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Statement by Ms. Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar at the 74th session of the General Assembly - Third Committee

Agenda Item 70 (c)
22 October 2019
New York

Mr. Chair,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for the opportunity to present my latest report to the General Assembly. 

Myanmar continues to deny my access, but human rights issues, abuses and violations are still reported to me, and I must inform you that there is no discernable improvement to the situation in Myanmar for me to report to you, however I must acknowledge Myanmar’s ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict in September. Myanmar must now live up to its new obligations and ensure that child soldiers remain firmly in its past, and not its future.

Mr Chair, 

Despite my repeated calls, the Government has neither repealed nor amended repressive laws that infringe on rights, and these continue to be weaponised against those attempting to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. Since April of this year, there has been a sharp rise in the number of such cases, with the military commencing prosecutions of critical protestors, activists and journalists reporting on the conflict in Rakhine State. In September, Government officials filed separate criminal defamation complaints against two satirists and a cartoonist for their social media posts, which were critical of the ruling National League for Democracy. With general elections next year, this is a deeply worrying trend.

Discrimination against religious minorities continues unabated. I am informed of 27 villages which describe themselves as “Muslim free”, banning Muslims from entry. 

Friends and colleagues,

I am concerned about Government plans for hydropower development in conflict areas where communities have been displaced from their land, including in Rakhine and Chin States. Communities in Kachin, Shan and Kayin States continue to protest proposed hydropower dams that will submerge their lands, and with very little information made public about the plans, they are left in limbo about their fate. 

The Government has continued to reform the legislation on land use, prioritizing land acquisition for commercial purposes, but has failed to establish an adequate legal framework for recognizing, registering and protecting rights to customary and communal land use. The result is increasing land and livelihood insecurity and a growing number of cases of land confiscation. 


As armed conflicts continue to be waged, I am again seeing conduct by parties that violates international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes. Impunity for these crimes prevails, while communities face a continuing devastating cycle of abuse. 

In Rakhine State, the heavy fighting between the military (Tatmadaw) and the Arakan Army continues. Villagers have been targeted, killed and injured by indiscriminate fire, and entire villages have been burned. Rakhine men and boys have been detained by security forces and some have died in custody, with reports of the use of torture. The Arakan Army has reportedly recently abducted 31 people and is depriving them of their liberty.

As many as 60,000 people have been displaced by the conflict in Rakhine this year, along with another 10,000 in Chin State. Government restrictions on aid have severely impacted the provision of lifesaving assistance and essential services to more than 100,000 people. This is exacerbated by the internet shutdown, in place in four townships in Rakhine State for 123 days now, depriving people of many rights and setting an alarming precedent that companies engaged in the information and communications technology sector must now account for.

In August, there was a sudden escalation of fighting in Shan State, following coordinated attacks by an alliance of ethnic armed organizations, including the Arakan Army. Villagers were trapped by the fighting, unable to reach safety, and humanitarian workers were reportedly deliberately targeted and killed. Talks last month between the Government’s National Reconciliation and Peace Commission and the armed organisations led to a decrease in fighting, but clashes erupted once again when the Tatmadaw’s declared unilateral ceasefire expired in late September. 

Distinguished delegates,

Despite frequent conversations about the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, I remain resolute in my belief that it is unsafe for them to return to Myanmar until the fundamental circumstances leading to their expulsion are remedied. Last month, up to 30 Rohingyas were arrested because they had left Rakhine State. 

They were charged with criminal offences, denied access to lawyers and then convicted and sentenced by a court. Twenty-one of them were adults and were sentenced to two years in prison. Eight children were sent to a detention centre, while a five-year-old is in prison with his mother. This abhorrent treatment is completely antithetical to Myanmar’s human rights and child rights obligations, and is indicative of the treatment that any returning Rohingya would face if they wished to exercise the freedom of movement that they are demanding. This is the living reality faced by the 600,000 Rohingya remaining in Myanmar. 

In his statement to the General Assembly in September, the Union Minister for the Office of the State Counsellor compared the National Verification Card that is forcibly issued to Rohingyas in Myanmar, to the Green Card issued to permanent residents of the United States. The Rohingya reject the NVC because they say it brands them as foreigners and does not confer citizenship status or rights. The statement of the Minister confirms what the Rohingya believe: it is for foreigners, and it provides residency rights, like a Green Card. That is all. It will not resolve the denial of citizenship, nationality and rights of the Rohingya. 

Mr Chair,

While people across Myanmar attempt to claim the rights to which they are entitled, they are consistently obstructed by structural apparatus that ensures their claims are not fulfilled. It is impunity that ensures that these structures perpetuate. The international community must accept that the Government’s Independent Commission of Enquiry does not represent a possible end to this impunity: it has not produced a single report after nearly 15 months. 

Significant headway was made in the last year with the establishment and recent operationalization of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, the International Criminal Court Prosecutor seeking to open an investigation into alleged crimes on the Bangladesh/Myanmar border, and the Gambia considering commencing proceedings at the International Court of Justice under the Genocide Convention. However, an end to impunity in Myanmar remains a lofty, far-off goal.

The international community must maintain its resolve and do more if that goal is to become within reach. It angers me to see here again that Member States have pursued their own economic interests in Myanmar at the expense of human rights. This must stop. You must not hesitate to impose targeted sanctions against the Tatmadaw’s companies and its commanders most responsible for serious violations, refer the entire situation to the International Criminal Court or establish an international tribunal, and work with civil society to develop transformative processes in accordance with the pillars of justice, truth, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence. 

This is my last address to this august Committee. I could never have anticipated that five years following my appointment, I would be calling out the perpetration of the most serious crimes under international law by the military, with the complicity of the civilian-controlled arms of government.


I remember vividly the gracefully articulate State Counsellor when I met her for the first time at her Yangon residence in 2014; and the frank and candid conversations we had. Before I end my mandate next March, I would very much like to meet her and continue our conversations.