Myanmar: UN rights expert hails changes, but highlights remaining challenges

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YANGON (19 February 2014) – United Nations Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana today welcomed important changes in Myanmar “that have brought improvements to the human rights situation,” but raised alarm on a number of challenges which, if left unaddressed, “could jeopardize the entire reform process.”

“I believe there is limited space for backtracking, though -as a senior Government official admitted to me in Nay Pyi Taw- the democratic transition is still fragile,” he underscored.

Mr. Ojea Quintana’s comments come at the end of his last official mission* to the country, after six years as the independent expert mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor, report and advise on the human rights situation in Myanmar.

The Special Rapporteur praised key positive changes achieved in recent years, like the release of prisoners of conscience, the opening up of space for freedom of expression, the development of political freedoms, and important progress in securing an end to fighting in the ethnic border areas.

He warned, however, that “the military retains a prevailing role in the life and institutions of Myanmar for the time being. State institutions in general remain unaccountable and the judiciary is not yet functioning as an independent branch of Government.”

“Moreover, the rule of law cannot yet be said to exist in Myanmar,” Mr. Ojea Quintana stated, noting that the current situation in Rakhine State still represents a particular obstacle and a threat to the reform process.

Regarding the recent police operation in Du Chee Yar Tan, northern Rakhine State, he said that if an independent investigation does not take place, “I will urge the UN Human Rights Council to work with the Government of Myanmar to establish a credible investigation to uncover the truth…and to hold anyone responsible for human rights violations to account.”

During his last mission to Myanmar, Mr. Ojea Quintana visited the capital -Nay Pyi Taw-, Yangon, Rakhine State, Sagaing Region and Kachin State including Laiza. This is the first time that a human rights rapporteur has been able to visit Laiza.

“During my drive up from Myitkyina to Laiza, I saw villages that had been abandoned over the previous years by those fleeing advancing military troops,” he said. “The visit to Laiza brought home to me how closely related the fighting is with serious human rights violations, and the importance of securing a national ceasefire accord in the coming months.”

The Special Rapporteur commended progress towards this national ceasefire accord, which could be signed by April. “A critical challenge will be to secure ceasefire and political agreements with ethnic minority groups, so that Myanmar can finally transform into a peaceful multi-ethnic and multi-religious society,” Mr. Ojea Quintana said. “Whatever the course of these negotiations, military and non-state actors need to abide by humanitarian and human rights law.”

On the Constitution, he said that reform was necessary to “embrace the aspirations of the ethnic communities”, and to “address the undemocratic powers granted to the military and further democratize parliament, upholding the right of people to choose their own government and president.”

The human rights expert called for a change of mind-set within all levels of Government, to allow civil society, political parties and a free media to flourish beyond the limited freedoms that have currently been granted. “Detaining journalists for the coverage of sensitive stories is something that belongs in Myanmar’s past,” he stressed.

He visited Thilawa Special Economic Zone, south of Yangon, and met with communities who had been displaced by the development project and spoke with members of the Thilawa management committee. The expert also visited the copper mines in Monywa in Sagaing Region, and met with opponents of the mine as well as the State Government and members of Wanbao, the Chinese company active in developing the copper mine at Letpadaung.

“I am finishing my time on this mandate with a clear and visible human rights agenda to be followed up on by the Government, civil society and the international community,” the Special Rapporteur concluded.

His full report on the visit will be presented to the Human Rights Council on 17 March 2014.

(*) Check the full end-of-mission statement by the Special Rapporteur: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=14263&LangID=E

Mr. Tomás Ojea Quintana (Argentina) was appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council in May 2008. As Special Rapporteur, he is independent from any government or organization and serves in his individual capacity. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/CountriesMandates/MM/Pages/SRMyanmar.aspx

Read the Special Rapporteur’s latest report to the UN General Assembly (October 2013): http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/MM/A-68-397_en.pdf

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