Myanmar: UN rights expert warns against backtracking on free expression, association

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

28 July 2014 – On the heels of a ten-day visit to Myanmar, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country has urged authorities to avoid any backtracking that could threaten the achievements of the past few years.

“In three years, Myanmar has come a long way since the establishment of the new Government. This must be recognized and applauded,” said Ms. Yanghee Lee in a statement released to the press.

“Yet there are worrying signs of possible backtracking which if unchecked could undermine Myanmar’s efforts to become a responsible member of the international community that respects and protects human rights.”

During her trip to several of the country’s regions, the independent expert met with Government officials, political, religious and community groups, civil society, as well as victims of human rights violations.

She expressed concern over the harassment and attacks journalists face for criticizing those in power. Likewise, civil society is intimidated for exercising their right to peaceful assembly. Particularly concerning, she pointed out, is the use of the judicial system to criminalize and impede the activities of civil society and the media.

“These patterns not only undermine the work of civil society and the media, but also impose a climate of fear and intimidation to the society at large,” the Special Rapporteur said.

“The enjoyment of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association and peaceful assembly are essential ingredients for Myanmar’s democracy, particularly in the run-up to the 2015 elections.”

Ms. Lee – whose report on Myanmar will be presented to the UN General Assembly in October - called for the review and release of remaining prisoners of conscience and urged authorities to address complex land rights issues, particularly land grabbing and forced evictions. Rule of law, is the foundation for any functioning democracy and underpins the entire process of reform, she insisted, calling for the reform of outdated laws that do not reflect current realities and those deemed inconsistent with international human rights standards.

The recurring outbreak of inter-communal violence in Myanmar reveals a growing polarization between Muslim and Buddhist communities despite the country’s rich history of religious pluralism and tolerance. Having visited several camps for internally displaced people (IDPs), she said she saw first-hand the difficult conditions in which people of both communities live.

“The situation is deplorable,” she said, citing the conditions in IDP camps where there is a lack of access to basic emergency medical assistance. It is very difficult for international aid organizations and the UN to operate where there are threats and attacks against staff, she added.

She said she understood the sense of grievance and perceived discrimination by the Rakhine Buddhist community. Their concerns should be taken into account when trying to address the underlying causes of the intercommunal violence. She also pointed out the systematic discrimination against the Rohingya Muslim community, including restrictions in the freedom of movement, access to land, food, water, education and health care.

Inaccurate rumours and misinformation only serves to heighten tensions and hostility and to increase the sense of discriminatory treatment.

“I am concerned by the spread of hate speech and incitement to violence, discrimination and hostility in the media and on the Internet, which have fuelled and triggered further violence,” Ms. Lee said.

Legislation against hate speech must be compliant with international human rights standards so as not to excessively limit the freedom of expression. Those in positions of influence should also clearly speak out against hate speech, she added.


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