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There were still a lot of “old draconian laws” that could be “amended, reformed repealed” by the civilian administration, which rules the country in a power-sharing arrangement with the military, Ms.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

No safe harbour: lifting the lid on a misunderstood trafficking crime

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photo © UNICEF/Noorani

The crime of harbouring, in which victims of human trafficking are accommodated or forced to stay in a specific location, is not universally understood by courts around the world. A new UN study aims to address that issue, and improve protection for victims.

A journey of exploitation

Harbouring is one of five actions that constitute an ‘act’ in the internationally recognised definition of human trafficking, and is often used by prosecutors and judges for convictions of this crime.

The act can take place before and during exploitation, or between periods of abuse, encompassing a wide variety of settings, including brothels, private homes, factories, farms, or fishing vessels.

These locations can be dangerous, inhumane and unsanitary, and cn be controlled by criminals involved in the trafficking network.  

In another case, victims who had been brought from Thailand to Australia were harboured during transit and at the place of exploitation: while being transported the victims were accommodated in hotels and accompanied by minders.

Once they were received by the offenders, the victims were either accommodated in the brothel where they were forced to work, or alternatively stayed at the offenders’ house, and were transported to and from the brothel each day.

Trafficking victims can also be subjected to harbouring once they arrive at the place of exploitation. In a case from the Dominican Republic, the offenders, a married couple, recruited a Chinese national to work in their business.

They promised to pay her and provide her with food. Instead, she was not paid, forced into domestic servitude and subjected to abuse.

A misunderstood concept

However, a new publication from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has found that there is neither a uniform understanding of the act of harbouring, nor a consistent approach to this concept during court proceedings.

“Harbouring is one of the most frequent acts when committing human trafficking, but the concept is not interpreted in the same way throughout the world,” says Martin Hemmi, the UNODC expert who led the study. 

“Some countries require the victims to be concealed or moved between locations for harbouring to be considered as an act of human trafficking. Others stipulate a minimum amount of time for the harbouring process,” adds Mr. Hemmi. “It is important to fully understand the concept to get justice for victims of this crime.”

The language barrier

Further findings show there are different meanings of the word ‘harbouring’ in the various language versions of the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol,  which is the world’s primary legal instrument to combat this crime.

In French and Arabic, the word used for harbouring has a positive connotation in the sense of hosting, while in English, Chinese and Russian, it can be perceived as having a negative meaning in the sense of hiding or concealing.

“Due to these discrepancies, the same conduct is considered human trafficking in one country but not necessarily in another,” says Mr. Hemmi.  

“This has wide consequences. For the perpetrator, it can have an effect on the sentence. For the victim, it has an impact on rights and protection measures. For the courts, it can hamper requests for legal assistance and international cooperation.” 

Wherever and however it occurs, harbouring with the intent of exploitation is an act of human trafficking and a violation of the victim’s rights and dignity, says Martin Hemmi.  

“We hope that our new study will be used by investigators, prosecutors and judges to lead to a better understanding of this terrible crime and support measures to effectively protect victims and punish traffickers,” he concludes.

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Human Rights

Only ‘real equality’ can end vicious cycle of poverty

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Children play outside a metal polishing workshop in a slum in Uttar Pradesh, India. © UNICEF/Niklas Halle'n

Although poverty and privilege “continue to reproduce themselves in vicious cycles”, it is possible to break the chain and shift the paradigm, an independent UN human rights expert told the General Assembly on Wednesday. 

Presenting his reportThe persistence of poverty: how real equality can break the vicious cycle, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Olivier De Shutter, said that “with political will”, it is possible to end centuries of entrenched inequality and “move from fate to opportunity”.  

Early investment 

“Investing in early childhood, promoting inclusive education, given young adults a basic income financed through inheritance taxes, and combating anti-poor discrimination are the key ingredients needed to break the cycles of advantage and disadvantage”, Mr. De Shutter said in his statement.  

Acknowledging that many countries pride themselves on ensuring high levels of social mobility, the human rights expert stated that “the truth is that the persistence of privilege at the top, and deprivation at the bottom, are all too commonplace.” 

