Twenty-Ninth Special Session of the Human Rights Council on the human rights implications of the crisis in Myanmar
Geneva, 12 February 2021
Madam President, Distinguished members of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
I’m delivering this statement on behalf of my mandate and on behalf of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures. In light of the subject matter of the session today, the Committee has asked me to deliver our joint statement.
We thank you for convening this Special – and very timely – session.
Introduction: The Need for Action
The very act of convening this session makes an important statement of the gravity with which this Council views what can aptly be described as an outrageous and illegal act – a coup d’état of a duly elected government and its duly elected leaders.
This is the 29th time that a Special Session of the Human Rights Council has convened. It is noteworthy, that the 27th Special Session was also convened to focus on illegal actions taken by the Myanmar military against its own people––in that case, the mass atrocity crimes that were committed against the Rohingya ethnic minority.
In other words, this is not the first time that the leaders of the Myanmar military, otherwise known as the “Tatmadaw,” have demonstrated their cynical belief that they are above the law – their own laws and the laws of nations.
I believe that it is therefore imperative that the Tatmadaw leadership understand that they are, in fact, not above the law and that the people of Myanmar, and the people of world, will not let these illegal and reprehensible actions stand.
But it is equally important that the people of Myanmar understand that they are not alone and they are not forgotten. This body, and the international community, must and will stand with them at a moment of great peril and need.
The Coup and the Constitution
We are here today because of a coup conducted under the guise of safeguarding the country following allegations of massive voter fraud in the November 8 election.
Madame President, even if election irregularities did exist, there was, and is, no justification for declaring a state of emergency, arresting the civilian leadership, and attempting to destroy Myanmar’s fledgling democracy.
The military junta even failed to follow its own requirements for taking control of the country as specified in the 2008 constitution that the military itself drafted. This coup is truly illegal in every sense of the word. The international community must refuse to recognize this illegal regime.
The People’s Response to the Coup
It is clear from my observations, consultations and discussions, opposition to the military coup is strong and it runs across the diversity of the Myanmar people.
The footage of huge crowds of determined people of all ages and backgrounds, marching in the streets of Myanmar in defense of their democracy, their human rights and the future of their children, are deeply inspiring.
I have seen pictures and videos of Buddhist monks and Muslim clergy marching side-by-side; of civil servants from various sectors striking and marching together; of doctors and nurses; construction workers, bankers and educators, of Karen, Chin, Shan, Kachin and other ethnic groups; of the very young and the very old; even of police crossing lines and joining protesters.
This is as united as I have seen Myanmar. And it gives me great hope.
The people of Myanmar are literally standing up to the Tatmadaw despite the knowledge of what the Tatmadaw is capable of – from the massacre of democracy advocates in decades’ past, to the murder of monks protesting in their saffron robes, to the recent unspeakable atrocity crimes committed against the Rohingya ethnic minority.
Despite the history of brutal crackdowns and with automatic weapons now trained on them, citizen protests are springing up in literally hundreds and hundreds of Myanmar townships, large and small. The movement of opposition and dissent is large and getting larger.
Junta’s Repressive Actions Following the Coup
The response of police and security forces to the peaceful protests of a people united has gone from restraint to intimidation to bloodshed. Day after day now, the people of Myanmar, and people around the world, have watched with horror at the photos and videos of brutality emerging from the streets of Myanmar – from large columns of security forces in full riot gear surrounding peaceful protesters and water cannons being fired into growing crowds, to protesters being shot, including a young woman shot in the head as she stood, unarmed and posing no threat, with other peaceful protesters in Naypyidaw.
There are growing reports and photographic evidence that Myanmar security forces have used live ammunition–– lethal force––against protesters. This violence violates international law.
Arbitrary detentions and intimidation are also on the rise. Not only are political leaders targets, but community and civil society leaders as well. I recently spoke the leader of a civil society organization that is working to build social harmony and cohesion among diverse ethnic and religious communities. This apparently makes him a threat to the Tatmadaw. At two in the morning following the coup, police officers woke up his wife, his mother and his two young children. When his wife told the officers that he was not there (he had fled his home, knowing that he could be a target) they interrogated her and declared that her husband would be put under arrest when he was found.
Based on currently available information, since announcing the coup, the junta has detained 220 government officials and members of civil society. They include State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and members of the Union Election Commission. Many of these detentions have occurred in the dark of night and many times by plain-clothed police.
These actions are a violation of the basic right to be free from arbitrary arrest and detention. The military must release them ALL immediately.
The Myanmar media is also coming under increasing threat from the junta. Police beat at least one journalist, others are reporting being harassed and targeted by plain-clothed police. Some have gone into hiding.
