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There were still a lot of “old draconian laws” that could be “amended, reformed repealed” by the civilian administration, which rules the country in a power-sharing arrangement with the military, Ms.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

Myanmar: From political crisis, to ‘multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe’

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What began as a coup by the Myanmar military has ‘rapidly morphed’ into an all-out attack against the civilian population that has become increasingly widespread and systematic, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned on Tuesday.

Speaking at the 47th session of the Human Rights Council, Michelle Bachelet reiterated that the situation in the country has evolved from a political crisis in early February to a “multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe”, repeating a formulation she first used a month ago.

Since the coup, nearly 900 people have been killed while around 200,000 people have been forced to flee their homes because of violent military raids on neighbourhoods and villages.

Downward spiral

“Suffering and violence throughout the country are devastating prospects for sustainable development and raise the possibility of State failure or a broader civil war”, she cautioned.

Ms. Bachelet explained that the catastrophic developments since February have had a severe and wide-ranging impact on human rights, peace and security, and sustainable development.

“They are generating clear potential for massive insecurity, with fallout for the wider region”.

The UN High Commissioner urged the international community to stand united in pressuring the military to halt its continuing attacks on the people of Myanmar and return the country to democracy, reflecting the ‘clear will of the people’.

The UN must act

She said the UN system must not fail the country a second time”, she added, citing the 2019 review of UN action in the country, by Gert Rosenthal.

She also advised swift action to restore a working democracy before the human rights situation in the country deteriorates further.

“This should be reinforced by Security Council action. I urge all States to act immediately to give effect to the General Assembly’s call to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar”, Ms. Bachelet said.

Hunger, violence and poverty

Ms. Bachelet said COVID had had a ‘disastrous’ impact on an economy that relied on remittances, the garment industry and other sectors which have been devastated by the resultant global recession.

UN Agencies estimate that over 6 million people are severely in need of food aid and forecast that nearly half the population could fall into poverty by early 2022.

“A void has been opened for the most harmful – and criminal – forms of illicit economy to flourish”, she underscored.

Meanwhile, a countrywide general strike, combined with the widespread dismissal of civil servants – including educators and medical personnel – has cut off many essential services in the country.

Since 1 February, at least 240 attacks on health-care facilities, medical personnel, ambulances and patients have disabled COVID-19 testing, treatment and vaccination.

Intense violence and repression

She denounced indiscriminate airstrikes, shelling, civilian killings and mass displacement. Civil voices are also being silenced: over 90 journalists have been arrested and eight major media outlets shuttered.

“We have also received multiple reports of enforced disappearances; brutal torture and deaths in custody; and the arrest of relatives or children in lieu of the person being sought”, she said.

New equation

Despite the repression, the UN High Commissioner indicated that the military leadership has not successfully secured control of Myanmar, nor won the international recognition it seeks.

“On the contrary, its brutal tactics have triggered a national uprising that has changed the political equation”, she said.

She added that people across the country continue peaceful protests despite the massive use of lethal force, including heavy weaponry, and a ‘civil disobedience movement has brought many military-controlled government structures to a standstill’.

Some people, in many parts of Myanmar, have taken up arms and formed self-protection groups. These newly formed groups have launched attacks in several locations, to which the security forces have responded with disproportionate force, she noted.

Consequences

“I am concerned that this escalation in violence could have horrific consequences for civilians. All armed actors must respect and protect human rights and ensure that civilians and civilian structures such as health centres and schools are protected”.

 “Any future democratic government in Myanmar must have the authority to exercise effective civilian control over the military. The international community should build upon the range of international accountability mechanisms already engaged, until transitional justice measures also become genuinely possible at the national level”, the High Commissioner concluded.  

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Amid COVID job losses, ‘high food prices are hunger’s new best friend’

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Job losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic combined with high food prices are making it hard for millions of families to get enough to eat, the World Food Programme (WFP) warned on Thursday. 

WFP estimates that a record 270 million people worldwide are acutely food insecure or at high risk this year, a 40 per cent jump from 2020. 

