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Concluding a ten-day visit to Burma, the UN’s new special rapporteur on human rights, Yanghee Lee, painted a decidedly mixed picture of the country’s ongoing reform process at a press conference held at Rangoon airport on Saturday evening. She described the conditions in displacement camps across the state as “deplorable,” while noting that she had been advised during her visit to Arakan State to avoid using the word “Rohingya” when addressing the issue.
“In three years, Myanmar has come a long way since the establishment of the new government. This must be recognized and applauded,” she said. “Yet, there are worrying signs of possible backtracking which, if unchecked, could undermine Myanmar’s efforts to become a responsible member of the international community that respects and protects human rights.”
Lee, a South Korean, is the UN’s sixth special rapporteur on Burma, having assumed the reins on 1 June from Argentinian human rights lawyer Tomás Ojea Quintana, who took on the role in 2008.
Over the course of the visit, Lee’s first official trip to Burma, she met with community leaders and government officials in Arakan and Kachin states, and paid a visit to Mandalay, Burma’s second city, which succumbed to interreligious violence in early July. She also travelled to Naypyidaw, where she met with parliamentarians – including Aung San Suu Kyi –and met with civil society actors and prisoners of conscience in Rangoon.“I was repeatedly told not to use the term ‘Rohingya’ as this was not recognized by the government. Yet, as a human rights independent expert, I am guided by international human rights law. In this regard, the rights of minorities to self-identify on the basis of their national, ethnic, religious and linguistic characteristics is related to the obligations of States to ensure non-discrimination against individuals and groups.”
She noted that despite reforms, avenues for exercising democratic rights remain curtailed, which, she warned, has prompting a chilling effect that has stifled journalists and activists. “Civil society actors campaigning on land and environmental issues, or trying to help communities affected by large-scale development projects, face particular challenges,” she said. “They are routinely harassed and subject to arrest … there are also continuing reports of the excessive use of force by the police and the authorities in breaking up protests.
“The enjoyment of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association and peaceful assembly are essential ingredients for Myanmar’s democracy and for debating and resolving political issues, particularly in the run-up to the 2015 elections,” she said.
The special rapporteur’s mandate is granted by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, to be an “independent expert … to monitor, report and advise on the situation of human rights in Myanmar”.
Lee’s appointment was controversial when it was announced, as she has little prior experience working on Burma issues, unlike other candidates shortlisted for the position. A child psychologist by profession, she works as an academic at Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea. Most notably, she served as chairperson of the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child from 2007 to 2011.
Similar fears were raised upon Quintana’s appointment. In 2008, Quintana told US embassy officials that he was surprised at having been selected for the position due to his lack of country-specific knowledge, but that “his years as a human rights lawyer prepared him reasonably well to press for freedom for the Burmese people,” according to a leaked diplomatic cable.
Throughout his tenure, Quintana elicited praise and derision in equal measure for his uncompromisingly critical stance on the human rights situation in Burma. At a conference in April, he claimed that there were “elements of genocide in Rakhine [Arakan State] with respect to Rohingya.”
Lee acknowledged the suffering endured by both Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the state, but claimed the “health situation in the Muslim IDP camps is of particular concern”, especially following the mass departure of international NGOs in March.
“The situation is deplorable. Many have remained in the camps for two years and I do not believe that there is adequate access to basic services,” she said.
She acknowledged the sensitivities surrounding ethnic identity and terminology, but claimed that the state cannot dictate how ethnic groups choose to self-identify, and that doing so is a violation of international human rights law.
“I was repeatedly told not to use the term ‘Rohingya’ as this was not recognized by the government. Yet, as a human rights independent expert, I am guided by international human rights law. In this regard, the rights of minorities to self-identify on the basis of their national, ethnic, religious and linguistic characteristics is related to the obligations of States to ensure non-discrimination against individuals and groups,” she said.
While she stressed the need to strengthen the rule of law in Burma across the board, particularly where property and civil rights are concerned, she noted that not all laws are created equally, and that laws should be subject to a constant process of review and update. She singled out Burma’s controversial 1982 citizenship law, which rendered most Rohingya stateless, as an example of a law that should not be upheld.
“In my discussions on the question of citizenship for the Muslim community, I was repeatedly told that the rule of law should be respected; in this regard, strong opposition was voiced by many against the review and reform of the 1982 Citizenship Law,” she said. “As the reforms process in Myanmar has demonstrated, [laws] can be and should be amended whenever there are deficiencies and are not in line with international standards. The 1982 Citizenship Law should therefore not be an exception.”
Aung Myo Min, a prominent human rights activist and the director of NGO Equality Myanmar, called for Lee to act as a strong voice in defence of human rights at a time when a focus on the country’s democratic gains threatens to obfuscate the problems that linger.
“I hope that she understands the situation in Burma. She should come to understand that it is not true that human rights abuses have stopped as the country goes through democratic changes,” he said.
“When she reports her findings, she needs to speak out against countries that are ignoring these issues while focusing on economic concerns.”