(New York) - The review of Burma's human rights record at the United Nations this week should reflect reality and not the false promises of the military, Human Rights Watch said today.
Burma will face its first-ever Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in the Human Rights Council in Geneva on January 27, a process all member states must undergo every four years to ascertain each country's progress on human rights. The ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) will face the UPR, just days before the new 2010 elected parliament convenes on January 31 in the nation's capital, Naypyidaw, to select a president and form a new government already dominated by serving and recently retired military officers.
"The UPR process is an opportunity to put one of the most brutal and intransigent authoritarian systems in the world under the spotlight," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Burma's human rights record remains deplorable, and forming a new parliament after sham elections in 2010 shouldn't fool anyone."
Human Rights Watch urged member states to question the Burmese military government on the gravity, extent, and systematic nature of violations taking place in Burma and the need for more effective tools to address the situation. The Human Rights Council has adopted several resolutions strongly condemning the systematic nature of the violations committed against the people of Burma, as has the UN General Assembly. Yet the lack of implementation by Burmese authorities of almost all provisions contained in these resolutions is a matter of serious concern and should be raised during the UPR.
The Burmese government's national report to the UPR process contains numerous assertions that progress has been made on legal reform, that provisions in the 2008 constitution on fundamental rights and duties of citizens is in line with international conventions, that education on human rights has increased in the military, bureaucracy, and school system, and that the fledgling Human Rights Body will soon become a fully fledged Human Rights Commission in line with the Paris Principles on the Status of National Institutions.
The military government also cites its cooperation with the UN on demobilizing child soldiers, and working with the UN Country Team as evidence of progress, despite more comprehensive measures being all but suspended in 2010 as the military stage-managed the elections. The SPDC created the Committee to Prevent the Recruitment of Child Soldiers in 2004, yet this body has failed to take effective action to curtail child recruitment and has not adequately punished military officials involved in predatory recruitment practices. A UN Action Plan on ending child soldier recruitment that meets international standards has yet to be finalized with the Burmese government. The government has also severely limited efforts by the UN country team to monitor the recruitment and use of child soldiers by non-state armed groups.
"UN member states must not mistake rhetoric for improvement," said Pearson. "Burmese authorities only demonstrate perfunctory cooperation, doing the bare minimum to deter international criticism, not genuine efforts to provide for the rights of their citizens."
Human Rights Watch said despite new window dressing, the same grim reality for Burma's people continues to be reported. Serious human rights issues in Burma that have shown no improvement in the past several years and in many cases have continued to deteriorate are mentioned in Human Rights Watch's UPR submission, and include:
Freedom of Expression and Association
Systematic restrictions on basic freedoms in Burma remain, including on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. For example, despite Burma having ratified International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention No. 87 on freedom of association, the SPDC continues to refuse to register independent trade unions in the country. The 2010 elections were conducted in a climate of intimidation and tight control of freedom of expression, assembly, and association, for political candidates and citizens.
Arbitrary Detention and Ill-Treatment
Despite democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's release in mid-November 2010, the government of Burma currently incarcerates more than 2,200 political prisoners including political activists, journalists, trade unionists and labor rights advocates, artists, Buddhist monks and nuns, and vocal opponents of the SPDC. Many of these prisoners have received harsh sentences - including up to 65 years in prison - on trumped up criminal charges in unfair trials that seek to curtail peaceful political dissent and free expression. Conditions in Burmese prisons do not meet international standards: prisoners are not given adequate health care, face routine ill-treatment and at times torture, and may be transferred to remote facilities in the hinterlands that make visits by family members and UN officials difficult. The government has not granted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to Burmese prisons in accordance with the ICRC's standard procedures since 2006.
Respect for the Rule of Law
The culture of impunity in Burma for government officials and military personnel for serious abuses is supported by a judicial system that is neither impartial nor independent. There has been little if any accountability for serious crimes committed by government security forces in conflict zones in eastern and western Burma, including attacks on civilians, routine use of forced labor, sexual violence against women and girls, recruitment and use of child soldiers, extrajudicial killings of civilians, and other violations of international humanitarian law. Some non-state armed groups have also been implicated in serious abuses, including forced labor and the use of child soldiers.
Protection of Civilians
Civilians in conflict areas face abuses by government and non-state armed groups. In some conflict areas, the Tatmadaw (Burmese army) maintains a "shoot on sight" practice that targets civilians. The Tatmadaw forcibly displaces and evicts communities, confiscates land for security purposes or commercial activities, and in some places forces communities to live in specially constructed relocation sites close to military camps as a counter-insurgency measure. Fighting in Eastern Burma has intensified in the past three months, driving more refugees into Thailand.
Forced labor remains rampant in ethnic conflict areas, despite cooperation with the ILO for several years and the continuation of an ILO and Burmese government mechanism on investigating cases of forced labor. Civilians in conflict zones continue to report being forced to carry supplies for Burma army units, and civilians also said they feared being used to guide troops through terrain, often acting as human minesweepers, a practice the Burmese army has used in past military operations.
Conditions for ethnic Rohingya Muslims in western Burma are extremely dire. The Rohingya are denied citizenship in Burma, and Rohingya communities face sharp restrictions on freedom of movement, access to basic health care, livelihoods, and education, and suffer routine abuses at the hands of Tatmadaw units and paramilitary border security forces called Na Sa Ka. Thousands of Rohingya have fled Burma into Bangladesh and by sea to Malaysia and Thailand.
"Burma's rights record is a source of deep concern for the UN, but principled pressure instead of wishful thinking is needed to improve it," Pearson said. "The UPR review must galvanize the UN to take further measures to end the culture of impunity and the distortion of the legal system to ensure military rule, in or out of the new parliament."