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Burma: Recent Human Rights Assessments Identify Problems

(Aug. 8, 2012) Two recent reports, one by the United Nations and one by the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW), have pointed out continuing, serious human rights problems in Burma (Myanmar). Tomás Ojea Quintana, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, released a statement on August 4, 2012, following his most recent visit to the country. While there, the Rapporteur met with members of the National Human Rights Commission, members of student groups, and representatives of civil society, as well as with high-ranking government officials. (Statement of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, UNITED NATIONS HUMAN RIGHTS (Aug. 4, 2012).)

In his statement, Ojea Quintana thanked the government for the invitation to visit and the willingness of its members to meet with him. He praised the progress that has been made in the country, mentioning the adoption of a plan with the International Labour Organization to end forced labor in Burma in the next three years, the agreement with the United Nations to work to end the use of children as soldiers, the growing role of civil society and political parties, increased open discussion of human rights issues, and greater independence of the judiciary. (Id.) He went on to raise concerns about “systematic discrimination against the Rohingya [Muslim] community. Such concerns include the denial of citizenship or legal status to Rohingyas, restrictions on their freedom of movement, marriage restrictions, and other discriminatory policies.” He urged Burma to take steps to address these problems, including “a review of the 1982 Citizenship Act to ensure that it is in line with international human rights standards.” (Id.)

The Rapporteur also discussed the recent detentions of six U.N. staff members and other representatives of non-governmental organizations, criticizing their treatment and the denial of their rights of due process. He raised the issue of prisoners of conscience being held in prisons and called for their release. (Id.)

Both the U.N. specialist and HRW stressed the crisis situation in Rakhine State, where violent clashes have occurred between Muslims and Buddhists. According to HRW, “police and army forces [were] standing by and watching as villages were razed and an unknown number of people were killed.” (Dan Taglioli, HRW: Myanmar Forces Committed Human Rights Violations Following Mob Violence, PAPER CHASE NEWSBURST (Aug. 1, 2012).) HRW further alleges that the government forces have themselves committed atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims, including killings, rapes, and mass arrests, in June 2012. In the aftermath of the violence, there is now a humanitarian crisis in the region, made worse by government restrictions on access to the area. (Burma: Government Forces Targeting Rohingya Muslims, HRW (Aug. 1, 2012).) It was in Rakine that the U.N. workers were arrested. (Sung Un Kim, UN Staff Members Detained and Charged in Myanmar: UNHCR, PAPER CHASE NEWSBURST (July 13, 2012).)

Ojea Quintana mentioned additional concern about ethnic conflicts in Kachin State, urging the government and armed forces to protect civilian populations from such abuses as “extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, internal displacement, and torture. … [and] the use of landmines, the recruitment of child soldiers, as well as forced labour and portering [forced recruitment] committed by all parties to the conflict.” (Statement of the Special Rapporteur, supra.) In the summation of his report, the Rapporteur said that he believes “that addressing grievances from decades of human rights violations is crucial for democratic transition and national reconciliation. Acknowledging the suffering of victims and allowing them to heal will help to prevent future violations from occurring.” (Id.)