Independent Expert Describes ‘In-Betweenness’ Experienced by Persons with Albinism
A significant increase in statelessness, extreme human-rights violations against people with albinism and the pressing situation of Rohingya refugees were among the concerns addressed in briefings to the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today, as delegates discussed the human rights of minorities, among other topics.
In the first six briefings, Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issues, raised the alarm that statelessness may increase significantly in the coming months, as hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people belonging to Bengali and Muslim minorities in India risk being deemed “foreigners” — non-citizens — in the state of Assam. More than three-quarters of the world’s 10 million recognized stateless are persons belonging to minorities, he said.
Ikponwosa Ero, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism, described the global state of “in-betweenness” experienced by people with albinism, who are often perceived as “not black enough, not white enough, too white, too blind, not blind enough, having multiple disabilities, having no disabilities, not disabled enough, facing racial discrimination yet allegedly having ‘white privilege.’” In Africa, they are hunted like animals and their body parts sold as commodities.
Focusing on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the situation in that country, said repressive laws continue to be weaponized against people attempting to exercise their rights to free expression, association and assembly. Persecution of religious minorities continues unabated, amid reports that 27 villages now describe themselves as “Muslim-free”, banning Muslims from entry. In Rakhine, as many as 60,000 people have been displaced by the conflict this year alone, along with another 10,000 in Chin State. “I remain resolute in my belief that it is unsafe for [Rohingya refugees] to return to Myanmar until the fundamental circumstances leading to their expulsion are remedied,” she asserted.
In a similar vein, Marzuki Darusman, Chair of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, said the cycle of impunity is fuelling reprehensible conduct by the security forces. “There is a strong inference of continued genocidal intent on the part of the State in relation to the Rohingya and there is a serious risk of genocide recurring,” he warned. The return of nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees to Rakhine is “simply impossible” under the current circumstances. Civilians, mostly ethnic minorities, are suffering the brunt of the fighting.
Responding, Myanmar’s representative characterized the Special Rapporteur’s report as “subjective, intrusive and unconstructive”. The Government has repeatedly called for her replacement since 2017. In Rakhine, authorities are working to expedite repatriation and create a “more conducive environment for verified returnees”. Myanmar is not opposed to accountability and has demonstrated this by establishing the Independent Commission of Enquiry and by opening a court of inquiry to investigate alleged human-rights violations. He strongly objected to the establishment of the Independent Investigative Mechanism on Myanmar as a “discriminatory” measure that Myanmar refuses to recognize, calling its $26 million budget a “wanton waste of the scarce resources”.
Meanwhile, Tomás Ojea Quintana, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, described conditions in the country in the words of a woman who had escaped it, whom he met in June: “No freedom, no commercial activities, surveillance, the risk of crackdown, no happiness for anyone in farming areas. People know when their human rights are violated and restricted even when they do not necessarily call them human rights.”
Turning to restrictions on freedom, he said citizens are subject to surveillance and can only access media controlled by the Government’s Propaganda and Agitation Department. People live in fear of being labelled traitors, sent to political prisons and never to be seen again. He expressed concern about recent forced repatriations of escapees in China to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, stressing that they should not happen, given the principle of non-refoulement.
Also briefing the Committee was Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights.
Speaking in the general debate on human rights were representatives of the Philippines, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Mauritania, Sudan, Iceland, Zimbabwe, Bahamas, Syria, Afghanistan and China.
The Third Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on 23 October to continue its consideration of the promotion and protection of human rights.
The Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) continued its debate on the promotion and protection of human rights today (for background, see Press Release GA/SHC/4266).
Interactive Dialogues — Minority Issues
FERNAND DE VARENNES, Special Rapporteur on minority issues, pointed to his second thematic report (document A/74/160) on what constitutes a minority — which proposes a conceptual framework to clarify what a minority is based on the history and formulation of the main provisions of the United Nations on minorities — as well as on the interpretation of article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The proposal offers a working definition for the purposes of his mandate only. The proposal is for an objective approach, based on whether a group constitutes less than half of the population in the entire territory of a State, whose members share common characteristics of culture, religion or language. Acknowledging that inconsistencies — even contradictions — can exist within and between United Nations entities, he said that, at times, there is a reluctance to refer to minorities due to a lack of common understanding as to who a minority is, leading to omissions where minorities should have been recognized as a particularly vulnerable group.
Expressing hope that his proposal offers greater clarity and certainty for United Nations activities, he raised grave concerns about the issue of statelessness, and possible dire consequences for the #IBelong campaign — launched by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) — to end it by 2024. He raised the alarm that statelessness may in fact increase significantly in the coming years — even months — aggravating a potential humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people who belong to Bengali and Muslim minorities in India risk being deemed “foreigners” — and in all likelihood non-citizens in the state of Assam — and may therefore find themselves stateless. More than three-quarters of the world’s 10 million recognized stateless are persons belonging to minorities, he recalled, expressing concern over their further marginalization. He called on the international community to assist in the development of guidelines for equal nationality rights for minorities, as a matter of urgency.
