who have been sharing their resources with the Rohingya refugees, and resources should be also directed to support that community. 

I understand that the Government of Bangladesh plans to relocate refugees from Cox’s Bazar to Bashan Char, an island that has recently appeared in the Bay of Bengal. I had requested the Government to facilitate a visit for me to see the conditions of the island. It was conveyed to me by the Bangladeshi officials that construction on the island is ongoing, and that my visit would only be possible after the rainy season. I am hoping to visit the island in near future to assess the conditions, the statement about visiting after the rainy season however concerns me greatly, as it indicates that access to the island is difficult or impossible during the monsoon time and raises many questions about the fate of those who may be sent there. As far as I understand, the United Nations and international humanitarian organisations have not carried out any technical or humanitarian assessment to determine whether the island is habitable for human beings. I am yet not aware whether and how the 100,000 refugees who it is said will be relocated will be chosen, how the movement of refugees in and out of the island will be facilitated, and how refugees will be able to access livelihood opportunities, health and education on a remote and isolated island. 

A few weeks after hearing the news of signing the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Government of Myanmar, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), I sent a request to the Government of Myanmar through its Permanent Mission in Geneva for a copy of the MoU. They did not provide me with a copy but instead shared me with a summary that was prepared by one of the UN agencies. Over the last three weeks, I also made requests in person to senior officials of the United Nations, who despite promises, have not shared a copy of the MoU with me. The refugees I spoke with in Cox’s Bazar expressed their deep concerns, disappointment and anger over the lack of consultation on their fate. I expressed my dismay at the Human Rights Council over the lack of transparency on 27 of June. While I am not aware of the exact terms of the MoU, I am extremely concerned that it has been kept secret, including by the United Nations agencies involved, and urge the parties to make it public. 

As I have previously said, talk now of repatriation is extremely premature. While in Cox’s Bazar I was told that there are plans for refugee consultation and discussion, but this is not enough. Refugee men, women and children must be given the opportunity to participate in all phases of the design and implementation of the repatriation operation, in accordance with UNHCR’s Handbook on Voluntary Repatriation. I reiterate that any involuntary and non-consultative return of refugees is against the principles of international law and must not take place. 

I am further astonished by the lack of any meaningful progress regarding creating conditions in Myanmar for the return of refugees from other countries. While the situation of the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar is extremely precarious and should continue to get urgent attention from the international community; the refugees from Myanmar who live in extreme harsh living and security conditions elsewhere including some neighbouring countries of Myanmar are equally entitled to a safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return to their homes of origin. During this mission, I spoke by phone to refugees from Myanmar in India who live in a state of fear and uncertainty, and with the threat of forced deportation by the Government of India. This situation has received little attention by the international community. UNHCR and other UN agencies responsible for the protection of refugees must step up their support to ensure protection and human dignity of the refugees in India who live in such a dreadful situation. 

As I said earlier, enough is enough. Justice is a key demand of the Rohingya refugees I spoke to during my mission and of activists and civil society in Myanmar. Accountability for the atrocities committed is urgently needed, and must be delivered for all the people of Myanmar who suffered violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law. It is more than clear now unless the cycle of violence and persecution is broken, violations of human rights and international humanitarian law will continue in Myanmar. The enduring impunity must come to an end. When I presented to the Human Rights Council on 27 June, I proposed to establish an accountability mechanism for Myanmar. I am pleased to note that the High Commissioner for Human Rights has also called for an international accountability mechanism in line with my proposal. I urge the international community to come together without delay and establish the mechanism at the Human Rights Council session in September.  

Let us stop for a moment and imagine the lives of the refugees – leaving their homes, cattle, rice paddies and living in the refugee camps. Everyday is a reminder of what happened in Myanmar, their home country, and their uncertain future. 

Thank you for your attention