Progress Amid Causes for Concern: Quintana



The U.N. human rights envoy pressed the Burmese government to allow international observers to monitor the April 1 by-election and to move quicker on ending human rights violations, at the end of his six-day visit on Sunday.

Tomas Ojea Quintana, in a press conference, said the newly elected government has “surprised” the international community with “the speed and breadth of reforms,” and now was the time to continue the process to achieve national reconciliation.

“My mission confirmed that a positive impact has been made,” Quintana said. “However, serious challenges remain and must be addressed. There is also a risk of backtracking on the progress achieved thus far.”

Quintana met with senior government ministers, political prisoners and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. He stressed that the April 1 by-election is “a key test” of the reform process.

He said officials of the Burmese Election Commission said the use of international observers “was under consideration.” Outside monitors for Burmese elections were rejected in 2010 and 1990, the last two elections.

In a wide-ranging press conference on Sunday, Quintana said he met with many high-level ministers, leaders of Parliament, peacemaking groups and former political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, the main opposition leader who is running for Parliament, and others.

“I also travelled to Kayin and Mon states where I met with the respective chief ministers and representatives of state government, as well as ethnic parties in state parliaments,” he said.

Of great importance, he said, has been the release of many prisoners of conscience, including a significant number in January, including many prominent figures.

“I stressed that they, and all people of Myanmar, should be allowed to play an active role in political and public life. In my meeting with released prisoners of conscience, I received a clear signal of their intention to engage constructively in the political process and their commitment to further democratic transition.”

He said his discussions with officials included human rights concerns, including continuing limitations on the freedoms of association and assembly, and of opinion and expression. He said he was “concerned by information received that some of those released were being monitored or followed. I therefore urge that any restrictions on their exercise and full enjoyment of human rights should immediately be removed.

“I also received allegations of continuing ill-treatment by prison officials and the continuing transfers of prisoners to prisons in remote areas, often without their prior notification and without proper notification of family members,” he said.

Quintana said he reiterated that the government should release all remaining prisoners of conscience without conditions and without delay.

“This is a central and necessary step towards national reconciliation and would greatly benefit Myanmar’s efforts towards democracy,” he said. He expressed concern at the number of remaining political prisoners, whose numbers are not accurately known. “A comprehensive and thorough investigation is needed to clarify records and determine accurate numbers,” he said.

He noted that many legislative reforms have occurred or are underway, including the adoption of the Labour Organizations Law and the Peaceful Demonstration and Gathering Law, as well as the amendment to the Political Party Registration Law.

“During my mission, I was informed that the process of drafting a revised Prisons Act, a new media law – the Printing Press and Publications Law, and a new social security law, among others, were currently underway,” he said. “At the same time, I note concerns regarding some of the provisions in the newly adopted legislation, particularly the Peaceful Demonstration and Gathering Law, and in draft laws, particularly the Printing Press and Publications Law.”

He said he was concerned about “a lack of clarity and progress” on reviewing and reforming laws affecting human rights, such as the State Protection Law, the Electronic Transactions Law and the Unlawful Associations Act.

“These laws impinge upon a broad range of human rights and have been used to convict prisoners of conscience,” he said. He said he was given assurances that the government “is taking serious and gradual steps to reform these laws.”

“The judiciary is also essential for Burma’s transition to democracy and should play an important role in ensuring checks and balances on the executive and the legislative,” he said. “I have previously expressed concerns regarding the judiciary, and I remain concerned with its lack of independence and impartiality.”

Of concern, he said, was that, “In my meeting with the chief justice and other justices of the Supreme Court, there was little acknowledgement of any challenges and gaps, and a lack of willingness to address my previous recommendations.”

He said he talked with members of the National Human Rights Commission for the first time since its establishment. Despite some preliminary work and actions by the commission, he said, “I am concerned that there are no indications as yet that the Commission is fully independent and effective in compliance with the Paris Principles. At present, it seems that the commission cannot fully guarantee human rights protection for all in Burma. I was informed that the commission’s draft rules of procedure were being examined by the judiciary, and were awaiting the approval of the Council of Ministers. This sends the wrong signal that the commission is not fully independent from the government.”

Quintana, who functions independently of the U.N., said he expressed concern about the fighting in ethnic areas, particularly in Kachin State. “I received continuing allegations of serious human rights violations committed during the conflict, including attacks against civilian populations, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, internal displacement, land confiscations, the use of human shields, the recruitment of child soldiers, as well as forced labour and portering.”

He emphasized that he received reports of violations being committed by all parties to the conflict, and he called on the government to address these issues.

He said the plight of refugees must be addressed, calling for international humanitarian groups to be allowed access to refugees. “Delivery of humanitarian assistance under the United Nations umbrella cannot be linked to ongoing negotiations between the government and armed groups or be made conditional to the government’s assistance to people in non-government controlled areas,” he said.

More broadly, he said efforts towards finding a durable political solution to the ethnic conflict must be accelerated and are essential for broader national reconciliation.

A particularly sensitive problem, he said, is the issue of “justice and accountability measures, as well as measures to ensure access to the truth,” which are fundamental for Burma to move forward towards national reconciliation. It is “crucially important,” he said, that the government involve stakeholders, including victims of human rights violations, in order to get their advice and views on how and when to establish truth, justice and accountability measures.

“But I must stress that moving forward cannot ignore or whitewash what happened in the past,” he said. “ Thus, facing Myanmar’s own recent history and acknowledging the violations that people have suffered, will be necessary to ensure national reconciliation and to prevent future violations from occurring.”


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