Intensity of War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity Have Increased in Myanmar, Independent Mechanism tells Human Rights Council

Deputy High Commissioner Expresses Concern about Proposed Anti-Terrorism Bill and Law to Regulate Media Broadcasting in Sri Lanka

The Human Rights Council this morning held an interactive dialogue on the report of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, and started an interactive dialogue on the written update of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka.  The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Cameroon also addressed the Council.

Nicholas Koumjian, Head of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, said last year he reported to this Council an increase in serious international crimes committed in Myanmar.  Tragically, the frequency and intensity of war crimes and crimes against humanity had only increased in recent months, with more brazen aerial bombings and indiscriminate shelling, resulting in the deaths of innocent civilians, including children; increased executions of captured combatants and civilians; and intentional burnings of homes and villages. 

The Mechanism was currently sharing information and evidence with three ongoing proceedings focused on crimes committed against the Rohingya at the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, and in Argentina.  It was finalising three analytical reports to share with these authorities concerning the military chain of command in Rakhine state; the failure of Myanmar authorities to investigate or punish sexual and gender-based crimes; and the organised spread of hate speech content on Facebook by the Myanmar military during the 2017 clearance operations.  Mr. Koumjian said the people of Myanmar were suffering deeply from the effects of these ongoing horrific crimes.  The Mechanism was committed to pursuing justice for them and focusing all its efforts to ensure that the perpetrators would one day be held to account.

In the discussion, some speakers said they fully supported the work of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar.  They thanked the Mechanism for its work, which was being conducted in difficult and dangerous conditions.  The report revealed that the situation in Myanmar continued to be tragic.  The population suffered from ongoing fighting resulting in numerous human rights violations.  Many speakers fully condemned all human rights violations and abuses in Myanmar and called for an immediate end to brutal attacks on civilians, including the Rohingya.  Some speakers expressed concern about the continued politicised mandates against Myanmar, including the Mechanism.  Only good will and the cooperation of the country would lead to tangible results on the ground.  Some speakers called for the international community to refrain from putting pressure on the Government and for human rights defenders to undertake an unbiased approach and expand the space for cooperation.

The Council then started an interactive dialogue on the written update of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka.

Nada Al-Nashif, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, presenting the written update of the High Commissioner on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka, said one year after the remarkable protest movement demanding deep political and democratic reforms, the transformation that was hoped for to address long-standing challenges had still not materialised.  The international community, including international financial institutions, should keep on supporting Sri Lanka in its recovery, by providing the fiscal space needed while pressing for genuine progress in governance, transparency and accountability. 

Ms. Al-Nashif said the report provided an analysis of concerns with some forthcoming legislation, in particular the proposed Anti-Terrorism Bill replacing the Prevention of Terrorism Act and a new law to regulate media broadcasting, and urged a moratorium on the use of the Act in the meantime, and for the review of long-standing cases under the Act to be expedited.  Fourteen years since the war ended, tens of thousands of victims and their families continued to suffer in agony and grief as they waited for truth, justice and remedy.  The report recommended that the Government accelerate investigations and prosecutions in emblematic cases of human rights violations, in compliance with international human rights standards.

Sri Lanka, speaking as a country concerned, reiterated that the Government had consistently rejected resolutions 46/1 and 51/1 that led to the setting up of the so-called ‘Accountability Project’.  The Government also rejected the written update, its conclusions and recommendations.  Sri Lanka had repeatedly pointed out that this was an unproductive and unhelpful drain on the resources of the Council and its members.  For these reasons, Sri Lanka would not cooperate with it.  However, Sri Lanka would continue to engage constructively with other mechanisms of the Council that had been productive and beneficial, such as the Universal Periodic Review process.  Sri Lanka remained firmly committed to pursuing tangible progress on human rights through domestic institutions and had made significant progress. 

In the discussion, some speakers said as the recovery continued, economic reform measures must uphold the economic, social and cultural rights of the people of Sri Lanka.  The Government must promptly hold legally prescribed elections, which were now overdue, and safeguard the fundamental rights of peaceful assembly, expression and association.  Sri Lanka had made important recent commitments on land issues and devolution of political authority.  Some speakers encouraged Sri Lanka to turn these commitments into meaningful action and deliver long-awaited results.  Sri Lanka still had a long way to go to fulfil commitments to justice, accountability, and reconciliation.  Some speakers deplored the politicisation of human rights, and their use as a pretext to interfere in the national and sovereign affairs of certain countries. 

