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Human Rights

Yesterday I was asked by the Independent and the Myanmar Times to comment on the Pope’s visit to Myanmar and his use of the term Rohingya. Here is my response:

The Pope was damned if he did and damned if he did not say the word Rohingya. Although it is disappointing that he did not refer to the Rohingya by name, his visit brought attention to the human rights violations against them – calling on Myanmar to “respect the rights of all who call this land their home” – and hopefully avoided further inflaming religious intolerance amongst hard-line Buddhist nationalists waiting to pounce on language they find unacceptable.

That the international community have declined to address human rights violations against minorities and especially the Rohingya is nothing new: they long ago sacrificed the Rohingya’s right to identity in the name of engagement, particularly to ensure their ability to invest and trade. It is only the inevitable humanitarian crisis that has put pressure on the international community to act.

It is up to the diplomats in Yangon, the international community and especially neighbouring countries to use their influence with the gov’t to halt violations of human rights and protect minorities in Myanmar. It is an indictment of their previous efforts that we place so much emphasis on the Pope’s intervention.

Most of all, national leadership is required; Myanmar’s public intellectuals, religious leaders and voices from civil society need to promote a more inclusive, tolerant version of a national identity that respects human rights.

The Independent’s coverage of the controversy is here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/rohingya-muslims-pope-francis-burma-cardinal-no-mention-speech-address-a8080431.html

The Myanmar Times coverage is here: https://www.mmtimes.com/news/papal-appeal-defence-minorities.html

 

 

 

 

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On Saturday evening I was asked by Al Jazeera news to comment on economic aspects of the Rohingya human rights crisis in Rakhine State. Here is a summary of my comments:

Al Jazeera: Are you surprised to learn that the Myanmar government will harvest the rice crops of displaced Rohingya?

Me: No, I’m not surprised. For a government that pursues policy resulting in hundreds of thousands of displaced people land and crop expropriation is not a big leap. This is part of a national human rights problem where an estimated half of the population does not have the legal right to the land they live on; the system of land tenure in Myanmar is broken. The Rohingya will suffer, in particular, because of the widespread acceptance that they are illegal immigrants in the first place.

Al Jazeera: Is land grabbing the reason for this ethnic cleaning and conflict? Is the government trying to get a hold of not just the rice but the valuable resources in the area?

Me: Certainly relatively plentiful natural resources in Rakhine are underexploited. But this is an ethnic, religious and nationalist conflict. Land grabbing is not the cause but will likely be one of the results.

Al Jazeera: What is next for the Rohingya? What should the international community do or is it too late?

Me: Well, this situation should not be a surprise to the international community. Human Rights organisations have been warning the international community, diplomats in the country and the national government that human rights violations against the Rohingya were causing a precarious situation likely to result in violence, mass exodus and displaced people. ‘Gloomy’ warnings were disregarded as the preferred narrative was that Myanmar is ‘open for business.’

The international community needs to now support the Rohingya and ensure the cost of this humanitarian disaster does not fall solely on Bangladesh. Neighbouring countries need to encourage the Myanmar government to protect, promote and fulfil the human rights of all people in Rakhine State, especially the Rohingya, and ensure they are able to return to their land. But most importantly, leadership at the national level is required to foster a culture more accepting of human rights. This is not just the role of the government and Aung San Su Kyi:  Public intellectuals, academics, civil society organisations, lawyers and national media all need to speak out in support of human rights in Rakhine State.

 

In February, 2017 the International Commission of Jurists released a comprehensive report on the Special Economic Zones and the corresponding laws in Myanmar. It examines the State duty to protect human rights and finds that the laws come up short. It  provides recommendations on how the government in Myanmar can take steps to avoid repeating mistakes of the past as it develops the SEZ in Kyauk Phyu, Rakhine State.

The Government of Myanmar should impose a moratorium on the development of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) until it can ensure SEZs can be developed inline with international human rights laws and standards, said the ICJ at a report launch held today in Yangon.

The 88-page report, entitled Special Economic Zones in Myanmar and the State Duty to Protect Human rights, assesses the laws governing Myanmar’s SEZs and finds that the legal framework is not consistent with the State’s duty to protect human rights.

For example, a case study examining the Kyauk Phyu SEZ in Rakhine State shows that the land acquisition process initiated in early 2016 lacks transparency, does not comply with national laws on land acquisition, and risks violating the rights of 20,000 residents facing displacement.

“The SEZ Law undermines the protection of human rights, and critical legal procedures are often poorly implemented, so the Kyauk Phyu project risks repeating the rights violations that have been associated with SEZs in the past,” said Sam Zarifi, the ICJ’s Asia Director.

“The NLD-led Government can make a break from the past by ensuring economic development projects benefit Myanmar’s people, rather than rushing to facilitate projects which result in human rights violations and ultimately undermine sustainable development,” he added.

Myanmar’s legal framework for SEZs is based on the 2014 SEZ Law and incorporating national laws governing land, labour and the environment.

