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Democracy is sliding away in Myanmar, warns top rights investigator

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Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. Ms Lee and Special Rapporteur David Kaye condemned a Myanmar Court’s decision to charge two Reuters journalists for their reporting on Rohingya killings in Myanmar. UN Photo/Kim Haughton

Daily fighting in Myanmar, widespread internet blackouts and reporting restrictions, indicate that the shift to more democratic rule is “sliding away”, a senior UN-appointed independent rights investigator said on Wednesday.

Two-and-a-half years after hundreds of thousands of mainly Muslim ethnic Rohingya fled a campaign of State-led violence, Yanghee Lee said it was no longer enough for the international community to simply monitor grave abuses happening there.

In particular, the Special Rapporteur urged the UN Security Council in New York to establish an international tribunal “to adjudicate the crimes against humanity and war crimes” since 2011.

‘Walk the walk’

“This is where the international community must really walk the walk not talk the talk”, she insisted.

Speaking at a press conference in Geneva after presenting her last report to the Human Rights Council at the end of her six-year mandate, Ms. Lee highlighted concerns that Myanmar’s civilian Government had done too little to promote democratic rule.

There were still a lot of “old draconian laws” that could be “amended, reformed repealed” by the civilian administration, which rules the country in a power-sharing arrangement with the military, Ms. Lee explained.

Rather than tackle legislative reform, the civilian Government had passed even more repressive measures that had “stifled” freedom of expression.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t too late for its leader, former rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi, to do something about it,” the independent rights expert maintained.

“There is no evidence that shows that civilian Government is truly genuine about its commitment towards democracy…but when I said it’s not too late, it’s because the civilian Government still has a lot of power if it exercises it power in the right places.”

In addition to Human Rights Council resolutions condemning abuses in Myanmar and calling for victims’ justice, consternation about the alleged massacre of ethnic Rohingya has also led to recent rulings at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

In addition to this last initiative, brought by The Gambia on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), other countries have also expressed concern, including the Netherlands, Canada and the Maldives.

“I urge others to join in, who are parties to the Genocide Convention”, she said.

Rakhine state violence ongoing

Asked about the situation inside troubled Rakhine State, the Special Rapporteur noted that armed conflict was continuing there between the Arakan Army – an ethnic Rakhine armed group – and State forces known as the Tatmadaw.

“All sides to the hostilities are responsible for the violations and abuses that happen. But the Tatmadaw is the one that is systematically targeting civilian villages and even cultural sites,” she said, in particular, the Mrauk-U World Heritage Site, which has been destroyed.

Journalists gagged

On the issue of press freedom, the Special Rapporteur condemned new restrictions on journalists, including international wire reporters covering the Tatmadaw’s use of civilians as porters and labourers.

“That is what Reuters has been trying to do and the Tatmadaw doesn’t want them to do any more”, she said.

Energy investment leaving poorest behind

Turning to development challenges inside Myanmar, Ms. Lee acknowledged the Government’s bid to increase electricity supply throughout the country by building coal-fired power stations.

Shan state and Rakhine state needed energy investment, she said, noting that around half of the population doesn’t have access to enough electricity and many areas experience regular blackouts.

“My concern particularly when it comes to oil and gas particularly in relation to Rakhine where a lot of this investment activity is taking place, that Rakhine still remains one of the poorest parts of the country.”

Responding to the Special Rapporteur’s report in the Human Rights Council, Myanmar Progress insisted that despite many challenges, it had been “striving” to build an all-around democratic society.

Efforts had been made on national reconciliation, it insisted, while “battling” hate speech “offline and online” ahead of elections later this year. 

Amid appeals for much quicker action from Myanmar to repatriate nearly a million Rohingya refugees from neighbouring Bangladesh, the delegation maintained that this was the first priority of the Government.

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Human Rights

India must follow Supreme Court orders to protect 100 million migrant workers

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Migrant workers in India cook a meal. World Bank/Curt Carnemark

The Indian Government must urgently comply with a Supreme Court order to ensure the wellbeing of more than 100 million migrant workers, after coronavirus measures left them jobless, forcing them to travel long distances home, UN independent human rights experts said on Thursday.

“We are appalled at the disregard shown by the Indian Government towards internal migrant laborers, especially those who belong to marginalized minorities and lower castes”, said the Special Rapporteurs on the right to housing, Balakrishnan Rajagopal, and on extreme poverty, Olivier De Schutter.

Instead of protecting their rights, the experts maintained that the Government has not only failed to address migrants’ “dire humanitarian situation” but further exacerbated their vulnerability, “with police brutality and by failing to stop their stigmatization as ‘virus carriers’”.

Heed the Supreme Court

After losing their income and with many migrants forced by their landlords to vacate their homes, the experts said many were living in intolerable conditions, hungry and without shelter, saying: “We hope the Supreme Court order will be promptly implemented and help to dramatically improve the situation of internal migrant workers”.

The Supreme Court has ordered the Government to properly register them, ensure free transportation and provide the migrants with shelter, food and water until they reach their homes. 

Moreover, railway companies are mandated to ensure trains are available to transport them back to home villages, as requested by the Government.

Inadequate relief 

Many internal migrants have also been assaulted by police for violating the sudden lockdown orders put in place by the Indian Government on 24 March, which, that took no account of the difficulties many vulnerable people faced in complying with them.