Speaking in the discussion on Myanmar were Finland on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic countries, European Union, Pakistan (on behalf of Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Liechtenstein, Egypt, Luxembourg, Costa Rica, Belgium, Netherlands, France, United States, Japan, Switzerland, Türkiye, Malta, United Nations Children’s Fund, China, Malawi, Canada, Malaysia, Indonesia, Romania, Russian Federation, South Africa, Bangladesh, Australia, United Kingdom, Venezuela, Mauritania, Gambia, Iran, Bulgaria and Belarus.

Also speaking were CIVICUS – World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Centre pour les Droits Civils et Politiques – Centre CCPR, Southeast Asia Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression Caucus (ASC), Inc., International-Lawyers.Org, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, iuventum e.V., International Bar Association, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, International Commission of Jurists, and Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada.

Speaking in the discussion on Sri Lanka were New Zealand, European Union, United Kingdom, Oman, Liechtenstein, Egypt, Luxembourg, Germany, France, United States, Japan, Israel, Switzerland, Türkiye, Canada and Cuba.

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here.  All meeting summaries can be found here.  Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s fifty-fourth regular session can be found here.

The Council will reconvene at 3 p.m. this afternoon to continue the interactive dialogue on the written update of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka, followed by an interactive dialogue on the oral update of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan.

Interactive Dialogue with the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar

Report

The Council has before it the report of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (A/HRC/54/19).

Presentation of Report

NICHOLAS KOUMJIAN, Head of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, presenting the fifth annual report of the Mechanism, said last year he reported to this Council an increase in serious international crimes committed in Myanmar.  Tragically, the frequency and intensity of war crimes and crimes against humanity had only increased in recent months, with, in the past year, more brazen aerial bombings and indiscriminate shelling, resulting in the deaths of innocent civilians, including children; increased executions of captured combatants and civilians; and intentional burnings of homes and villages.  There had also been a rise in the number of arrests without due process and there was credible evidence that some detainees had been subjected to torture, sexual violence, and other severe mistreatments.

The ongoing violence had forced the Mechanism to expand its inquiries to many parts of the country, but it retained its commitment to and focus on collecting and analysing evidence of the campaign against the Rohingya population during the 2016 and 2017 clearance operations, having collected compelling evidence of the widespread burning of Rohingya villages and the assaults and killings of civilians. 

The quantity of evidence and information the Mechanism had been able to collect in the past year from individuals and organizations was unprecedented and frankly, unanticipated.  With this increased workload and its limited resources, the Mechanism had had to strategically focus investigations on the gravest crimes, where the impact on victims had been the most severe.  The Mechanism continued to face the challenge of not having access to Myanmar: repeated requests for information and access had been ignored by the military authorities.

The Council did not create the Mechanism to simply place evidence in storage, but to use the evidence to facilitate justice and accountability in courts and tribunals willing and able to prosecute these cases.  The Mechanism was currently sharing information and evidence with three ongoing proceedings focused on crimes committed against the Rohingya at the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, and in Argentina.  It was finalising three analytical reports to share with these authorities concerning: the military chain of command in Rakhine state; the failure of Myanmar authorities to investigate or punish sexual and gender-based crimes; and the organised spread of hate speech content on Facebook by the Myanmar military during the 2017 clearance operations.

The Myanmar people were suffering deeply from the effects of these ongoing horrific crimes. The Mechanism was committed to pursuing justice for them and focusing all its efforts to ensure that the perpetrators would one day be held to account.

Discussion

In the discussion, some speakers said they fully supported the work of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar.  They thanked the Mechanism for its work, which was being conducted in difficult and dangerous conditions.  The Mechanism’s increased cooperation with civil society and initiatives was welcomed, as were the financial investigations on issues that had had a direct impact on victim communities.  The work greatly contributed to accountability efforts.  Many speakers also conveyed their sympathy regarding the devastating earthquakes in Morocco. 

A number of speakers said the report revealed that the situation in Myanmar continued to be tragic.  The population suffered from ongoing fighting resulting in numerous human rights violations.  It outlined the organised command structure of the Myanmar military, and how it may have deliberately prepared and executed international crimes, including sexual and gender-based violence.  Within the report, there was also strong evidence that serious international crimes, including the war crimes of indiscriminate targeting of civilians, the intentional killing of civilians and combatants who were detained, as well as a large-scale destruction of civilian dwellings and other civilian buildings had been and continued to be committed against the people of Myanmar.  The report laid out details of sexual and gender-based violence, torture, extrajudicial killings, enlisting children, burning and destroying civilian objects and other crimes, some of which could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.  The refusal of the Myanmar authorities to cooperate with the Mechanism was a significant injustice. 