The report shows that while national laws require Environmental Impact Assessments and the application of international standards on involuntary resettlement, the SEZ Law does not establish clear accountabilities for the implementation of these procedures.

This has contributed to human rights violations and abuses in each of Myanmar’s three SEZs, the report says.

“It has been encouraging that government officials have emphasized their commitment to protecting human rights in SEZs in line with the rule of law,” said Sean Bain, the ICJ’s Legal Consultant in Myanmar and lead author of the report.

“The legal reforms recommended in this report will be critical to meet these commitments while fulfilling the State’s duty to protect human rights in SEZs. We also suggest that investors take heightened due diligence measures to ensure they are not complicit in rights violations,” he added.

The report was based on extensive legal research as well as interviews with over 100 people, from affected communities to investors and government officials, during 2016.

Key recommendations to the Government of Myanmar

  • Protect human rights in Myanmar’s SEZs by amending the SEZ Law, through meaningful public consultation in accordance with international standards.
  • Order a moratorium on the development of SEZs, and on entering related investment agreements, until the SEZ Law has been amended to ensure conformity with international human rights law and standards.
  • Commission a Strategic Environmental Assessment for the Kyauk Phyu SEZ, in line with Myanmar’s environmental conservation laws. This would involve consultation to inform decision-making on the Kyauk Phyu SEZ and related projects, by identifying cumulative environmental and social impacts of all the developments in Kyauk Phyu, while considering conflict dynamics and economic development in Rakhine State.
  • Suspend land acquisition in Kyauk Phyu until after the completion of a resettlement plan that is in line with international standards, as required in the EIA Procedure.

Contact

Sean Bain, ICJ Legal Consultant in Myanmar, t: +95 9263533230 ; e: sean.bain(a)icj.org

Myanmar-SEZ assessment-Publications-Reports-Thematic reports-2017-ENG(full report, in PDF)

Myanmar-SEZ assessment SUMMARY-Publications-Reports-Thematic reports-2017-ENG (executive summary of the report, in PDF)

Myanmar-SEZ assessment full-Publications-Reports-Thematic reports-2017-BUR (Burmese version of full report, in PDF)

Myanmar-SEZ assessment-Publications-Reports-Thematic reports-2017-BUR(Burmese version of the executive summary, in PDF)

Promoting the use of habeas corpus should be vigorously pursued in Myanmar as a remedy for arbitrary arrest and detention, argues the International Commission of Jurists.

This article was published in Frontier Magazine on June 30th. http://frontiermyanmar.net/en/habeas-corpus-plea-action 

By DANIEL AGUIRRE | FRONTIER

“I’ve been in jail for almost a year and I don’t know what I am charged with,” a detainee in Yangon told the International Commission of Jurists earlier this month.

Another complained that when he was arrested, “the police had no warrant and did not inform me about my crime”. Neither detainee had enjoyed the human right to challenge the lawfulness of their detention.

Such complaints are common, as the ICJ has said in its new Handbook on Habeas Corpus in Myanmar. The ICJ’s analysis shows that, notwithstanding some reform, security forces often arrest and detain people without following proper procedures, in violation of Myanmar’s national laws and international human rights obligations. There continue to be multiple cases of arbitrary or unlawful arrest and detention in the country, sometimes used to suppress political dissent.

Reintroduced in Myanmar under the 2008 Constitution, habeas corpus has been described as “the great writ of liberty”. It affords anyone detained, or their representative, the right to challenge the legality of arrest and detention before a court. It is a key legal device to prevent unlawful detention, torture or enforced disappearance.

Habeas corpus puts a duty on the courts to review the lawfulness of detention and on the security forces to prove they acted within the law. If detention is unlawful, the court must free the detainee immediately. Under international law, it is applicable at all times to anyone (not just citizens) under any form of detention, including during a state of emergency, even in countries, such as Myanmar, that are not yet state parties to relevant international treaties.

It is crucial that this writ be used to ensure that nobody is detained without due process or solely for lawful political dissent, as is the case for many political prisoners.

Although articles 296(a) and 378(a) of the 2008 Constitution guarantee the right to habeas corpus, the ICJ could not find a single case in which the writ had been used to overrule an unlawful arrest or detention.

Another tool for protecting detainees’ rights is Section 491 of the Criminal Procedure Code. It allows High Courts to summon and release wrongfully detained prisoners. However, Myanmar judges and lawyers said it has not been used in decades.

When Myanmar’s military rulers began cracking down on political dissent and imposed authoritarian rule, they naturally got rid of habeas corpus. Despite its reinstatement, habeas corpus remains politically sensitive, as it requires the judiciary to review and rule upon the actions of the security forces.

The ICJ has observed and documented several cases where the failure to comply with due process rights could have been challenged through habeas corpus proceedings. For example, the detainees who spoke with us this month have never been properly charged and their alibis never properly examined in court. Others are arrested solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression. We have monitored a number of manifestly unfair trials.