In the ensuing discussion, the representative of Hungary, associating with the European Union, welcomed the Special Rapporteur’s engagement with the Hungarian minorities, expressing support for the use of minority languages and noting that use of the State language must not be detrimental to minority languages. In the European context, he called for a framework on the rights of national minorities, taking into account the difference between citizenship and national identity. Meanwhile, the representative of the Russian Federation, condemning hate speech against minorities on social networks, called for ensuring linguistic minority rights. He drew attention to efforts in Latvia and Estonia to oust Russian language from public life, also citing systematic discrimination against those who do not have a high level of Latvian and Estonian language. The observer for the European Union, expressing his delegation’s commitment to minorities’ rights, recalled a forum held in the European Parliament. Underscoring the importance of regional forums, which allow regional stakeholders to support minorities’ rights, he asked the Special Rapporteur whether a narrower definition of a minority would eventually help promote minority rights. The representative of Liechtenstein, in the context of the working definition of a minority in the United Nations system, asked why the report focuses on article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The representative of Ukraine said minorities in his country speak diverse languages, and indigenous peoples enrich Ukraine’s heritage. National minorities are affected by Russian aggression against Ukraine, he asserted, noting that learning the official language of a country allows minorities to succeed in all levels of society. On the marginalization of the Roma community, he called for countering the problem of statelessness. The representative of Austria, associating with the European Union, asked the Special Rapporteur to assess his Office’s cooperation with other United Nations entities, especially the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and whether a relationship between a State and a minority influences the protection a State affords to that minority. The representative of the United States called for action to end statelessness and promote respect for human rights of all persons, including minority groups who are disproportionately disadvantaged. Ensuring equal treatment is a challenge that every nation faces, he said, pointing to the situation of minorities in Myanmar, Iran and China.
Mr. VARENNES said the issue of who is a minority is complex. The concept he has proposed, based on article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, focuses on what a minority is itself, not what constitutes religious or cultural minority. He aimed at a broad definition, a clear concept of what minority is, applying a systematic approach to this complex issue. Stressing that minority rights should be conceptualized more clearly, he said that minority rights are human rights. The most powerful human rights for minorities are the freedom of religion and non-discrimination. He recalled his visit to a regional forum, which featured participants from UNESCO and the European Union, calling for cooperation with the African Union. Collaboration with relevant regional and international actors is extremely important in synchronizing efforts and developing guidelines for tackling the statelessness of minorities. Unless the main causes of statelessness are tackled, the strategy will not succeed.
Also speaking in the interactive dialogue were representatives of India and China.
KARIMA BENNOUNE, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, said her report (document A/74/255) focuses on the critical role played by public spaces in the enjoyment of human rights, particularly cultural rights. The aim to provide safe access to vibrant public spaces is enshrined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, she said. The question of public space must be recognized as a human-rights issue. The report insists on the responsibility of States for — and the role of other actors in — ensuring that public spaces become or remain spheres for deliberation, cultural exchange and the enjoyment of universal human rights. The urgency of equal access is underscored by the September 2019 death of 29-year-old Sahar Khodayari, who set herself on fire to protest being criminally charged for entering a stadium as a woman to watch a football match in Iran. Moreover, recent proposals by the United States Department of the Interior and affiliated bodies to privatize parts of its national parks are a reminder that the existence of public spaces must not be taken for granted.
Building on definitions used by UNESCO and other United Nations bodies, she said she defined public spaces as places that are publicly owned and accessible to all without discrimination. In practice, women often face considerable obstacles in accessing public spaces equally, owing to threats, harassment and violence, as well as socially constructed gender norms. Public authorities must tackle these obstacles. For persons with disabilities, lack of accessibility in built environments — from roads to housing to public buildings and spaces — directly affects their capacity to live independently and fully participate in all aspects of life, including cultural life. Recent evidence reveals a widespread lack of accessibility for persons with disabilities in public spaces, even in countries where a reasonable adaptation of infrastructure to meet their needs is codified in legislation. Accessibility or inclusive “universal design” principles should be used from the initial design stages, as well as in the building and restructuring of public infrastructure. Public spaces are conduits for realizing universal human rights, she said, noting that if States, international organizations and the international community do not take the matter seriously it will be impossible to fulfil cultural and other human rights.
In the ensuing dialogue, the observer for the European Union asked how cultural rights, including children’s rights to cultural life and the arts, can be guaranteed and promoted. The representative of the Maldives asked the Special Rapporteur to provide additional guidelines for small island developing States, which face specific challenges, on how to proceed in realizing cultural rights.
The representative of the United States expressed grave concern about China’s removal of ethnic minorities, the Uighurs, from public spaces in Xinjiang and their detention in camps, as well as reports of indoctrination and prohibitions on the Uighur language. He called on China to close the camps and asked if stakeholders can take steps to make online spaces conducive to freedom of expression — a question echoed by the representative of Norway.
