The UN deputy human rights chief and the independent expert on Myanmar have called for targeted sanctions against the leaders of what they both described as the coup that took place in the country last week, as the Human Rights Council met in special session on Friday to discuss the ongoing crisis.
Punitive actions against those responsible must not harm Myanmar’s vulnerable communities, and also ensure that assistance to fight the coronavirus pandemic and humanitarian support can continue, Deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada al-Nashif and Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews said.
‘World watching with horror’
In a detailed account of the unfolding situation following the military takeover on 1 February, Special Rapporteur Andrews outlined the backdrop against which the civilian government was overthrown, the people’s response, and the “junta’s repressive actions”.
He started by stressing that the very act of convening the special session underscored the gravity with which the HRC viewed “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”.
“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 [the capital] Nay Pyi Taw.”
There are also reports of use of live ammunition and lethal force against demonstrators, increased arbitrary detentions and intimidation, threat to the media, and instituting of regulations and laws that systematically strip away rights, access to information and privacy.
Some 220 government officials and members of civil society, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and members of the Union Election Commission, have been detained, many of whom were taken in “the dark of night and many times by plain-clothed police”, he added, citing reports.
International community must act
Mr. Andrews called for action by the Human Rights Council (HRC), reading out a message he received from an activist in Myanmar, who is in hiding.
“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.'”
He called on the HRC to urge the Security Council “to consider all of the options it has previously used to deal with gross human rights violations”, including sanctions, arms embargos, and travel bans, and calling for judicial action at the International Criminal Court (ICC) 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”, he added.
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.”
‘Crisis born of impunity’
Deputy High Commissioner al-Nashif went on to note that the current crisis in Myanmar was “born of impunity”, with long-standing lack of civilian control over the military and its disproportionate influence in the country’s political and economic institutions.
“For over 20 years, successive High Commissioners and many eminent experts have briefed this Council, and its predecessor, on violations committed by the country’s military, which include some of the most serious crimes alleged under international law”, she said, adding that “lack of action to address them has emboldened military leaders and contributed to this present crisis.”
She recalled the explicit warning by the HRC’s Fact Finding Mission in 2018, which said that “the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) is the greatest impediment to Myanmar’s development as a modern democratic nation.
“The Commander-in-Chief of the Tatmadaw, Min Aung Hlaing, and all the current leadership must be replaced, and a complete restructuring must be undertaken to place the Tatmadaw under full civilian control. Myanmar’s democratic transition depends on it.”
Ms. al-Nashif urged the Human Rights Council (HRC) to make “the strongest possible call for the military authorities to respect the result of the election, to return power to civilian control and to immediately release all individuals arbitrarily detained.”
Concerns for Rohingyas
Ms. al-Nashif also voiced concerns for the members of the minority, mainly Muslim, Rohingya community who in the past have faced violent persecution by the military.
“The military authorities must not be allowed to exacerbate the situation of the Rohingya people, after the extreme violence and decades of discrimination that they have endured,” she said, underlining that Myanmar “must fully comply with the provisional measures ordered by the International Court of Justice, and move to genuinely address the root causes of conflicts in Rakhine state and other ethnic minority areas.”
In 2017, over 700,000 Rohingyas were forced to flee their homes and seek refuge across the border, in Bangladesh, following widespread attacks by Myanmar’s security forces, in retaliation for attacks on remote police outposts by armed groups alleged to belong to the community.
Tatmadaw compelled to act: Myanmar Ambassador
Also speaking at the opening of the special session, Myanmar’s Ambassador Myint Thu responded by underscoring his country’s commitment to democratic values, and justifying the military’s intervention as necessary.
“In light of the post-election irregularities and the following complex situation, Tatmadaw was compelled to take the State responsibilities in accordance with the State constitution”, he said.
He informed the HRC that on 1 February, the state of emergency was declared for one year and the legislative, executive and judicial powers of the State were transferred by Acting President to the Commander in Chief of the Defense Forces. A State Administrative Council subsequently formed on 2 February, with 16 members, including eight senior military officials and eight civilians he added.