However, Myanmar lawyers remain reluctant to petition for the writ of habeas corpus to challenge the actions of government agencies. Their hesitation is partly the result of the systematic dismantling of Myanmar’s legal system, which has rendered judges, lawyers and government officials unfamiliar with international standards. Few have ever seen the writ of habeas corpus used properly. In addition, the Myanmar judiciary remains drastically under-resourced and requires capacity building.

Another practical obstacle is that only the country’s Supreme Court can hear habeas corpus petitions and it is based in Nay Pyi Taw, a situation that discourages many lawyers from incurring the costs and logistical difficulties involved. Contrary to international standards, the constitution suspends the writ during declared emergencies, which means that it cannot be used in the places that need it the most. Moreover, lawyers claim that the petition process can take months, when international standards call for it to be simple, expeditious and free.

In addition, many lawyers say that habeas corpus is not useful to protect their clients because Myanmar’s judiciary is not yet independent. Indeed, the ICJ’s research shows the courts are often unwilling or unable to challenge the government and the military. Until the courts are able to enforce judicial procedures such as habeas corpus, the rule of law and human rights will remain elusive.

Lawyers must bring habeas petitions on behalf of their clients. Not only does this create a record documenting purported human rights abuses, but it will also increase pressure on judges to rule on petitions. The courts must fulfil their role as guarantors of the constitution and human rights.

The new government and the judiciary have committed to the rule of law and human rights. Promoting the use of habeas corpus will help protect the rights of people in Myanmar and strengthen the independence of the judiciary, as well as the rule of law in the country. It is already on the books and it should be vigorously pursued as a remedy for arbitrary arrest and detention.

Re: Burma Responsible Investment Reporting Requirements

We write in response to the public reports submitted by U.S. companies in compliance with the Burma Responsible Investment Reporting Requirements (“Reporting Requirements”) issued by the US Department of State.

Composed of 60 eminent jurists and lawyers from all regions of the world, the International Commission of Jurists promotes and protects human rights through the Rule of Law, by using its unique legal expertise to develop and strengthen national and international justice systems. The ICJ appreciates the U.S. government’s efforts to promote responsible investment in Myanmar and to ensure that U.S. companies are responsibly managing their business activity in the country. We support your decision to continue to sanction businesses under the National Emergencies Act barring U.S. individuals and companies from investing or doing business with people linked to human rights abuses under the army’s military rule.

The ICJ urges caution over the United State’s recent decision to allow for an exception to the sanctions regime for people who have already been documented as having links to the military regime and implicated in human rights violations.1 This caution reflects the ICJ’s work with the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Union Supreme Court of Myanmar, as well as civil society organizations, to strengthen and support local efforts at ensuring that investment protects and promotes the rule of law, human rights and the environment. In this regard, the ICJ has visited and researched on the human rights and environmental impacts of investments in the 3 Special Economic Zones (“SEZ”), as well as other non- SEZ sites, in the country.

We believe that future reporting must be strengthened to ensure that U.S. companies comply with the Reporting Requirements, conduct due diligence and disclose adequate information transparently about the impact of their business practices on human rights in Myanmar. This is especially crucial in light of significant reporting gaps in July 2013. Failure to strengthen the requirements will undermine the goal of the Reporting Requirement to be a tool for promoting investment that reinforces those political and economic reforms that are compliant with the rule of law and human rights and help to empower civil society.

The full document will be available on the ICJ webpage at: http://www.icj.org later today. The full document is attached here: Myanmar ICJ Letter to US State Dept 25Jan2016

Judicial Accountability: 2015 Geneva Forum of Judges & Lawyers

More than 40 senior judges and lawyers from all parts of the world – including Myanmar – have made an important contribution to efforts to hold judges accountable for involvement in human rights violations and judicial corruption, by participating in the sixth annual ICJ Geneva Forum of Judges & Lawyers.

The Geneva Forum is organized annually by the ICJ’s Centre for Independence of Judges & Lawyers (CIJL) and brings together judges, lawyers and prosecutors from around the world, together with UN officials and representatives from international professional associations of legal professionals, as well as academics and other experts.

This year’s Geneva Forum (14-15 December) formed part of a larger CIJL project to promote judicial accountability, through sharing of knowledge about relevant international standards and international and national good practices, between the judiciary, other legal actors, and governments and civil society around the world.

The focus of the project is on judicial involvement in human rights violations such as unjust executions, prolonged arbitrary detention including imprisonment after deliberately unfair trials, judges providing impunity to perpetrators or enforced disappearance and torture, as well as judicial corruption that leads to human rights violations.

Victims of such violations have the right to remedy and reparation, including in relation to the role of judges, and society as a whole should be able to be confident that those responsible for such judicial misconduct will be held to account.

For more information see: http://www.icj.org/judicial-accountability-2015-geneva-forum-of-judges-lawyers/

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