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There were still a lot of “old draconian laws” that could be “amended, reformed repealed” by the civilian administration, which rules the country in a power-sharing arrangement with the military, Ms.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

Migrants left stranded and without assistance by COVID-19 lockdowns

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At least 30,000 migrants are stranded at borders in West Africa according to the UN. IOM/Monica Chiriac

Travel restrictions during the COVID pandemic have been particularly hard on refugees and migrants who move out of necessity, stranding millions from home, the UN migration agency, IOM, said on Thursday. 

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the first year of the pandemic saw more than 111,000 travel restrictions and border closures around the world at their peak in December.  

These measures “have thwarted many people’s ability to pursue migration as a tool to escape conflict, economic collapse, environmental disaster and other crises”, IOM maintained. 

In mid-July, nearly three million people were stranded, sometimes without access to consular assistance, nor the means to meet their basic needs.  

In Panama, the UN agency said that thousands were cut off in the jungle while attempting to travel north to the United States; in Lebanon, migrant workers were affected significantly by the August 2020 explosion in Beirut and the subsequent surge of COVID-19 cases. 

Business as usual 

Border closures also prevented displaced people from seeking refuge, IOM maintained, but not business travellers, who “have continued to move fairly freely”, including through agreed ‘green lanes’, such as the one between Singapore and Malaysia.  

By contrast, those who moved out of necessity – such as migrant workers and refugees – have had to absorb expensive quarantine and self-isolation costs, IOM said, noting that in the first half of 2020, asylum applications fell by one-third, compared to the same period a year earlier.  

Unequal restrictions 

As the COVID crisis continues, this distinction between those who can move and those who cannot, will likely become even more pronounced, IOM said, “between those with the resources and opportunities to move freely, and those whose movement is severely restricted by COVID-19-related or pre-existing travel and visa restrictions and limited resources”. 

This inequality is even more likely if travel is allowed for anyone who has been vaccinated or tested negative for COVID-19, or for those with access to digital health records – an impossibility for many migrants. 

Health risks 

Frontier lockdowns also reduced options for those living in overcrowded camps with high coronavirus infection rates in Bangladesh and Greece, IOM’s report indicated.  

In South America, meanwhile, many displaced Venezuelans in Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Brazil, lost their livelihoods and some have sought to return home – including by enlisting the services of smugglers. 

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Clashes in Myanmar displace thousands

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As of the start of 2021, about one million people are in need of humanitarian aid and protection in Myanmar. Pictured here, an IDP camp in Myanmar’s Kachin province. (file photo) UNICEF/Minzayar Oo

Clashes between the Myanmar security forces and regional armed groups, which have involved military airstrikes, have reportedly claimed the lives of at least 17 civilians in several parts of the country, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Wednesday. 

In a humanitarian update, issued on Tuesday, the Office also noted unconfirmed reports of several thousand people fleeing the hostilities in recent days in the Kayin and Bago regions, in central Myanmar, near Yangon. A medical clinic is also reported to have been damaged in gunfire in a township in Mon state, also in the central part of the country. 

An estimated 7,100 civilians are now internally displaced in the two regions due to indiscriminative attacks by the Myanmar Armed Forces (MAF), and the Karen National Union (KNU), as well as growing insecurity since December 2020, according to the update. 

UNHCR [the UN refugee agency] is engaging with partners on the ground to explore possibilities to deliver critical humanitarian assistance and support to the displaced. A further 3,848 people in Kayin State have crossed the border to Thailand since 27 March, due to fears of further hostilities in the area”, OCHA said. 

The majority are believed to have returned to Myanmar with Thai authorities saying that 1,167  remain in Thailand as of 1 April, the Office added. 

‘Deep concern’ over continued impact of the crisis 

Meanwhile, the wider political crisis across Myanmar continues to hit life hard across the southeast Asian nation. 

The UN human rights office (OHCHR) has received credible reports of at least 568 women, children and men, have been killed since the military coup on 1 February, though there are fears that total is likely much higher. 

Concerns have also been raised over the impact on Myanmar’s health and education systems, as well as the long-term effects of the violence on children

The longer the current situation of widespread violence continuous, the more it will contribute to a continuous state of distress and toxic stress for children, which can have a lifelong impact on their mental and physical health, senior UN officials warned last week. 

Since 1 February, there have been at least 28 attacks against hospitals and health personnel and seven attacks against schools and school personnel, UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told reporters at a press briefing at the UN Headquarters, in New York, on Tuesday. 

“Attacks against health volunteers and against ambulances are preventing life-saving help from reaching civilians wounded by security forces,” he added. 

UN agencies have also reported reported sharp increases in food and fuel prices in many parts of Myanmar, on the back of supply chain and market disruptions. Humanitarians worry that if the price trends continue, they will “severely undermine” the ability of the poorest and most vulnerable to put enough food on the family table.

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Guterres: Use COVID-19 recovery to make inclusion ‘a reality’

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Building a more inclusive and accessible world that recognizes the contributions of all people, including persons with disabilities must be a “key goal” as countries work to recover from COVID-19 pandemic, United Nations Secretary-General said on Friday, commemorating World Autism Awareness Day. 

“The crisis has created new obstacles and challenges. But efforts to reignite the global economy offer an opportunity to reimagine the workplace to make diversity, inclusion and equity a reality”, Secretary-General António Guterres said

“Recovery is also a chance to rethink our systems of education and training to ensure that persons with autism are afforded opportunities for realizing their potential”, he added. 

Breaking ‘old habits’ crucial 

Mr. Guterres also emphasized that breaking old habits will be crucial. For persons with autism, he added, access to decent work on an equal basis requires creating an enabling environment, along with reasonable accommodations. 

“To truly leave no one behind in pursuit of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, we must realize the rights of all persons with disabilities, including persons with autism, ensuring their full participation in social, cultural and economic life”, he said. 

“Let us work together with all persons with disabilities and their representative organizations to find innovative solutions to recover better and build a better world for all.” 

Inequalities worsened by COVID-19

According to the UN World Health Organization (WHO), one in 160 children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD begins in childhood and tends to persist into adolescence and adulthood. 

Intervention during early childhood is important to promote the optimal development and well-being of persons with an ASD, WHO added, emphasizing the importance of monitoring of child development as part of routine maternal and child health care. 

While some individuals with ASD are able to live independently, others have severe disabilities and require life-long care and support. Persons with an ASD are also often subject to stigma and discrimination, including unjust deprivation of health care, education, protection under law, and opportunities to engage and participate in their communities.

The World Day

The World Autism Awareness Day, to be commemorated annually on 2 April, was established in December 2007 by the UN General Assembly, which affirmed that “ensuring and promoting the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities is critical to achieving internationally agreed development goals”. 

The General Assembly also highlighted the importance of early diagnosis and appropriate research and interventions for the growth and development of the individual, and called for efforts to raise awareness throughout society, including at the family level, regarding children with autism. 

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