“The top 10 percent of people living in OECD countries control 52 percent of total net wealth, while the bottom 60 percent own just over 12 percent, condemning the poor to a lifetime of poverty”, he said. According to the report, based on data from countries which are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), it takes four to five generations for children in low-income households to reach the mean income in their country. In emerging countries such as Brazil, Colombia or South Africa, it can take up to nine or even more generations.  

Tougher with time 

Observing that children born in disadvantaged families were denied equal opportunity, the Special Rapporteur examined the channels through which poverty is perpetuated, in the areas of health, housing, education and employment. 

“Children born in poor families have less access to healthcare, decent housing, quality education and employment than those in better-off households”, De Shutter said. “This dramatically reduces their chances of breaking free from the poverty trap”.  

Describing the outcomes as “appalling”, the Rapporteur added that children born in a family experiencing poverty are more than three times as likely to be poor, aged 30, than those who were never poor. 

Poverty costs 

The UN rights expert reminded that child poverty is not only “morally unconscionable and a human rights violation”, but also expensive. “In the United States, child poverty costs over one trillion dollars annually, or 5.4% of its GDP, but for each dollar invested on reducing it, seven dollars would be saved,” said the expert.  

Calling for and end to the myth that inequality is an incentive that encourages people to work harder, Mr. De Shutter said that the facts point to the exact opposite: “Inequality lowers social mobility and entrenches advantage and disadvantage over decades. When we fetishize merit, we stigmatize those in poverty or with low incomes, and blame them for their own condition”.  

Call for action 

Stressing that “no child should be penalized for being born in poverty” in mind, and stating that, in fact, “poverty is a failure not of the individual, but of society”, Mr. De Shutter called on governments to act now, “before another generation is condemned to the same fate as their parents”.  

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Human Rights

Restore sexual, reproductive health rights lost during COVID, rights expert urges

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Adolescent girls attend a support group discussion on women’s health. © UNICEF/Tapash Paul

Sexual and reproductive health rights, are human rights, the independent UN expert on the right to health reminded Member States in the General Assembly on Wednesday, saying that it was essential to restore services in the field, that have been eroded during the COVID-19 pandemic

“Millions of women globally had limited or no access to maternal and new-born healthcare, some 14 million women lost access to contraception, and specialized services for victims of gender-based violence became inaccessible, when they were needed most”, said Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng.

The Special Rapporteur pointed out that lockdowns, movement restrictions and diversion of funds due to COVID-19 have “jeopardized access to essential sexual and reproductive health services”.

In presenting her report on the effect of the pandemic on physical and mental health services, she also spoke of “new measures and laws in place across regions, further restricting access to safe abortion, a component of sexual and reproductive services encompassed in the right to health”.

Reversing a legacy

As part of the right to health, the UN expert called on States to move beyond the COVID-19 pandemic to rebuild and strengthen health systems for advancing sexual and reproductive health rights for all.

“Governments must remove obstacles and ensure full access to quality services, including maternal health care, contraception and abortion services, screening for reproductive cancers and comprehensive sexual education”, she said.

However, Dr. Mofokeng noted that many obstacles continue to stand between individuals and their exercise of their rights to health, rooted in patriarchy and colonialism, and others in structural and systemic inequalities.

“Patriarchal oppression is universal, permeates all societies and is at the very origin of the erosion of autonomy and the control of girls and women’s bodies and sexuality to the detriment of their enjoyment of sexual and reproductive rights”, she spelled out.

“Colonialism has permeated patriarchy across regions and its legacy continues today through laws, policies and practices that deny or restrict sexual and reproductive rights and criminalize gender diverse identities and consensual adult same-sex acts”, added the Special Rapporteur.

Rooted in law

She reminded governments that sexual and reproductive health rights are rooted in binding human rights treaties, jurisprudence, and consensus outcome documents of international conferences.

“I call on States to respect and protect key principles of autonomy, bodily integrity, dignity and well-being of individuals, especially in relation to sexual and reproductive health rights”, she said.

“I pledge to engage with States and all relevant actors to uphold the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”.

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