“While we applaud the Government’s efforts so far to provide ‘relief packages’ for people living in poverty, and to schedule extra train rides, these have been clearly inadequate and insufficient due to the vast majority of internal migrant workers not qualifying for relief packages, and the lack of coordination among state governments for the transportation of internal migrants”, the independent experts said.

Although the scale of the COVID-19 crisis in India is “testing the Government’s commitment to protect the rights of the most vulnerable members of society”, they maintained that by urgently assisting internal migrant workers, in compliance with Supreme Court’s order, “it will give the Government the opportunity to show its willingness to comply with its responsibilities under human rights law.”

The experts’ call, also conveyed directly to the Indian Government, has been endorsed by Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri; the Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health, Dainius Pūras; and the Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Fernand de Varennes.

Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.

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Asian countries urged to honour right to freedom of expression, over pandemic fear

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, addresses the 41st Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva on 24 June 2019. UN Photo/Jean Marc Ferre

A dozen countries in the Asia-Pacific region have seen an alarming clampdown on freedom of expression during the COVID-19 crisis, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on Wednesday.

In her appeal to authorities that any action they take to stop the spread of false information should adhere to the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality, Ms. Bachelet said that “in these times of great uncertainty”, citizens had a right to voice their concerns.

Opinions must be heard

“Medical professionals, journalists, human rights defenders and the general public must be allowed to express opinions on vitally important topics of public interest, such as the provision of health care and the handling of the health and socio-economic crisis, and the distribution of relief items,” she said.

From Bangladesh to Vietnam and from Myanmar to the Philippines, the High Commissioner detailed how people had been fined, arrested or attacked for allegedly spreading misinformation online about COVID-19 or for criticizing their Government’s response.

In Cambodia, Ms Bachelet noted that UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) had documented multiple arrests – including that of a 14-year-old girl – for public comments and social media posts about the pandemic.

“A number have been charged with spreading so-called ‘fake news’ or ‘false information’, alleged incitement to commit a felony, and for allegedly plotting against the Government,” the High Commissioner said.

According to the UN human rights office, 14 individuals remain in detention, including 10 associated with the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the main opposition party that was dissolved in 2017.

Countries already have ‘fake news’ laws

More generally, the High Commissioner noted that many of the countries she highlighted already had laws to stop alleged “fake news” and online media that raised human rights concerns.

This legislation had also been used in other contexts to deter legitimate speech, especially public debate, criticism of government policy and suppress freedom of expression, she added.

In Myanmar, the Kayin State Court had convicted and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment the chief editor of the Dae Pyaw News Agency, on charges of wrongly publishing an article stating that one person died from the virus, the High Commissioner said.

He was arrested, charged, tried, and convicted in under one week after being accused of making a “statement that could cause or incite public fear or mutiny”.

While recognising the need to restrict misinformation or disinformation to protect public health – or incitement of hatred towards minority groups – this should not result in censorship, either purposeful or unintentional, Ms. Bachelet insisted.

“While Governments may have a legitimate interest in controlling the spread of misinformation in a volatile and sensitive context, this must be proportionate and protect freedom of expression”, she said.

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US must take ‘serious action’ to halt police killings of unarmed African Americans

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image credit: Flickr, Fibonacci Blue

The UN human rights chief on Thursday condemned the killing of 46-year-old George Floyd while in police custody in the city of Minneapolis, calling it the latest in “a long line of killings of unarmed African Americans by US police officers and members of the public”.

“I am dismayed to have to add George Floyd’s name to that of Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and many other unarmed African Americans who have died over the years at the hands of the police – as well as people such as Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin who were killed by armed members of the public”, said High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, in statement.

She spelled out that authorities in the United States must take “serious action” to stop such killings, and to ensure that justice is done when they do occur.

“Procedures must change, prevention systems must be put in place, and above all police officers who resort to excessive use of force, should be charged and convicted for the crimes committed”, the High Commissioner underscored.

A probe prioritized

The UN human rights chief welcomed the announcement by Federal authorities in Washington, that they would be prioritizing an investigation into the incident, but stressed that “in too many cases in the past, such investigations have led to killings being deemed justified on questionable grounds, or only being addressed by administrative measures.” 

“The role that entrenched and pervasive racial discrimination plays in such deaths must also be fully examined, properly recognized and dealt with”, she added.

Erupting protests

The killing has sparked violent protests in Minnesota’s largest city, with hundreds of demonstrators clashing with police clad in riot gear, over two nights of unrest.

Video captured at the scene on Monday, and posted on social media, shows a white police officer, using his knee to pin Mr. Floyd to the ground over the course of several minutes. Four officers involved in the incident have been dismissed, but none have so far been charged. The city’s Mayor, Jacob Frey, has appealed for calm, writing on Twitter that “we cannot let tragedy beget more tragedy”.

Violence won’t end police brutality

While empathizing with the anger unleashed by Mr. Floyd’s killing, the top UN rights official encouraged people in Minneapolis and elsewhere to protest peacefully.

 “Violence and destruction of property won’t solve the problem of police brutality and enshrined discrimination”, she said.

 “I urge protestors to express their demands for justice peacefully, and I urge the police to take utmost care not enflame the current situation even more with any further use of excessive force”, concluded the High Commissioner.

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