The representative of China pointed out that people in Xinjiang speak 10 languages, and the Uighur people’s Muqam art is listed as a world cultural heritage by UNESCO. She invited the representative of the United States to visit China, “instead of launching baseless accusations” based on hearsay.
Ms. BENNOUNE replied that public spaces are fundamental to children and adolescents’ formation of identity and culture; they are also where they form relationships. She expressed concern about fear and hostility towards adolescents in some public spaces, reflected through curfews or the use of high-frequency sound to deter their presence. While some restrictions may be needed for public spaces to be accessible to all, she said States must maintain public spaces based on the principles of participation, inclusion and non-discrimination, paying specific attention to the needs of children with disabilities.
She reiterated that public spaces are where the rights of people who express themselves are violated, and called on States to promote, fulfil, and respect human rights. She said Governments that claim to guarantee the right to free speech but provide no space for people to exercise that right “make a hollow promise”. Public participation must not be unreasonably restricted, and the rights of women — who face harassment in public spaces — must be protected.
Responding to the question on virtual spaces — which called for its own report — she noted that virtual spaces complemented but did not replace real spaces. “We have never needed to directly encounter one another more in any time in history,” she stressed.
The representative of Cuba also spoke.
IKPONWOSA ERO, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism, said she has for the past five years focused on extreme human-rights violations against people with albinism, particularly in Africa, where they are “hunted like animals and their body parts sold as commodities.” They experience poverty and intersecting discrimination due to colour and disability, as well as on other grounds such as age, gender and ethnicity. The report (document A/74/190), based on submissions from 90 countries, details the global state of “in-betweenness” of people with albinism, whereby persons with albinism are often perceived as “not black enough, not white enough, too white, too blind, not blind enough, having multiple disabilities, having no disabilities, not disabled enough, facing racial discrimination yet allegedly having ‘white privilege.’”
Such perceptions stem from widespread global ignorance about albinism, she said, as well as a lack of acknowledgement of intra-ethnic forms of racial discrimination. Lack of data is also a challenge. She went on to outline several health challenges faced by people with albinism — including skin cancer — and pointed out that sunscreen must be provided as an essential medicine. They also experience suicidal ideation. People with albinism face bullying and extreme prejudice across the world, in Australia, South Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, China and Europe. In Japan, she added, school administrators and employers reportedly force persons with albinism to dye their hair black. Touching on positive developments, such as the forming of civil society groups representing people with albinism, she urged Governments to reach out to these groups and empower them.
In the ensuing debate, the representative of South Africa welcomed the Special Rapporteur’s recent visit to her country and took note of her recommendations. Derogatory language to describe people with albinism is not only dehumanizing, it is being used to justify attacks against people with albinism. South Africa is intensifying efforts to support people with albinism. The representative of Japan said his country is working to help persons with albinism and their families. He asked about recommendations for ending discrimination against these persons. The observer for the European Union said persons with albinism are among the most vulnerable populations worldwide, expressing concern that those at high risk of abandonment and rejection are children with albinism. He asked how States’ cooperation with civil society can be strengthened to ensure higher participation of persons with albinism in social life.
In turn, the representative of Somalia asked about ways to improve data collection, while the representative of Turkey said more attention is being paid to persons with albinism thanks to his country’s awareness campaign. The representative of Angola meanwhile expressed support for improving the situation of those affected by albinism. The representative of Malawi, noting that persons with albinism constitute 0.8 per cent of society, said the Government is implementing a media campaign aimed at increasing sensitivity towards the issue of albinism.
Ms. ERO said no country is immune to discrimination. To tackle albinism, it is crucial to gather partners — traditional and non-traditional — and to develop a national action plan, which is the single most important strategy. Once the action plan is developed, States do not have to worry about the budget. Specific measures can be taken — as in some countries, funds are being provided to guarantee sunscreen to persons with albinism. She invited all Member States to engage with her mandate, citing awareness-raising measures already under way across several countries and reiterating the need for national action plans.
Also speaking were representatives of Ghana, Israel, Slovenia, Brazil, Namibia, United States and China.
KIRA CHRISTIANNE DANGANAN AZUCENA (Philippines), recalling her country’s strong legal and cultural tradition of protecting human rights, expressed deep concern over the selective adoption of country-specific resolutions by the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) and the Human Rights Council. Such resolutions should not be used as tools to exploit human rights for political purposes. Impartiality, objectivity and cooperation are essential principles to effectively promote and protect all human rights. She also expressed concern that developing countries are subjected to a politicized human-rights agenda and then censured for their so-called violations, accusations made on the basis of false and biased information.
MOHAMED ABDELRAHMAN MOHAMED MOUSSA (Egypt) said the right to development is inalienable and linked to other rights. The international community must take an overarching approach to how it promotes and protects human rights, without discrimination, selectivity and politicization. He went on to note the unprecedented challenges of terrorism, water stress, poverty and climate change, stressing that issues such as racism, Islamophobia and human trafficking are to be discussed in forums such as this. He expressed concern about the people killed by security forces in the United States, as well as the discrimination against minorities — notably people of African descent — in the United States criminal-justice system.
