Myanmar President Thein Sein has been touring Europe touting his country’s unlikely transformation in the past two years from the archetype of authoritarian repression to a supposedly shining example of peaceful transition towards democracy. But how much of this is real reform and how much is window dressing? How much have human rights genuinely improved on the ground in Myanmar?
To be sure, Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government has enacted a series of changes and made further promises to the international community that justify increased engagement. Several hundred political prisoners have been released in a series of amnesties, restrictive laws repealed and new laws on peaceful assembly and association promulgated (though not without flaws), media restrictions largely removed, government and military commitments to end forced labor and child soldier use by 2015, and the government signing ceasefires with ethnic armed groups.
Many diplomatic observers argue that reform is now inevitable and Myanmar’s government should be rewarded. But a short glance down the list of Western steps shows just how quickly the international donor community has already acted: comprehensive economic sanctions removed or suspended, massive debt to international financial institutions cancelled, humanitarian assistance increased, and a rash of high level international visitors.
President Barack Obama’s visit in November led to significant but largely unfulfilled pledges from Thein Sein including the formation of an effective mechanism to review the 240 remaining political prisoner cases, cessation of ongoing armed conflict in Kachin State, and the opening of a U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Burma. Only one major pledge, the resumption of prison visits and access to conflict areas by the International Committee for the Red Cross, has been fulfilled. A U.N. human rights office seems a long way from becoming a reality, despite Western states pledging financial support. Violence in Kachin State has decreased since January, but tensions are high after nearly two years of conflict where 100,000 civilians have been displaced and serious war crimes perpetrated by the army. Government formed investigations into recent sectarian violence in Arakan State and the brutal crushing of protestors outside a copper mine have been delayed repeatedly.
So it is an important moment for the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva to take up the rights situation in Myanmar these coming weeks. Based on the unfulfilled pledges Myanmar has made, it’s clear that the wish of some member states of the Human Rights Council to reward the government – by shifting Myanmar in the Human Rights Council from “Item 4” (human rights situations that require the Council’s attention) to “Item 10” (technical assistance and capacity-building) on the official agenda – is premature. The process and the debate over shifting cooperation modes at the U.N. Human Rights Council should be guided by improvements in Myanmar’s engagements on human rights. But Myanmar’s leaders in Naypyidaw should not see retaining Item 4 status as a punishment.
Rather, it is recognition that eliminating scrutiny is not the right thing to do so long as serious human rights violations continue in various parts of the country.
Fortunately, there remains support in the international community for the continuation of the mandate of the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, an expert who has reported twice annually on the country to the U.N. Human Rights Council and General Assembly since 1992.
The current rapporteur, the Argentine lawyer Tomas Ojea Quintana, visited recently and will present his report in Geneva this month. Retaining the special rapporteur mandate and the independent scrutiny his attention brings to the human rights situation should remain a key priority for the foreseeable future. The role of the special rapporteur is crucial in providing neutral expertise and documenting both the government’s achievements and continued concerns over abuses. Keeping the special rapporteur mandate is a necessary measure to ensure that Myanmar’s reforms are sustained and irreversible – and that steps backward could be rapidly flagged and addressed. It was only two years ago, during Myanmar’s Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council, that the government denied all the abuses that it is now taking credit for addressing
Just admitting to these abuses has been a small but significant step. But actually doing something about it is the hard part, and this will take time, focus, and increased assistance from the international community.
In short, now is not the time to remove the pressure that has led to the country’s recent advances. Keeping Myanmar a high priority in the Council will guarantee that improvements continue, build genuine rule of law, and give essential backing to the country’s increasingly assertive civil society and human rights defenders.