A number of speakers fully condemned all human rights violations and abuses in Myanmar and called for an immediate end to brutal attacks on civilians, including the Rohingya.  The “junta” was urged to fully cooperate with the Mechanism, respect human rights, and uphold the rule of law.  Many of those speaking called on the Myanmar armed forces to immediately halt the use of violence against civilians, including persons belonging to ethnic and religious minorities; create the conditions for a safe and dignified return of Rohingya to Myanmar; facilitate the unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid; adopt a moratorium on the death penalty; release political detainees; and allow the population to exercise their rights, including the human rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

Some speakers were appreciative of the Mechanism’s efforts to collate testimonial evidence, including by conducting interviews with witnesses, survivors and defectors.  They saluted the brave witnesses and individuals who had shared information with the Mechanism, often at great personal risk.  In a time when the quest for justice seemed increasingly difficult and elusive, the work of the Mechanism served as a beacon of hope.  It sent a powerful message that impunity would not be tolerated and that those who committed heinous acts would be held accountable.  Accountability needed to be part of the solution for Myanmar.  States in the region were called on to support witness and investigative interviews in their territories.  The information provided for ongoing court cases was an important cornerstone for justice for the people in Myanmar, in particular the Rohingya Muslims.  It was vital that perpetrators of human rights violations were held accountable and brought to justice. 

A number of speakers expressed concern at the continued politicised mandates against Myanmar, including the Mechanism.  Only good will and the cooperation of the country would lead to tangible results of the ground.  Speakers called for the international community to refrain from putting pressure on the Government and for human rights defenders to undertake an unbiased approach and expand the space for cooperation.  Efforts of some countries to use the Council to politicise the situation of Myanmar should not be supported.  For four years now, the Mechanism had been imposed on Myanmar and there was now another questionable report, without being able to hear the opinion of the country concerned.  Myanmar should be commended for efforts made in achieving human rights. 

Among other questions, speakers asked the Mechanism how States could facilitate work at a technological level with a view to making the operations safer and more secure?  What other support was needed from States?  How could the international community further support the Mechanism’s collaboration with civil society?  What actions could the international community take to provide stronger protection for witnesses?  How had dialogue with civil society most contributed to the work of the Mechanism?  What more could Member States do to facilitate the Mechanism’s collection of evidence and witness statements? 

Concluding Remarks

NICHOLAS KOUMJIAN, Head of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, in concluding remarks, said independent organizations were a key part of the investigations, as they pointed to where key evidence could be found.  Many were frustrated with the fact that much information was not shared: this was because the Mechanism was conducting a criminal investigation, and much of the information shared was confidential.  However, the Mechanism understood that it needed to share more on what it was doing, how it was doing it, and what it could not do.  It was collecting evidence, and needed the permission of the States where it was operating to do just that – it was very important for States to work with the Mechanism, and allow it access to their territory.  Witness protection was key, and the Mechanism gave it the highest priority.  The Mechanism was not a police force, however, and did not have the ability to protect individuals: for that, it required the cooperation of States.  Some of the key witnesses were those with inside information, and States should provide assistance to allow their relocation to places where they would be safe. 

The Mechanism also needed sustainable resources.  It was trying to compensate by being very innovative in how it approached collecting evidence and communicating, and was using the latest technologies to find information and preserve it in a safe way to be used in court.  It was also using the latest and most secure technologies to communicate with those who were not in a safe place.  Another challenge was one caused by its own success – it had collected millions of items of evidence in local languages, and required more resources to deal with these. 

On the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Five-Point Plan and what the Mechanism could do to help with the political solution – this was not part of its mandate, but it could contribute to the implementation of the Five-Point Plan.  Its first recommendation was to end the violence, and send a message to perpetrators that evidence was being collected, and the international community was united to ensure that one day there would be justice.  The Mechanism verified information by collecting all information, and tried to engage directly with those who held the information, collecting witness statements signed under oath directly from those concerned, believing this contributed directly to the goal of having information that was reliable for those who would be investigating in the future.

Interactive Dialogue on the Written Update by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Situation of Human Rights in Sri Lanka

Report

The Council has before it the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ report on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka (A/HRC/54/20).