SHAHD JAMAL YOUSUF IBRAHIM MATAR (United Arab Emirates) said all people in her country are equal before the law, regardless of their sex or marital status. The United Arab Emirates is working to strengthen laws against discrimination and hatred. It is enhancing women’s empowerment and focusing on a national framework that guarantees human rights for all. On migration, the United Arab Emirates is seeking to foster dialogue between countries of origin and destination. It has also submitted various periodic reports, including one on the Convention against Torture.
AYŞE INANÇ ÖRNEKOL (Turkey) voiced concern about the re-emergence of extremist political currents and ideologies, especially across the European Union, which translate into xenophobic nationalism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitic movements. Fueled by the rise of far-right and anti-immigrant discourse, especially in Western countries, migrants and other vulnerable groups continue to fall victim to unequal treatment, prejudice and stereotyping. When fundamental rights and freedoms are in question, Turkey always aims at full compliance with its international obligations. As a party to core international human-rights treaties, it complies with its obligations, even amid grave security threats and terrorism, she said. Like all democracies, it faces challenges to freedom of expression and the media, including social media, hate speech, digitalization and terrorist threats. Its priority is to strike a balance between maintaining public order and protecting fundamental freedoms.
SIDI MOHAMED TALEB AMAR (Mauritania) said his country takes a human rights-based approach to its Government sectors. To address slavery, it launched a national action plan, strengthened its legal framework and organized awareness campaigns, in cooperation with scientists and legal experts. It has strengthened its national social-protection programme, and created schools, health-care facilities and micro-credit lines to help the most vulnerable. He touched on programmes to benefit the youth and foster gender equality, and noted that women are represented in Mauritania’s judiciary and army. Freedom of the press is guaranteed, he said, adding that the Government punishes assaults against the press, and has no prisoners of opinion.
NAWAL AHMED MUKHTAR (Sudan) said that recent changes in Sudan represent nothing less than a human-rights revolution, as reflected in the Constitutional Declaration and the motto “Freedom, peace and justice”. The human-rights commitment of the new transitional Government is also shown by its recent signing of an agreement with OHCHR to open offices in Khartoum and several conflict-affected States, the signing of the Global Pledge on Media Freedom, the establishment of a commission to investigate the June 2019 violence, the ongoing prosecution of the previous President, the naming of the first female Chief Justice and the appointment of a new attorney general. A review of international conventions and compliance by Sudan has been started as well. Describing also a range of initiatives to strengthen protection of women’s rights, he added that the country has gained the international confidence necessary to be elected to the Human Rights Council for the period 2020 to 2022, and fully commits itself to working to consolidate human rights in accordance with existing international mechanisms.
Mr. SIGURDARSON (Iceland) said his country has spent the last 15 months on the Human Rights Council for the first time, focused on strengthening the rights of children, women, and lesbian, gay, transsexual and intersex persons. Recalling an equal pay resolution that Iceland submitted, on the principle of equal pay for equal work, it aims to tackle the cause of the gender pay gap, which is essential to achieving full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men. Expressing concern about intensifying threats to reproductive freedom and efforts to roll back comprehensive sex education, he said States must not allow women’s rights to be eroded. More broadly, he expressed concern over Turkey’s incursion into north-east Syria, causing suffering and displacement. He urged Turkey to cease its military campaign and to respect the Kurdish people’s right to remain.
STANLEY RALPH CHEKECHE (Zimbabwe) said that since the inauguration of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, there have been many political and electoral reforms. Zimbabwe continues to implement most of the pertinent recommendations by national, regional and international election observers. The appointment of the Motlanthe Commission of Inquiry into the post-election violence in 2018 — and implementation of 30 laws on law and order, media freedom and democratic rights — reflect the new Government’s commitment to credible and transparent political processes. The controversial Public Order and Security Act has been replaced by the Maintenance of Peace and Order Act. His Government also invited the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association to visit, signalling its readiness for constructive criticism and dialogue with all stakeholders.
DEANDRA V. CARTWRIGHT (Bahamas), associating herself with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), noted that her country has ratified a number of instruments, including the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It is working on several related measures, including legislation that will ensure the inclusion and protection of older people with disabilities. It is also working to implement additional social protections that cover children, women and the elderly. As a small island developing State, she said, her country views climate change as an existential threat, borne out through more frequent and intense natural disasters and accelerating sea-level rise. She called for more international support for resilience and recovery, and welcomed the Human Rights Council’s focus on climate-change impacts, which is also a focus of its ongoing retreat in Dakar.
WAEL AL KHALIL (Syria) reiterated his country’s commitment to strengthening the human rights of all citizens. Recalling its international law commitments, he urged Member States to banish practices involving politically motivated stereotypes and accusations. Expressing hope that the Special Rapporteur’s reports will be used in a constructive manner, and that politicization and double standards will be avoided, he pointed to the practice of certain Governments establishing coalitions outside the United Nations. The United States-led coalition is an example of this trend. It has engaged in war crimes, destroying schools and hospitals without fear of being accountable for its actions. Turkey’s attack on Syria contravenes the Charter of the United Nations and international law, he stressed, noting that some countries use the Charter’s article 51 to serve their political agenda.
