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“Myanmar (Burma) is facing a critical time in its history, with various human rights crises around the country. Now more than ever we need a strong, capable, and principled human rights institution that is independent from the Government and the military.” – Thwin Linn Aung, Director of Genuine People’s Servants
On 9 October 2018, 12 rights-based civil society organizations, including Progressive Voice, launched a report that lays bare the major problems with the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC), including its lack of independence and effectiveness. Given the human rights situation in Myanmar today, these problems must be addressed by the Government. As Thwin Linn Aung, Director of Genuine People’s Servants, one of the report’s authors, stated at the press conference to launch the report, “Myanmar is facing a critical time in its history, with various human rights crises around the country. Now more than ever we need a strong, capable, and principled human rights institution that is independent from the Government and the military.”
The report, ‘Return to Sender – MNHRC Enabling Law Must be Returned to Parliament for Structural Reform,’ is an analysis of the MNHRC’s performance in relation to the Paris Principles, the international benchmarks by which all national human rights institutions are judged. It is clear that the MNHRC falls substantially short. In particular, the lack of effective action in armed conflict-affected areas, especially when it comes to abuses committed by the Myanmar military, shows that it is still beholden to the most powerful and abusive institution in the country. This is exacerbated by the distinct lack of a human rights mindset within the commission, an issue that can be resolved through amendments to the law to make the selection process more transparent, free of executive and military influence, and to ensure greater pluralism of both commissioners and staff.
The response to the report by the MNHRC demonstrates that it is reticent to allow people with a human-rights mindset to be part of the commission. Commissioner Yu Lwin Aung, former military personnel, stated in the 7 Day Daily news outlet that pluralism was dangerous, because it could mean that ‘hardliners’ become part of the commission. It is clear that by ‘hardliners’ he is referring to people who take principled human rights stands, and do not show the same deference to the Myanmar military that the MNHRC evidently does.
“It’s obvious that 505(b) is being used to limit freedom of expression. The government has said it accepts media criticism; it shouldn’t charge journalists under a law that provides for offenses against the state.”
Than Zaw Aung, Myanmar Media Lawyers’ Network
Myanmar is in desperate need of better human rights protection. One of the most favored tools of the National League for Democracy-led Government to suppress criticism has been wheeled out again this month. After Eleven Media published an article criticizing the financial dealings of the Yangon Region Government, three senior editors at the publication were charged under Section 505(b) of the Penal Code, which states that “whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumour or report…with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public…shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to two years…” The use of this law is a continuation of a policy by the previous government and the military regime to silence dissent. As Than Zaw Aung of the Myanmar Media Lawyers’ Network stated, “It’s obvious that 505(b) is being used to limit freedom of expression. The government has said it accepts media criticism; it shouldn’t charge journalists under a law that provides for offenses against the state.”
The above case is just the latest demonstration as to why Myanmar needs a strong human rights commission. However, human rights protection is most absent in areas of armed conflict and violence committed during military operations such as in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States. This is also why Myanmar is under scrutiny at the international level, including at the current UN General Assembly (UNGA).
Domestic human rights mechanisms continue to be plagued by the lack of human rights mindset as well as the complete inability to take effective action to afford better human rights protection. Given this, it is vital that the UNGA and its member states take strong and decisive action to hold those most responsible for the decades of systematic and widespread human rights violations to account. The upcoming resolution on Myanmar, to be adopted by the Third Committee, must reflect the findings and the recommendations of the International Independent Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar, which called for the UN Security Council to refer the situation of Myanmar to the International Criminal Court. If the international community is to reaffirm its commitment to the idea of “never again”, it must act now to hold those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes to account.
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