Presentation of Report

NADA AL-NASHIF, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, presenting the written update of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka, said one year after the remarkable protest movement demanding deep political and democratic reforms, the transformation that was hoped for to address long-standing challenges had still not materialised.  The country continued to deal with the aftermath of the deep economic crisis of 2022 and the current stresses in the global economy.  While the economic crisis had significantly affected the enjoyment of rights of large segments of the population in Sri Lanka, it had impacted the poor and marginalised communities the most.

The international community, including international financial institutions, should keep supporting Sri Lanka in its recovery, in line with obligations around international cooperation and assistance, by providing the fiscal space needed while pressing for genuine progress in governance, transparency and accountability.  The economic hardship, tensions around economic and structural reform policies, and the delay of local elections continued to give rise to protests.  It was imperative that the Government ensured an environment that respected free expression, peaceful assembly, and democratic space as the basis for reconciliation and social cohesion.

The report provided an analysis of concerns with some forthcoming legislation, in particular the proposed Anti-Terrorism Bill replacing the Prevention of Terrorism Act and a new law to regulate media broadcasting, and urged a moratorium on the use of the Act in the meantime, and for the review of long-standing cases under the Act to be expedited.  Fourteen years since the war ended, tens of thousands of victims and their families continued to suffer in agony and grief as they waited for truth, justice, and remedy.  The report recognised the initiatives the Government had initiated to advance reconciliation, including its proposal for a new truth-seeking mechanism, but also stressed that urgent confidence building steps were needed to create an environment in which a genuine reconciliation and transitional justice process could succeed.

The report recommended that the Government accelerate investigations and prosecutions in emblematic cases of human rights violations, in compliance with international human rights standards.  Accountability was central to secure Sri Lanka’s present and future.  While it remained the obligation of the Sri Lankan authorities to acknowledge past violations and undertake credible accountability measures, the Council and Member States could play an important and complementary role in advancing accountability.

Statement by Country Concerned

Sri Lanka, speaking as the country concerned, reiterated that the Government of Sri Lanka had consistently rejected resolutions 46/1 and 51/1 that led to the setting up of the so-called ‘accountability project’.  The Government also rejected the written update, its conclusions and recommendations.  Such resolutions were intrusive and polarising, upheld only by a handful of countries for reasons unrelated to human rights.  Many countries had already raised serious concerns on the budgetary implications of the resolution, given its dubious mandate.  Sri Lanka had repeatedly pointed out that this was an unproductive and unhelpful drain on the resources of the Council and its members.  For these reasons, Sri Lanka would not cooperate with it.  However, Sri Lanka would continue to engage constructively with other mechanisms of the Council that had been productive and beneficial, such as the Universal Periodic Review process.

The content of the written update did not reflect the actual situation on the ground in Sri Lanka.  The economic, social and financial stabilisation that Sri Lanka had achieved in the past year had been acknowledged domestically and externally.  It was regrettable that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had also chosen to ignore the democratic resilience of the country and its institutions demonstrated in the past year.  Sri Lanka reiterated its deep concerns regarding the ever-increasing mandate of the Office in making sweeping and intrusive comments on all aspects of economic, financial, electoral, political, domestic, budgetary and development policies.  Sri Lanka strongly objected to the written update pronouncing on policy matters that were domestic for any sovereign country and outside the framework of this Council.  In its simplistic analysis, the report referred to the challenges Sri Lanka was currently facing in the food, health, nutrition and education sectors as if this was an isolated phenomenon affecting Sri Lanka alone, which was not the case.  Sri Lanka rejected all conclusions and recommendations in the report, including references to targeted sanctions.

Sri Lanka remained firmly committed to pursuing tangible progress on human rights through domestic institutions and had made significant progress.  This included the Government’s vision and progress made in reconciliation efforts outlined in a statement to parliament this year; the Anti-Corruption Act No. 09 of 2023; continued deliberations on the draft Anti-Terrorism Bill; progress made by independent domestic mechanisms; and the establishment of the Interim Secretariat of the Truth and Reconciliation Mechanism.  Sri Lanka had provided observations with regard to this written update and requested that the response be given equal visibility as the report.  Sri Lanka would continue to engage constructively with the United Nations and its agencies.