NAZIR AHMAD FOSHANJI (Afghanistan) said promoting women’s rights and gender equality; defending the values of peaceful freedom of assembly; ending discrimination, impunity and torture; and protecting rights defenders are national priorities. As a country at the forefront of combating terrorism and extremist groups, Afghanistan considers the protection of civilians a matter of highest priority in conducting operations against hostile targets. Committed to minimizing the number of civilian casualties, he expressed grave concern over the targeting of civilians by terrorist groups and their affiliates, pointing to the barbaric 18 October attack on a mosque, which led to 62 deaths.
YANGHEE LEE, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, presenting her latest report (document A/74/342), said Myanmar continues to deny her access, but human-rights issues, abuses and violations are still reported to her. There is no discernible improvement to the situation in Myanmar, although the Government in September ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. The Government has neither repealed nor amended repressive laws that infringe on rights, and these continue to be weaponized against those attempting to exercise their rights to free expression, association and assembly. She pointed to a sharp rise in the number of such cases, with the military commencing prosecutions of protestors, activists and journalists reporting on the conflict in Rakhine State. In September, Government officials filed separate criminal defamation complaints against two satirists and a cartoonist for their social media posts, which were critical of the ruling National League for Democracy.
Expressing concern over discrimination against religious minorities, she pointed to 27 villages that describe themselves as “Muslim-free”, banning Muslims from entry. She also expressed concern over Government plans for hydropower development in conflict areas where communities have been displaced from their land, including in Rakhine and Chin States. In Rakhine State, the heavy fighting between the military (Tatmadaw) and the Arakan Army continues. People have been targeted, killed and injured by indiscriminate fire, and entire villages have been burned. Rakhine men and boys have been detained by security forces and some have died in custody, amid reports of torture. The Arakan Army has reportedly recently abducted 31 people and is depriving them of their liberty. As many as 60,000 people have been displaced by the conflict in Rakhine this year, along with another 10,000 in Chin State. In August, there was a sudden escalation of fighting in Shan State. “I remain resolute in my belief that it is unsafe for [Rohingya refugees] to return to Myanmar until the fundamental circumstances leading to their expulsion are remedied,” she asserted. “The abhorrent treatment of these people is completely antithetical to Myanmar’s human-rights and child-rights obligations,” she said, indicative of the treatment that any returning Rohingya would face.
Across the country, attempts to claim rights are consistently obstructed by structural apparatuses that ensure such claims are not filled. The Government’s Independent Commission of Enquiry has not produced a single report. “An end to impunity in Myanmar remains a lofty, far-off goal,” she said. As such, she urged the international community to impose targeted sanctions against the Tatmadaw’s companies and its commanders most responsible for serious violations, refer the entire situation to the International Criminal Court or establish an international tribunal, and work with civil society to develop transformative processes in accordance with the pillars of justice, truth, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence.
HAU DO SUAN (Myanmar) said his country has been cooperating with successive Special Rapporteurs on the human-rights situation in Myanmar since the first was appointed in 1992. However, he is “disappointed and disheartened” that this cooperation has only invited international scrutiny, numerous country-specific resolutions and “more invented and unprecedented politically motivated mechanisms to exert political pressures” on his country in the name of human rights. He characterized the Special Rapporteur’s report as “subjective, intrusive and unconstructive”, adding that her conclusion — that the situation “continues to deteriorate in many areas” — lacks objectivity and does not reflect conditions on the ground. The Special Rapporteur’s report lacks “impartiality, objectivity, professionalism and good faith”, he said, adding that Myanmar has “repeatedly” called for her replacement since 2017.
Despite the many challenges Myanmar faces, as a young democracy it is determined to foster peace, prosperity, development and the rule of law, he said — noting that it held various peace conferences and successfully encouraged 10 ethnic armed organizations to sign a ceasefire agreement. On the economic front, Myanmar’s growth rate touched 6.5 per cent in 2019, and its gross domestic product (GDP) multiplied eight-fold from $8.9 billion in 2000 to $71 billion in 2018, he said, adding that the World Bank lists his country among the top 20 improvers in its latest Doing Business report. He touched on expanded access to telecommunications service, adding that there is “no restriction on Internet access.” Myanmar has also amplified national household electrification, deriving 60 per cent of electricity from hydropower. Citing recent calls for restrictions on investment and the imposition of sanctions, he said “such sweeping punitive actions will only hurt ordinary working people and their innocent family members.”