“High food prices are hunger’s new best friend. We already have conflict, climate and COVID-19 working together to push more people into hunger and misery. Now food prices have joined the deadly trio,” said Arif Husain, Chief Economist at the UN agency. 

Food price inflation 

WFP said countries more likely to experience high food price inflation are those that depend on food imports, or where climatic or conflict shocks could disrupt local food production, or those suffering from macro-economic fragility, with some of the highest price increases found in the Middle East.  

Meanwhile, currency depreciation has further driven up local food prices in many countries, such as Zimbabwe, Syria, Ethiopia and Venezuela. 

WFP’s latest Market Monitor, which provides information on price changes for common staples, reveals that in Lebanon, where economic turmoil has accelerated over the past year, the average price of wheat flour was 50 per cent higher in March through May than in the previous three months. The year-on-year price rise was 219 per cent. 

In war-torn Syria, cooking oil has increased by nearly 60 per cent, and by 440 per cent year-on-year. 

Mozambique, which is confronting a conflict in the north, is among “high food price hotspots” in Africa.  The price of cassava there shot up by 45 per cent in March through May, compared to the previous three months. 

The picture is reflected across international markets, according to the Food Price Index published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).   

After rising for 12 consecutive months, food prices dropped slightly in June, reaching 124.6, which is just below the peak of 136.7 a decade ago. At the same time, the cost of a basic food basket has risen by more than 10 per cent in nine of the more than 80 countries where WFP operates. 

Trouble for families 

WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and its food assistance can make the difference between life or death for millions facing hunger. 

While food price hikes directly impact the people it serves, they have also affected millions of families whose incomes have been decimated by the pandemic.  

The crisis could push as many as 97 million people worldwide into poverty by the end of the year, according to the World Bank. 

“If you’re a family that already spends two thirds of your income on food, hikes in the price of food already spell trouble. Imagine what they mean if you’ve already lost part or all of your income because of COVID-19,” said Mr. Husain. 

WFP explained how high food prices affect its work, first by driving up the number of people who need help.  At the same time, the cost of commodities for food assistance operations is increased, with the agency paying 13 per cent more for wheat during the first four months of the year than it did in 2020. 

WFP is aiming to reach nearly 140 million people worldwide this year, its biggest operation ever.

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Famine knocking at the door of 41 million worldwide

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World Food Programme (WFP) food distribution in Kaya, Burkina Faso. WFP/Mahamady Ouedraogo

Famine is already present in four countries but millions more people are at risk, the World Food Programme (WFP) warned on Tuesday, underscoring the need for urgent funding and humanitarian access to reach those in need. 

Recent analysis by the UN agency reveals 41 million people in 43 countries “are teetering on the very edge of famine”, up from 27 million two years ago. 

Help needed now 

“I am heartbroken at what we’re facing in 2021. We now have four countries where famine-like conditions are present”, WFP chief David Beasley told its Executive Board on Monday, according to a press release. 

He described the situation as “just tragic”, as “these are real people with real names.”  

WFP said 584,000 people are already experiencing famine-like conditions in Ethiopia, Madagascar, South Sudan and Yemen.   

Nigeria and Burkina Faso are also of particular concern as they have pockets where famine-like conditions are present. 

“In Somalia in 2011, 260,000 people died of hunger – and by the time the famine was actually declared – half of that number had already died,” Mr. Beasley recalled. “We can’t debate the numbers to death when people need our help now.” 

Conflict, climate change and currency depreciation 

Hunger has risen due to conflict, climate change and economic shocks, WFP said.  However, soaring prices for basic foods have also compounded the situation, with the global cost of maize rising almost 90 per cent year-on-year, for example. 

In many countries, currency depreciation is also a factor, the agency added.  This has driven prices even higher, stoking food insecurity in places such as Lebanon, Nigeria, Sudan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. 

WFP is this year mounting its biggest operation ever, targeting 139 million people.  With sufficient funding and access, the agency said it can provide them with lifesaving food and nutritional assistance. 

Mr. Beasley underlined the urgent need for support. 

“I want to emphasize just how bad it is out there. Today, 41 million people are literally knocking on famine’s door. The price tag to reach them is about $6 billion. We need funding and we need it now,” he said

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