The junta is instituting regulations and laws to systematically abrogate the people’s rights of freedom of expression, access to information and privacy. The junta has banned public gatherings of five or more people in dozens of townships across the country and imposed a curfew from 8pm to 4am. It has blocked Facebook and other apps, cut off the Internet as it sees fits, and has put forward a new draconian Cyber Security Law to assure that Myanmar is truly a police state that uses modern technology to harass, intimidate and arrest anyone who stands in their way. The new law would allow the junta to ban content it dislikes, restrict Internet providers and intercept data.
The International Community Must Respond
Meanwhile, the Tatmadaw is doing its best to sow fear of being arrested, tortured, tear-gassed, beaten, injured, and murdered.
But there is something that the people of Myanmar who I have spoken with fear even more – being forced to go back into the darkness of living under a brutal, repressive authoritarian regime.
Members of the Human Rights Council, the message from the people of Myanmar to all of you and to the people of the world is clear – this cannot stand!
The activist who I referred to earlier, the individual in hiding, wanted me to know that he and so many others are deeply grateful for the support that has been expressed by the United Nations and others. But he asked me to respectfully pass on these exact words to this body:
“We need more than a statement on a piece paper; we need real action from the United Nations.”
That is why this session is so important. The UN and the international community look to this Council for information, analysis and guidance on grave human rights issues. It is why it is imperative for me to travel to Myanmar so that I can report to you the facts to inform your decisions and recommendations. Earlier this week, I reiterated my request to Myanmar to conduct an urgent country visit in accordance with my mandate. This council, member states, and the Security Council must, in the strongest terms possible, call for my request to be accepted.
The United Nations has demonstrated, throughout its history, a capacity to take action by tapping into the full range of the tools at its disposal or developing new ones where necessary. And of course, the Council’s mandate gives it broad authority to “make recommendations with regard to the promotion and protection of human rights.” The Council may consider making such recommendations to the Security Council, the General Assembly, Member States, and private enterprises. I urge you to do so.
The UN Security Council should be encouraged to consider all of the options it has previously used to deal with gross human rights violations. Security Council resolutions dealing with similar situations have mandated sanctions, arms embargos, and travel bans, and calling for judicial action at the International Criminal Court or ad hoc tribunals. All of these options should be on the table.
Barring concrete steps from the Security Council, the General Assembly can convene an Emergency Special Session. During past emergency special sessions, the General Assembly has recommended actions ranging from ceasefires to arms embargoes to trade sanctions.
Member states themselves, of course, have the ability to act and are beginning to do so. This week, for example, the United States announced sanctions to target the military’s financial pillars and New Zealand imposed a travel ban on those responsible for this coup, while also ceasing diplomatic engagement.
I expect and I urge other member states to impose targeted sanctions, impose bilateral arms embargos, and insure that assistance that they provide to the people of Myanmar goes to civil society organizations directly, whenever possible, instead of through the junta. This Council should encourage these steps.
Private industry meanwhile has a responsibility to respect all internationally recognized human rights wherever they operate, in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Of course in Myanmar, the Tatmadaw’s business interests are vast and represent a source of income that has kept it largely unaccountable to the people.
We have seen a growing list of international companies decide they will no longer do business with the junta. The council should formally encourage all companies with ties to the military to suspend their relationships. Those that continue to stay engaged in Myanmar should conduct heightened human rights due diligence in meaningful consultation with all relevant stakeholders to avoid the risk of being complicit in gross human rights abuses. Private industry should also provide support to workers who may be impacted by the suspension of operations while supporting their right to oppose the coup.
Finally, I’d like to address the role of individuals. People throughout the world have enormous power. We are witnessing what is happening in Myanmar because individuals are rising up, speaking out and documenting the truth for all the world to see. I urge all of us to answer their call, tap people power as well as the power of social media to focus the eyes of the world on their plight and support their calls for action, be it by the UN, governments, or the private sector.
Demands for the Junta
I also urge this body, the UN and all member states to demand that the military junta of Myanmar:
- Release, unconditionally, all who have been detained;
- End the persecution and prosecution of the people of Myanmar for exercising their basic human;
- Stand down immediately so that the duly elected government of Myanmar can begin its work; and
- Return to your barracks and consent to fundamental reforms that will end the impunity of the Tatmadaw leadership while fully establishing accountability of the military to civilian control.
Distinguished members of the Human Rights Council, this is a moment of great peril for the people of Myanmar. It is a moment of truth for all of us.
As the people of Myanmar demonstrate their remarkable courage and resolve, let us demonstrate our support of them and the principles and values that they are fighting for.
These are the principles and values that are the very foundation of this body. They are under siege in Myanmar. Let us speak truth with clarity and force. And then let us act with and for a people in their hour of great peril and need.