Turning to the situation in Rakhine State, he said the Government is working to expedite repatriation and create a “more conducive environment for verified returnees”. Myanmar is not opposed to accountability and has demonstrated this by establishing the Independent Commission of Enquiry and by opening a court of inquiry to investigate alleged human-rights violations. “Moreover, Myanmar is not a party to the Statute of the International Criminal Court, and the Court does not have jurisdiction over alleged crimes in our country,” he said. He strongly objected to the establishment of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar as a “discriminatory” measure that his country refuses to recognize or cooperate with, calling its $26 million budget a “wanton waste of the scarce resources.”
In the ensuing dialogue, the representative of Venezuela, speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, expressed concern over the selective approval of resolutions on specific countries by the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) and the Human Rights Council, the latter of which exploits human rights for political ends. The universal periodic review is the main mechanism to review human-rights issues. The observer for the European Union recalled that Myanmar is entering an electoral campaign and enquired how the international community can ensure people are able to freely make an electoral choice. He also asked the Special Rapporteur to describe the follow-up to the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar. The representative of Liechtenstein said accountability is a precondition for the return of the displaced Rohingya and asked to what extent the Special Rapporteur is cooperating with other United Nations mandate holders.
The representative of Bangladesh said the creation of a conducive environment is a prerequisite of the safe return of the Rohingya to Myanmar. The report provides recommendations, such as the referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court or the establishment of an international tribunal. The representative of the United Kingdom said the best way for Myanmar to address the report is to invite the Special Rapporteur or her successor to visit. He requested information on how civil society can help the Government move forward. The representative of the Czech Republic asked about the current situation of political prisoners, while the representative of Norway enquired how international businesses can help end the human-rights abuses in the country.
The representative of Luxembourg, associating himself with the European Union, asked how humanitarian aid can support minorities in Myanmar more effectively. He also asked what the international community can do to guarantee the freedom of expression of journalists and rights defenders. The representative of Australia asked how regional partners can help support the peace process and democratic transition. The representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, associating himself with the Non-Aligned Movement, said that country mandates are based on politicization and double standards.
Also speaking in the interactive dialogue were representatives of Ireland, France, Cuba, Germany, United States, Republic of Korea, Maldives, Burundi, Viet Nam, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, China and Thailand.
Ms. LEE replied to questions on how business can help the peace process by reiterating that companies should follow guiding principles of business and human rights, conduct due diligence before implementing projects in affected areas such as Chin and Rakhine, and to suspend those projects if necessary. Businesses should also refrain from engaging with military-affiliated companies and their subsidiaries.
On involving civil society, she said that any involvement must be holistic, local and victim-driven. Gender should also be considered. In communities facing harsh impacts due to the conflict, civil society organizations could be involved. Turning to freedom of expression and shrinking democratic space, she said a hate-speech law passed ahead of elections will stifle freedom of expression, and she called for an awareness campaign to promote tolerance and harmony. She also urged Internet companies to conduct human-rights due diligence and to allocate resources for content moderation, as social media has contributed to violence and hate speech in Myanmar. On international humanitarian aid, she pointed out that the “key issue is access,” as groups have had problems reaching affected areas, including the Kachin region.
In response to the question on political prisoners, she said as many as 606 people had been targeted for political activities, including 56 who are serving sentences; 363 are awaiting trial. Noting that she will follow up on her recommendations until the end of her mandate in March, upon which Myanmar will cooperate with a different Special Rapporteur, she expressed hope to continue the “frank and candid” conversations she had with Aung San Suu Kyi decades ago.
MARZUKI DARUSMAN, Chair of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, said many of the same serious crimes reported last October continue to be committed by Myanmar’s military. The near absence of accountability for grave human-rights violations also confirms previous conclusions that the cycle of impunity enables and fuels this reprehensible conduct by security forces. The blatant persecution of the Rohingya continues unabated. The situation of some 600,000 Rohingya remaining in Rakhine State is largely unchanged. The underlying persecutory structural and systemic policies and practices continue. “We conclude that there is a strong inference of continued genocidal intent on the part of the State in relation to the Rohingya, and there is a serious risk of genocide recurring,” he warned. Myanmar is failing in its obligations under the Genocide Convention to prevent genocide, to investigate genocide and to enact legislation criminalizing and punishing genocide.
The situation of internally displaced Rohingyas remains of the utmost concern, he said. Contrary to Government claims, camps for displaced persons have not been closed; those who live in them face daily hardship. The return of nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees to Rakhine State is “simply impossible” under current circumstances. Nowhere is there a safe and viable place to which they can return. Serious violations of human rights and of humanitarian law have been committed in a series of Tatmadaw attacks in northern Rakhine State and southern Chin State in recent months, amid conflict between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army. Civilians, mostly ethnic minorities, are suffering the brunt of this latest fighting, he said, urging the parties to stop the violence.
With that, he urged the Human Rights Council to mandate properly resourced, regular, robust and independent monitoring, investigations and reporting, and the General Assembly to grant the necessary political and financial support. For their part, Governments should consider the creation of an ad hoc tribunal, and indicate their willingness to exercise jurisdiction over the crimes under international law identified by this Mission. The human-rights catastrophe in Myanmar has not ended. The Government of Myanmar is defiant and at best unconcerned. This is not the time for complacency, and the situation remains urgent. Hundreds of thousands of victims rightfully expect no less than continued commitment by the international community to bring about accountability and justice, he said.
