The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Rapporteur on Rights and Reforms
Sunday, December 4, 2011

In March 2010, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Prof. Tomas Ojea Quintana, urged the UN to establish a Commission of Inquiry with a specific fact finding mandate to address the question of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma. Quintana speaks to The Irrawaddy’s reporter, Ba Kaung, about how he sees the recent political and economic reforms in Burma affecting the country’s human rights situation. In this interview made on Friday evening when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concluded her historic visit to the country, the UN rights envoy said that the problem of impunity persists in Burma despite its reforms, and lack of independence can also compromise the performance of state-backed National Human Rights Commission in the country.

Tomas Ojea Quintana

Question: What is your opinion on US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Burma from the perspective of human rights issues in the country?

Answer: I welcome the visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Myanmar, and I hope this visit will encourage the government to face serious human rights shortcomings.

At this juncture, one of the most important decisions for the government to take, definitely, is the release of all political prisoners. This is a decision that, unlike the situation in border areas and others that may require additional measures, depends only on the decision of the President. The President of Myanmar has the authority, according to the Constitution, to issue amnesties to prisoners without any other condition.

And this decision cannot wait any longer. We must never forget that political prisoners are those women and men who offered their lives and liberty, their torture and their suffering throughout the years, to force the former military government to accelerate the so-called Seven Step Road Map to Democracy, a road map that, until the 2007 Saffron Revolution, the military government had been postponing and delaying.

I hope, therefore, that the President of Myanmar takes the opportunity that the visit of the US Secretary of State offers, and responds to what the whole international community has been calling for: to put an end to the arbitrary detention of hundreds of political prisoners.

The new Government of Myanmar, all political parties, and above all the people of Myanmar, they all owe these men and women behind bars the opportunity for a meaningful democratic transition, and the prospect for a better future.

Q: Are you worried that the US approach to Burma might be premature given the unresolved ethnic conflicts and the continued detention of many political prisoners?
Answer: Myanmar is going through an unprecedented momentum in its history, which may bring important opportunities. Bilateral relationships, then, may strengthen these opportunities, but I believe that these relationships should include human rights in the agenda, and the US Secretary of State has been clear on expressing concern for the detention of political prisoners and the situation in border areas.

Q: There is much emphasis on some reforms the Burmese government has recently taken. To what extent have these reforms improved the human rights conditions in Burma? 

A:The government has taken clear steps towards reform, and we need to encourage them to continue on this direction. Now, again, why is it that political prisoners are seen to be the subject of bargaining with the international community?

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has decided that Myanmar will chair the organization in 2014, but why is it that hundreds of political prisoners are still in jail, prisoners, most of whom suffered extreme abuses in Myanmar prisons?

Restrictions on civil and political rights seem to be gradually evolving, but the upcoming by-elections (although there is no formal announcement yet) will test to what extent this is translated into reality.

The initiative for peace talks is of course welcome, but there are specific and very serious issues in respect to the conflicts that need immediate and strong measures. I am talking about the use of children, and forced labor by the military.

Also, I don’t see any government agency ready to start addressing the problems of discrimination, and the endemic situation of Rohingyas is a clear example.

As one of the results from my last mission in August 2011, the government established a National Human Rights Commission. I saw this commission playing an interesting role in the release of some political prisoners, but we need to see much more proactive initiatives on its side. Besides, the problem of its lack of independence, if not addressed, might compromise its future performance.

I don’t want to forget economic, social and cultural rights, critically ignored for decades in Myanmar. Together with the need for substantive investments in areas such as education, health, food and housing, the establishment of a new economic system seems to be a challenge, and I hope that principles of equity and social welfare have significant relevance, and lessons learnt from international crises have due consideration.

Q: The government has recently signed temporary ceasefires with some ethnic groups such as the Shan and Wa, based along Sino-Burma border. And it recently held peace talks with ethnic Kachin militias. But all these peace efforts seem as fragile as in the past. How would you suggest the Burmese government handles these ethnic issues?

A: For many years in Myanmar, the military held an authoritarian government which, under the justification of stability, particularly in border areas, committed systematic and gross human rights abuses.

A formally civilian government now has assumed power and the conflict situation in border areas is still unresolved. This must be a priority, and the challenge is, therefore, to initiate a peace process under the premises of civilian and democratic values. This means that the military has to move out of the scene.

I see a simultaneous process where the military starts a process of reform, as I recommended in my first reports, and the civilian authorities bring a substantive and comprehensive plan towards achieving peace and reconciliation. This plan must include guarantees of ethnic minorities’ fundamental rights, measures against discrimination, resource sharing, socio-economic development policies, and greater regional autonomy in managing affairs.

The prospects of a national conference on the issue will depend on the substance of the agenda.

At the same time, the control of the military by the civilian authority has to gradually increase, and practices that lead to human rights abuses must change dramatically. As a crucial step, measures to end prevailing and historic impunity need to be developed. 

In addition, at this new political stage in Myanmar, access to conflict areas, both humanitarian and human rights, must increase. I hope in my next planned mission, February 2012, I will find an opening in this respect.

Q: With Burma's tentative reforms process apparently moving forward, do you still view it relevant to call for the formation of a UN-led International Commission of Inquiry into allegations of crimes against humanity in Burma?

A: It is not clear that the recently established National Human Rights Commission has the competence to address accountability for systematic human rights violations.

In my next planned mission to the country in February next year, I will have the chance to contact this Commission and discuss fact-finding prerogatives and resources, independence, and relationship with the judiciary. I will then present my report to the Human Rights Council in March.

As I repeatedly stressed, truth, justice and accountability is primarily the responsibility of the state, but the international community has also obligations in this respect.

I don’t see concrete and substantive discussions and debates among stakeholders in Myanmar in respect to the problem of impunity. I hope at some point it starts to grow, because ending endemic impunity should be in the interest of the state and the Myanmar society as a fundamental pillar in building a lasting democratic system under the rule of law.
Q: Will closer ties between the United States and Burma have an impact on your independent role as UN Special Human Rights Rapporteur for Burma?

A: Independent Special Rapporteurs are mandated by the Human Rights Council, and the United States of America is a member of this body. Bilateral relationships between states have correspondence with international relationships at the UN. The US has always strongly supported my mandate, and I am sure these new developments will bring more opportunities for the improvement of human rights in Myanmar.

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