Statement by Mr. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro,

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar

61st Session of the Commission on Human Rights, Item 9

Geneva, 29 March 2005


Mr. Chairperson,

Ladies and Gentlemen,


It is my honor to introduce my report on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. As the report was based on information received up to 29 November 2004, I would like to present it in light of subsequent developments.


The information received during the reporting period indicates that the situation with regard to the exercise of fundamental human rights and freedoms in Myanmar has not substantially changed. My work remained worryingly constrained by the lack of cooperation on the part of the Government of Myanmar, as despite my repeated requests, I have been unable to return to the country after my last visit in November 2003 to conduct a first-hand assessment of the human rights situation. It is also regrettable that the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General, Mr. Razali Ismail has not been allowed to return to play his facilitation role since March 2004. My hope that the new administration would extend its cooperation to this Commission by inviting me has yet to be materialized.                        


Turning to the main recent developments in the country and the changes in the leadership of the SPDC last October, none of the possible scenarios for the foreseeable future seem to indicate that the path to constitutional government, or to democracy, will take place faster than before as a consequence of those changes. I noted in my report that the pronouncements made and action taken by the current administration did not appear to signal any new policy direction in respect of the National Convention process. This observation came to be true. The National Convention was reconvened on 17 February 2005 with the same composition and under the same operating procedures as the previous Convention held from 17 May to 9 July 2004, attended by 1075 delegates, 633 being representatives of ethnic groups. The present session, besides approving the principles for sharing legislative power is supposed to discuss the principles of sharing administrative and judicial power. In my earlier reports and statements I articulated my concerns regarding both the process and the issue of inclusiveness of and participation at the National Convention, which I see no point in repeating here again. Allow me only to reiterate my view that the National Convention could promote further political moves towards the democratization envisaged in the road map set out by the Myanmar Government and make progress in guaranteeing human rights, if adjustments were to be made that would transform the Convention into a genuine forum for achieving national reconciliation and political transition, with the participation of key representatives from all legitimate organizations. I firmly believe that in order to bring about a more sustainable solution to the future of the country, credible endeavors should be made by all actors to ensure that the National League for Democracy (NLD) and other parties join the National Convention process. I also believe that the process currently under way in Myanmar should not be delayed, given that only a genuinely democratic system of governance, in which the concerns of different groups can be addressed, can lead to understanding, stability and progress.


Given that a sizeable number of political prisoners (still about 1,300, among them 12 members of parliament) remain in prison, with many of them serving long terms, I stress yet again that only the full and unconditional release of all political prisoners will pave the way for national reconciliation and the rule of law. In this regard, I welcome the release of some 110 political prisoners (referred to by the authorities as "special detainees/prisoners") in the context of the four recent large-scale releases of prisoners announced on 19 and 26 November, 12 December 2004 and 3 January 2005 respectively, which included a total of 19,906 prisoners. I also welcome that among those released were 104 pregnant prisoners, 72 disabled prisoners, 439 former monks, and 15 elderly prisoners.


Releasing of all political prisoners should go hand in hand with discontinuing the practice of imprisoning people for merely speaking their minds or subjecting them to unfair trials without providing legal assistance or the most basic elements of the due process of law. Without these basic requirements, it would be extremely difficult or even impossible to launch a process of genuine transition towards democratization. A number of recent cases of arrest, trial and imprisonment for peaceful political activity and the exercise of fundamental civil and political rights and freedoms, have been brought to my attention. Some incidents, involving some ethnic leaders, including Shan politicians, had occurred even on the eve of the reconvening of the National Convention. I am therefore very distressed that the recent leadership changes in Myanmar do not seem to have lead to greater tolerance for the peaceful expression of views and advocacy for democracy and human rights. I also recall that the Secretary-general of the NLD, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, still remains under de facto house arrest.


I wish to reiterate that the restoration of freedom for political parties and ceasefire partners to operate and pursue peaceful political activity is a further prerequisite for a credible process of national reconciliation and political transition. Democratization cannot emerge from a unilaterally controlled, restrictive environment.