When the floor opened to questions and comments, the representative of Myanmar said his country’s participation in the interactive dialogue should not be interpreted as recognizing the International Independent Fact-finding Mission on Myanmar, its mandate or any of its reports. The Fact-Finding Mission Chair made unsubstantiated allegations and offered misleading information based on secondary sources. The Chair also completely ignored contradicting evidence and facts, including the situation experienced by an innocent Hindu minority, as well as other ethnic minorities in Rakhine State. Myanmar always takes the issue of accountability seriously, he said, stressing that perpetrators of all human-rights violations must be held accountable.
Calling the Independent Investigative Mechanism yet another form of unprecedented discriminatory scrutiny, he described the Government’s agenda for peace and national reconciliation as a national priority. Myanmar has also given high priority to finding a lasting solution to protracted problems in Rakhine State. The Government made efforts to solve the complex problems in Rakhine. However, the October 2016 terrorist attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on Myanmar Border Guard posts caused the initial outflow of displaced persons across the border, following counter-terrorism operations. The High Commissioner for Human Rights then visited Bangladesh to compile a flash report on the humanitarian situation. However, it was based on information gathered from interviews with displaced people in the Cox’s Bazar camps without established facts. This led to the formation of the Independent Fact-Finding Mission by the Human Rights Council. For these reasons, Myanmar objected to the Mission’s establishment.
Myanmar is seriously concerned about widespread terror threats posed by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in Cox’s Bazar, he said. Death threats and intimidation against displaced persons have made the repatriation process impossible to commence. There is an urgent need to address the security threats of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in the refugee camps and create conditions conducive to starting the repatriation process.
In the ensuing dialogue, the observer for the European Union asked the Independent Fact-Finding Mission Chair to describe steps for the General Assembly to take that are based on its recommendations, including for reporting on sexual and gender-based violence. The delegates of Australia and the United Kingdom asked how States can support the Mission’s work, while the representative of Iceland said Myanmar appears unwilling to end impunity, especially for its security forces. He asked how accountability can be ensured now that the mandate of the Independent Investigative Mechanism has ended, especially for gender-based violence. The representative of Bangladesh said the report highlights the lack of free movement for the 600,000 Rohingya still in Myanmar. This poses a concern for the return of those Rohingya outside of Myanmar, most of whom are in Bangladesh. While the crisis is complex, this cannot be an excuse for steering away from addressing its causes.
The representative of the Russian Federation said that on top of the politicized mandate of the Fact-Finding Mission there is now a partisan side. The Mission is presenting questionable conclusions as “gospel truth”, encroaching on the Security Council’s remit. Some recommendations propose a redrawing of Myanmar’s corporate sector with a change of ownership, which is reminiscent of a financial takeover. The representative of the United States asked what the international community can do to reduce the military’s economic influence.
Mr. DARUSMAN replied, first referring to the words of Myanmar’s representative, who recalled that the United Nations has been addressing the situation since 1992 — 27 years. To understand the truth, he encouraged delegates to read the first report on the situation in Myanmar and observe the consistent pattern of violations. He described atrocities that took place on 25 August 2017 as a “tragedy waiting to happen”.
More broadly, he said the involvement of the Tatmadaw in business correlates with their ability to commit atrocities. The Tatmadaw operate without the constraints of the national budget and have been able to commit atrocities with complete liberty. Any support for next steps should be in support of the Independent Investigative Mechanism on Myanmar, which is now tasked with preparing for eventual prosecution and accountability. There should be additional public reporting on what is happening in Myanmar, to monitor the implementation of all recommendations, starting with the Kofi Annan Advisory Committee on Rakhine State. Until today, before the Fact-Finding Mission completed its work, it may have been urgent to wait. Today, it is urgent to act, he said.
Also speaking were the representatives of Indonesia and Liechtenstein.
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
TOMÁS OJEA QUINTANA, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, said that the state of the country could be aptly summarized by a woman who had escaped it, whom he met during his last country visit in June. “No freedom, no commercial activities, surveillance, the risk of crackdown, no happiness for anyone in farming areas,” she said, adding: “People know when their human rights are violated and restricted even when they do not necessarily call them human rights.” He outlined the “alarming level” of food insecurity in the country, leading to half the population — 11 million people — being undernourished. In 2019, 140,000 children are estimated to be affected by undernutrition, and of those, 30,000 face an increased risk of death.
He said the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is violating its people’s right to food, through policies that divert economic resources away from their needs, through pervasive discrimination in the public-distribution system, by collectivizing farming and by failing to ensure conditions in which people can engage in free trade and exchange in market places, without the risk of extortion and criminalization. The vast majority of people in the country are engaged in such market activity for survival. These rampant unchecked practices are “ironically” leading to a growing gap between rich and poor. Sanctions worsened food insecurity, he observed, welcoming the Security Council’s efforts to exempt humanitarian actors from such measures, to enable them to operate.