Discussion

In the discussion, some speakers said as the recovery continued, economic reform measures must uphold the economic, social and cultural rights of the people of Sri Lanka.  The Government must promptly hold legally prescribed elections, which were now overdue, and safeguard the fundamental rights of peaceful assembly, expression and association.  A victim-centred approach must be taken to reconciliation, and greater participation of and increased consultation with affected communities must be given more importance.  While some speakers recognised the challenges Sri Lanka had been facing due to the economic and financial crisis throughout last year, they underlined the need for upholding all human rights, including the rights to freedom of opinion, expression and assembly, as well as the effective and equal fulfilment of economic, social and cultural rights of all persons in Sri Lanka, including persons in vulnerable and marginalised situations.

Sri Lanka had made important recent commitments on land issues and devolution of political authority.  Some speakers encouraged Sri Lanka to turn these commitments into meaningful action and deliver long-awaited results.  Sri Lanka still had a long way to go to fulfil commitments to justice, accountability, and reconciliation.  Some speakers called for the suspension of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, until it was in full compliance with international human rights law and standards, and also called for accountability and immediate action to end impunity. 

There was concern for continued incidents of intimidation and harassment of civil society and journalists, and by the arbitrary use of laws to suppress dissent.  Some speakers were concerned about the shrinking civic space, in particular the attacks on freedom of assembly, namely through arbitrary arrests of protesters and forceful crowd-control measures, or harassment and intimidation preventing people from protesting, and called on the Government to ensure the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression and to stop targeting journalists and human rights defenders.

The preparations for a truth and reconciliation commission were noted, and some speakers emphasised the importance of an inclusive participatory process in the establishment of any mechanisms to advance transitional justice to gain the confidence of all affected communities, in line with international best practices.  Effective dialogue must be ensured: the protection and promotion of human rights were a collective responsibility that called for hard work and mutual dignity and trust.  Accountability was a crucial step towards sustainable peace and, in this regard, speakers were pleased to hear about progress made by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ accountability project.  The Government of Sri Lanka was urged to step up to its responsibility to undertake credible investigations and prosecutions of human rights violations.

Some speakers deplored the politicisation of human rights, and their use as a pretext to interfere in the national and sovereign affairs of certain countries.  The Universal Periodic Review was, a speaker said, the only fair method to tackle human rights issues within specific countries, and selective mechanisms were ineffective and confrontational.  As Sri Lanka moved forward with its economic recovery, the importance of effective governance reforms must be ensured.  They must be accompanied by safeguarding established independent institutions, and democratic processes.  Speakers asked how the Council could help the Government of Sri Lanka in order to foster cooperation with the Office. 

Many speakers also expressed their sincere condolences to the Government and people of Morocco for the recent tragic earthquake.

Statement by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Cameroon

LEJEUNE MBELLA MBELLA, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Cameroon, said the President of Cameroon was committed to human rights and a world built on justice, fairness and equality.  The Council had a lofty mission and representatives of States bore a heavy responsibility.  Sixty years after Cameroon became independent, the world was still in a situation where not all rights could be enjoyed.  More and more threats were being faced, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the many hotbeds of tensions seen throughout the world, and the impacts of climate change. 

Cameroon commended the outstanding work done by the United Nations on human rights, but believed reform of the international system was needed to breathe new life into multilateralism.  The ongoing insecurity in the world was a concern; all countries of the world needed to work together to undertake tangible action, to give effect to the Secretary-General’s Agenda for Peace.  Mr. Mbella Mbella applauded the High Commissioner’s assistance to countries like Cameroon.  The President had made new premises available to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights free of charge.  Cameroon remained committed to the peaceful settlement of disputes and supported the treaty being drafted on pandemic prevention.  Terrorism in all its forms was a threat which needed to be overcome through a joint response.  Countries needed to work together and devote resources to this issue.  The circulation of weapons was another threat, and Mr. Mbella Mbella commended the work of the African Union in breathing new life into the disarmament discussions.  Economic development was a key challenge, and the importance of the United Nations agenda and the African Agenda were recognised in this regard.  It was pleasing to see that the right to development was on the Council’s agenda. 

Cameroon had brought the difficult the situation in the country under control.  The country had lived through a period of crisis, but was now under control, and normalisation of the situation was continuing.  Cameroon had new legislation and had granted two regions a special status, which allowed them to receive special assistance for development.  There were still attacks coming into Cameroon from neighbouring countries, but in the country, the situation was under control.  Cameroon was grateful for the support from the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  There were still concerns about countries which allowed criminals to live in their country with impunity and finance terrorism.  Cameroon would participate in the work of the Council actively and constructively. 

Link: https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/meeting-summary/2023/09/les-crimes-de-guerre-et-contre-lhumanite-sintensifient-au

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