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Burma in the Human Rights Council: Moving Forward?

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While UN Rights Council’s Special Session on Burma was a welcome development, the resolution fell short of expectations. Nonetheless, no effort should be spared in ensuring its full implementation.
This week the United Nations Human Rights Council, or HRC, held a special session, the fifth since its establishment in March 2007, to consider the human rights situation in Burma. The call for the convening of the session by Portugal and another 17 members of the Council was seen as a positive and timely move and an important step to bring the situation in Burma to the attention of the international community. It was a particular relief for Asian NGOs in that it provided reassurance that Asian issues have not been left out of the work of the HRC. The Council’s four previous special sessions focussed on Darfur, Lebanon and Palestine.

The day-long session saw positive interventions from a number of governments. European Union states joined hands in condemning the violence committed by the junta, calling for an end to the crackdown and for the perpetrators of human rights violations to be brought to justice. They also demanded that the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Prof. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, be granted access to the country. Prof. Pinheiro was last allowed to visit Burma in 2003. One of the more notable statements was delivered by a Swedish delegate who had been in Rangoon at the time of the violence and was able to provide first-hand information to the Council.

It was also encouraging to hear statements from Latin America and Africa. The strong interventions of Mauritius, Zambia and Peru were particularly good illustrations of the truly global nature of the outrage at the recent attacks by the Burmese military. Burma’s neighbours in the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN) also spoke up, acknowledging, implicitly at least, their unique responsibility in resolving the crisis in Burma. These developments, and the fact that the resolution presented at the session was adopted by consensus, were welcome and showed that real momentum had began.

Sadly, however, the substance of the resolution fell far short of what was hoped for, and indeed expected, by Burmese activists and NGOs, very much echoing the resolutions of the former Commission on Human Rights, the predecessor body of the Human Rights Council. Its “action” element is disappointingly weak, doing little more than urging the Burmese government to grant access to the Special Rapporteur. A large coalition of mainly Asian human rights groups had been more ambitious in their statement to the Council, calling for both a high-level fact-finding mission and the establishment of a longer-term independent monitoring team in Burma.

Still, it is now essential to ensure that the resolution is fully implemented and that the Special Rapporteur is able to carry out the urgent visit that has been requested. The international community, and in particular the members of ASEAN, need to exert real pressure the Burmese government to grant a visa to Prof. Pinheiro and fully cooperate with his visit. ASEAN can no longer stand by its non-interference policy while one of its own states kills people struggling barehanded for democracy.

Reports of ongoing violations in Burma are continuing to emerge. While the junta officially put the figure of those killed at “up to a dozen,” the true figure is believed to be far higher, with unconfirmed reports suggesting that as many as 1,000 may have been killed.1 A similar figure was quoted by Major Hla Win, the Chief of Military Intelligence with the Burmese army in Rangoon's northern region, who fled Burma during the recent crackdown.2 There is also serious concern about reports of the army continuing to launch nighttime raids on private homes, arresting and detaining those thought to have been involved in the recent demonstrations. Many exile groups have drawn attention to the fact that monks have now disappeared from the streets in Burma, with their current whereabouts unknown. The visit of the Special Rapporteur is therefore very much needed, as a means to fill in the many gaps in information about the current situation on the ground.

Continued diligence is required from the members of the Council, and from the international community in general, to ensure that the many sacrifices already made by the peoples of Burma have not been in vain.

From “Burma Update” by the Political Defence Committee (PDC) and the National Council of the Union of Burma.

2 “Changing Sides: Burmese Military Officer Seek Asylum in Norway,” Spiegel Online,,1518,509391,00.html