Turning to restrictions on freedom, he said citizens are subject to surveillance and can only access media controlled by the Propaganda and Agitation Department. Those found using smuggled phones in border areas are imprisoned. Surveillance is further amplified by a peer-monitoring system that escapees describe as “suffocating”. In addition, people live in fear of being labelled as traitors, sent to a political prison and never to be seen again. He reiterated his call on the Government, previously rejected, to release political prisoners and to grant international observers access to these camps. Turning to enforced disappearances of foreign nationals in the 1970s and 1980s — including from Japan and the Republic of Korea — he underscored that this is “a continuing violation of the rights of those abducted, as well as their family members.” Expressing concern about recent forced repatriations of escapees in China to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, he stressed that they should not happen, given the principle of non-refoulement. The rights situation in the country has not improved in the three years since he took up his mandate, and still demands the international community’s strongest attention. Recalling the country’s participation — for the first time — in a human-rights workshop organized by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, he called for building on this momentum. Despite the ongoing intransigence of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea towards his mandate — signified by the empty seat before him today — he said he will persevere to find a solution to the problem.
When the floor opened for questions and comments, the observer for the European Union asked how the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s recent cooperation with the OHCHR can be extended, and how the international community can support the Special Rapporteur in his endeavour concerning family reunions. In a similar vein, representatives of several countries, including the Republic of Korea and Germany, asked how cooperation with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea can be built on and expedited with the help of the international community.
The representative of Argentina asked how efforts toward denuclearization and involving civil society participation could be achieved, a question echoed by the representative of France. The representative of the Czech Republic, associating herself with the European Union, asked how the international community can help victims of human-rights violations receive justice. The representative of the United Kingdom asked what can be done to end the country’s illegal weapons programme and the forced repatriation of escapees. The representative of Japan meanwhile called for the repatriation of its abducted citizens and asked if the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Seoul can help shift the focus of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from nuclear capacity to welfare. The representative of China reiterated her country’s commitment to helping in the denuclearization process, and asserted China’s right to repatriate citizens who escape the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, who are in her country illegally and as such “undermine orderly border control”.
A number of countries objected to the use of the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) to single out certain countries for human-rights violations, with the representative of Syria rejecting the “system of confrontation and ostracization”, which he said runs counter to the spirit of fraternal and friendly relations enshrined in the United Nations Charter. In a similar vein, the representative of the Russian Federation denounced the “open politicization” of the work programme, which is selective and “an unjustified expense of resources”.
The representatives of Cuba, Burundi, Iran and Belarus echoed their disapproval of selective politically motivated mandates, which are confrontational and do not constitute constructive dialogue.
Mr. QUINTANA responded that it was unfortunate the interactive dialogue lacked one concerned party — the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — and expressed concern about the “absolute lack of access” to the country he has experienced. Despite this lack of access, he said, his work relies on reliable sources and reflects the situation on the ground.
On the question of accountability, he recalled the recommendation of the 2014 report by the High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Security Council to refer the situation involving crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court — noting, however, that they refrained from doing so. “This is of great importance,” he stressed. “Let us not lose sight of this important task; it is crucial under international law.” It is also important to ensure an enduring transition process. On the possibility of cooperation, he said he has sought to ensure that other human-rights actors can begin some kind of intervention in terms of accountability, adding that the Government is cooperating with the universal periodic review.
Turning to denuclearization, he reiterated his stand that human rights must be brought into such negotiations. On family reunification, he emphasized that such human-rights questions “should not be used as negotiating chips”.
On escapees forcibly repatriated by China, he urged the country to consider each case carefully, under humanitarian principles, as they could be subject to abuse in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The representatives of the United States, Australia, Norway, Switzerland and Viet Nam also spoke.
ZHANG JUN (China) said it is completely normal for countries to have differences and disagreements. However, the United States and a few other countries have made attempts to use human rights to interfere in China’s internal affairs. There are some who like criticizing developing countries and giving orders on human rights from a self-claimed high moral ground. Some countries create trouble everywhere, leaving behind numerous problems. China’s development achievements are widely recognized, and making human-rights accusations against it is “barking up the wrong tree”. On a land of 9.6 million square kilometres, there is no fear of war or displacement. Nearly 1.4 billion people live in peace, freedom and happiness. This is human-rights protection in the best sense. He urged relevant countries to stop politicization and double standards, and to stop meddling in China’s internal affairs.
Right of Reply
The representative of the Philippines, speaking in exercise of the right of reply, referred to comments by Iceland’s delegate, and stressed that the Human Rights Council resolution mentioned was adopted by 18 members, which is a minority of its 47 members. Thus, its validity is questionable. The process leading to the text’s adoption violated United Nations principles, including the respect for sovereignty. The value of dialogue was cast aside and only the voice of the accuser was heard. The politicization of human rights does not do justice to the cause of human rights, she said.