I remain very disturbed by continuing allegations of human rights violations in ethnic minority areas, particularly those affected by counter-insurgency operations, and by the presence in ceasefire areas not involved in counter-insurgency activity of large contingents of the armed forces. Civilians in those areas have reportedly witnessed widespread violations of economic, social and cultural rights, including the deprivation of means of livelihood through land and crop confiscation, the destruction of houses, excessive taxation and extortion. Continuing reports of the use of landmines, forced labour and sexual violence indicate that fundamental human rights are at risk in those areas. I am particularly concerned by the situation in one ethnic area, namely, north-western Rakhine state. During the reporting period, mosques continued to be demolished, the freedom of movement of the Bengali-speaking Muslim minority remained excessively restricted and the vast majority of that minority remained de facto stateless. I have also received reports alleging sexual violence against ethnic women, including, inter alia, Karens.


If the Government sincerely wishes to promote the cause of peace, development and justice in ethnic minority areas affected by armed conflict, it must look seriously into allegations of violations against civilians living in those areas. I believe that it is in the best interests of the Government to establish efficient mechanisms for the accountability of army personnel for alleged human rights violations, with a view to ensuring the protection of the civilian population. Allegations must be investigated and those responsible for violations should be held accountable, prosecuted and judged. It is therefore important that the United Nations and the international community should deal consistently with human rights violations: there must not be one set of standards or requirements for State agents and another for armed groups. In my reports, I have always demanded that State agents and armed groups should be held equally accountable, but I must sadly acknowledge that the government has failed to agree to most of the initiatives I have proposed in the last two years to address the issue of accountability, for instance by not allowing me to make inquiries into the situation of civilians in areas of conflict. In that regard, the issue of impunity relating to the events of 30 May 2003 in Depayin must also be adequately addressed and those who are found to be responsible brought to justice.


I remain convinced that there is an urgent need to re-establish a common focus for various United Nations and international community actors and agencies and to coordinate all political, humanitarian and human rights initiatives. Societies must continue to be empowered to be able to strengthen their economic and social capacity. It is more vital than ever before that all States, particularly those in the region, place serious emphasis on continuous dialogue and negotiation with the Government of Myanmar. Notwithstanding the recent changes in the Myanmar Government, I am of the view that all players should also continue to work together on such non-political and/or social issues as are covered by assistance programmes with funding from the Global Fund, including HIV/AIDS prevention. I am pleased to note that since 2004 the Government of Myanmar granted UNHCR access to the Eastern border regions with the objective to build confidence with local authorities and communities and to assist in developing their ability to absorb the potential return of refugees in the future. I also welcome plans of UNDP to expand its humanitarian programmes aimed at addressing the needs of vulnerable groups.


There is a pressing need in Myanmar to embark on a process of structured consultations on substantial policy issues. The normalization of political life would proceed more rapidly if bolder steps were taken with the assistance of the international community and multilateral organizations. With respect to economic and social rights, there are areas of concern which could be addressed by the Government, economists, political parties and other players, with assistance and advice from the United Nations, international agencies and neighboring States, thereby paving the way for the integration of Myanmar into international financial and economic structures.


I wish to underline the fact that the State apparatus and its agents will not just disappear after the political transition has been completed. No effective political transition can take place, as observers have pointed out, in an administrative vacuum. As was the case in many democratic transitions in the twentieth century, even subsequent to direct military rule, many State agents and bureaucrats with experience in running the country, including judges, public prosecutors and army officials, will remain in office in order to prevent instability. In other South-East Asian countries, improvements in participatory democracy, elections, labour standards and human rights led to effective political transitions to democracy. I continue to believe that the international community cannot wait for the end of the political transition to cooperate on initiatives aimed at improving the lives of vulnerable persons in Myanmar and to hold the population hostage until the completion of the democratization process.


Many mutually reinforcing reforms could be considered and supported by the international community in order to promote political reform, including civil service reform; privatization and enhanced efficiency in public enterprises; anti-corruption measures; addressing the problem of the black economic; reforms in the education sector; improvements in health care, including the issue of access; the demobilization and reintegration into productive roles in society of former combatants; environmental protection; and the provision of safety nets for those who are likely to be left behind in the process of moving towards a market-oriented economic system, including poor persons, women, youth, older persons, ethnic minorities and persons with disabilities.


Priority should also be given to the ratification of the core human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its Optional Protocols, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict and on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.


Despite the past setbacks, it is more necessary than ever that the international community broadens its vision and not to let its expectations be shattered by frustration. Of course, there is a sense of urgency for change in the country. Before we propose any path for action, we need to ask ourselves how this will positively affect the protection of lives and human rights of the Myanmar people. Only then we will be able to overcome frustration. New strategies will be found to enhance the capabilities of the Myanmar people and change will come.


Thank you