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UN rights investigator calls for pressure on China, Russia over abuses in Burma

Yanghee Lee speaking in Rangoon on 20 January 2016. (Photo: DVB)

The United Nations’ independent investigator into human rights in Burma has called for international pressure on China and Russia to try to get them to oppose human rights abuses in Burma.

UN special rapporteur Yanghee Lee, who was last week barred by the Burmese government from visiting the country, singled out China and Russia because they had failed to back some moves in the UN aimed at trying to halt the Burmese military’s crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim community in Rakhine State.

“I’d like to ask the international community to continue to work with China and Russia to persuade them to stand on the side of human rights,” Lee told Reuters in an interview.

Neither has joined the United States, the European Union, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in condemning the crackdown that has led to the exodus of what aid agencies estimate to be 655,000 refugees into Bangladesh.

In response to Lee, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that “external actors” adding pressure over human rights will not help to resolve the issue, and may make it more complicated.

This would not be in the interests of Burma, its neighbours or the international community, she said at a regular news briefing in Beijing on Thursday. “We hope that countries or individuals external to the issue can create a positive environment that is more conducive to Myanmar resolving the issue for themselves,” Hua added.

The Russian foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

The Russian government has previously warned against interfering in Burma’s internal affairs. Russia’s ambassador to Burma, Nikolay Listopadov, has said it is “against excessive intervention, because it won’t lead to any constructive results.”

The Burmese armed forces are accused by members of the Rohingya community and human rights advocates of carrying out killings, rapes and village burnings, in what top officials in the United Nations and United States have described as ethnic cleansing.

The Russian and Chinese stance is particularly important because either of them can block the UN Security Council from referring allegations of crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The ICC cannot act against Burma without a referral because Burma is not an ICC member.

Burma has denied human rights abuses, saying its military is engaged in a legitimate counter-insurgency operation. The military exonerated itself of all accusations of atrocities in an internal investigation, which published its findings on 13 November.

Burma’s foreign affairs ministry has said Lee was not objective or impartial in a report she issued in July, and it wanted a fair investigator.

Lee said there had to be a fair, partial and independent investigation.

“The families of the victims have a right to know what happened, and I think the people of Myanmar need to know what happened, because we’re seeing, in front of our eyes, the worst humanitarian crisis.”

Surveys of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh by aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres have shown at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in Rakhine State in the month after violence flared in late August, the aid group said last week.

The special rapporteur also criticised recent government crackdowns on media in Burma, including the arrest this month of two Reuters journalists who had reported on the crisis in Rakhine.

She said that the authorities were creating “a national gag” that would prevent journalists from reporting what they see. “That will have consequences on the general public too — people will not be able to speak as freely.”

Burma has said the reporters “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media.”