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Twenty-seventh Special Session of the Human Rights Council on the human rights situation of the minority Rohingya Muslim population and other minorities in the Rakhine State of Myanmar

Statement by Catalina Devandas Aguilar
Chairperson of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures

Geneva, 5 December 2017

Mr. President,
Distinguished delegates,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am delivering this statement on behalf of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. In light of the subject of this Special Session, this statement is also delivered on behalf of Ms. Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar who regrets not being able to attend the Session in person due to family circumstances.

We welcome the holding of this Special Session, albeit somewhat after the fact when the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, the High Commissioner and other Special Procedures had raised the alarm over reports of serious human rights violations during the clearance operations by security forces post 9 October 2016 as well as in August this year. Ms. Lee also raised concerns when it was reported that an army battalion had been flown into Rakhine State in early August, even before the 25 August attacks.

 Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh from northern Rakhine and hundreds of their villages have been torched and burnt down since the alleged attacks by Rohingya militants on 25 August. There have been credible allegations of serious human rights violations and abuses committed against the Rohingya, including extrajudicial killings, excessive use of force, torture and ill-treatment, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced displacement.

As stressed by some of my colleagues a few weeks ago. “No one chooses, especially not in the hundreds of thousands, to leave their homes and ancestral land, no matter how poor the conditions, to flee to a strange land to live under plastic sheets and in dire circumstances except in life-threatening situations”.

We are equally alarmed by the Government’s apparent acquiescence in incitement of hatred and the condoning of intimidation and attacks against Rohingya families by other ethnic and religious groups. As stressed earlier by the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, there seems to be little sympathy for the Rohingya people in Myanmar; they are not considered as  indigenous to the country, and are therefore perceived as having no rights to which they can claim. All violence aimed at the general population, including internally displaced people, must immediately cease.

Mr President,

Recently, His Holiness Pope Francis completed a visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh. From reported developments during the visit to the two countries, it appears that being a member of a minority group in Myanmar is extremely difficult, if not dangerous.

On 23 November Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a repatriation agreement about which the Special Rapporteur on the country asked me to share her serious concerns. The agreement’s main criterion for accepting returnees appears to be the Rohingyas’ ability to produce documentation acceptable to the Myanmar authorities as proof of their residence in Myanmar, including Government issued identity documents.

Besides the fact that when being attacked and threatened to leave your home and village, you are more likely to focus on saving your own life and that of your relatives, it has been widely reported that the majority of the Rohingyas are without identity documents – such documents having been either revoked, withdrawn and invalidated by the Myanmar government over the years, especially after the implementation of the 1982 Citizenship Law, or never issued to begin with as a result of being deemed alien to Myanmar by successive governments.

Not only does the repatriation agreement avoid the term ‘Rohingya,’ it also avoids referring to those who had fled from Myanmar as ‘refugees.’ The only mention of refugee in the agreement is to state that recipients of UNHCR refugee documents must undergo the same verification process as the others – rendering UNHCR issued documents ineffectual. In other words, neither government recognises that the Rohingya population who have fled Rakhine State since late last year, and continue to flee, have done so consequent to being persecuted. We must not forget the decades of systematic discrimination by law, policy, and practice against the Rohingya Muslim population in Myanmar, and the tens of thousands of Rohingya who have been living in camps in Bangladesh following fleeing Myanmar some years ago.

The repatriation agreement also notably makes no reference to the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission chaired by Mr. Kofi Annan. You will recall that in respect of the citizenship verification exercise, the Commission had urged the Myanmar government to ensure that the process is voluntary and to create proper incentives to encourage people to participate. However, the repatriation agreement provides that those allowed to return will be automatically issued the ‘identity card for national verification.’ In other words, the agreement makes it obligatory for returnees to undergo the citizenship verification process – contrary to the recommendation of the Commission.

Additionally, the Commission recommended that the Government ensure freedom of movement for all people in Rakhine State, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, or citizenship status. Yet the Myanmar government has undertaken to guarantee freedom of movement for the returnees based on existing laws and regulations which have long been alleged to be part of the institutionalised discriminatory structure keeping the Rohingyas segregated, excluded and marginalised. Unless these laws and regulations are reformed, the situation will remain unchanged and it will not be possible for people to choose to voluntarily return.

The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar has also learned that the Myanmar authorities have already started building temporary camps for the returnees which is of serious concern. Bearing in mind that the over 120,000 Rohingyas who were displaced following the 2012 violence are still confined to camps in central Rakhine five years later, will these new returnee camps simply add to the existing Rohingya IDP population in Rakhine State? And what will happen to those Rohingya IDPs – particularly those who may not succeed at being recognised as citizens following national verification by the Government? Who will foresee the safety, security and dignity of the returnees?

Mr. President,

The Myanmar government has insisted that the issue of returns is a bilateral one – completely ignoring the question of what caused the Rohingyas to flee in the first place, and has made no concrete commitment to engage or seek the assistance of international partners mandated by member states of the United Nations to address related issues such as refugee and returnee rights, as well as statelessness, for example. Access to Rakhine State for humanitarian workers has been highly irregular and conditional, and for human rights actors except the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar practically non-existent since October last year.

In this context, reprisals against those cooperating with the entities and mechanisms currently assessing the situation of human rights in Myanmar is of serious concern. Ms.  Yanghee Lee was quite disturbed to learn that a number of the Rohingya villagers who spoke with her during her January visit may have suffered reprisals, even summary execution, for having come forward to convey their experience of discrimination and persecution by the State.

There must be independent and impartial actors on the ground to assess the situation in Rakhine State prior to the return of the Rohingyas from Bangladesh to ensure that said returns will be safe, dignified and sustainable. And based on this assessment, only then the Rohingya refugees can make an informed decision to return, otherwise it will not be voluntary. Apart from words, we have to see concrete measures to ensure that any returning Rohingyas will not go back to the same discriminatory system and structure, in which they would suffer the same violations of human rights as before they fled.

Mr. President,

We call on the Government of Myanmar to stop all violence against the Rohingya community and halt the ongoing persecution and serious human rights violations. There should be an impartial accounting of what has happened and for those responsible to answer for their action. Myanmar must also take steps to let the Rohingya population know that they are welcomed back and that measures will be taken to ensure their safety and protection.

Myanmar should ensure full and unfettered access of human rights monitors including the Human Rights Council Fact-Finding Mission for an independent and impartial assessment of the situation on the ground. The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar has requested to visit the country in January and await the Government’s positive response. For each visit she makes to Myanmar, she has asked to visit Rakhine State knowing the many human rights concerns affecting the many communities living there, especially the Rohingya population. She hopes to return to Rakhine State and contribute to some extent towards an assessment of how conducive the conditions are for the Rohingyas’ return. All those wishing to cooperate with such mechanisms should be able to do so without fear of reprisals.

We also call on other intergovernmental bodies addressing the situation in Myanmar to take into account the assessment of UN human rights bodies as appropriate in their deliberations.

I conclude by noting that the Special Procedures mandate holders stand ready to provide their independent assistance, expertise and advice to this Council, its Member States and to the Government of Myanmar.

Thank you.