Dropping UNGA resolution on Myanmar, EU to break 25-year rights precedent

As the 71st Regular Session of the UN General Assembly gets underway this week in New York, the European Union delegation to Myanmar told The Myanmar Times today that it will abandon a time-honoured tradition there: the submission of a UN resolution criticising Myanmar’s human rights record.

Candidates for the post of United Nations Secretary-General explained their vision for the future before the UN General Assembly at UN Headquarters in New York on July 12. Photo: EPACandidates for the post of United Nations Secretary-General explained their vision for the future before the UN General Assembly at UN Headquarters in New York on July 12. Photo: EPA

The European Union had put forward a resolution calling attention to human rights shortcomings in Myanmar at every UN General Assembly (UNGA) dating back to 1991, but mounting speculation that business would not be as usual this year was confirmed by the Yangon-based delegation.

“The EU took the decision not to table a human rights resolution in the UN General Assembly Third Committee this year as a recognition of Myanmar's progress on democratic transition, the reinvigoration of the peace process and the positive steps taken by the new government to improve human rights,” read a statement from the EU delegation to The Myanmar Times.

The annual UN General Assembly Regular Session brings together scores of world leaders including, this year, Myanmar’s de facto head of state Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Given the peaceful transfer of power to the Nobel laureate’s elected government at the end of March, a coalition of rights groups had correctly surmised – and fretted over – the possibility of a break with a quarter-century precedent.

Ahead of State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to the United States, the coalition released a statement urging the EU to keep up the pressure on Myanmar by again introducing the bloc’s resolution. Failing to do so would be “premature”, the groups said.

“We have seen encouraging changes as Myanmar eases out from under the shadow of military rule. But there is still a lot more to do to ensure a decisive break with the country’s ugly past of human rights violations,” Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, was quoted as saying in a September 14 press release from the coalition of six groups.

“The gains made so far have to be consolidated and built upon, not left incomplete or eroded,” he added.

In laying out its case, Article 19, a member of the pro-resolution coalition, offered a detailed analysis of how Myanmar had fared in meeting the points addressed in last year’s UNGA resolution.

Its largely unflattering critique noted that among other areas left wanting, a four-year-old pledge to open a country office for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is unfulfilled; that bleak conditions persist for the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State; and that “impunity for human rights violations by state officials – both past and present – remains endemic with the vast majority of reported cases of human rights abuses committed by Myanmar Army soldiers going unpunished”.

In response to The Myanmar Times’ inquiry, the EU’s Yangon delegation said, “The EU remains strongly committed to working with Myanmar to address remaining human rights concerns, including at the UN Human Rights Council.”

The 71st UN General Assembly convened on September 13 and will conclude on September 26.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi met earlier this week with President Barack Obama, who ahead of her visit faced similar pressure from rights groups not to lift remaining US sanctions against Myanmar. The president ultimately said “after consulting with Daw Suu, that the United State is now prepared to lift sanctions”, calling it recognition “in part ... of the progress we’ve seen over the last several months”.

The move effectively conceded limits to the state counsellor’s ability to meet some human rights benchmarks early in her administration. The Tatmadaw remains unaccountable to civilian oversight – conflicts between its forces and ethnic armed groups have continued in recent months – and the military’s constitutionally enshrined role in politics includes 25 percent of seats in parliament and control of three key security ministries.

Those ministries will be crucial in resolving persisting discrimination and rights abuses against the Rohingya. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s initial foray into addressing Rakhine State’s problems has involved the creation of an advisory commission, praised abroad but criticised by nationalists at home for its inclusion of foreigners, reflecting another governing quandary that has at times forced her to balance domestic politics against international expectations.

Prior to the EU’s disclosure today, Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, joined calls for maintaining a tough line on human rights at the UN General Assembly.

“Discontinuing the resolution will encourage the military to believe they can continue to commit human rights violations and block constitutional reform without any consequences,” he told The Myanmar Times yesterday via email.

The UNGA resolution on Myanmar has grown in length over the years, from a 264-word text in 1991 expressing concern for the country’s “grave human rights situation” to last year’s resolution, which clocked in at roughly 2300 words. Addendums to the original range from a Rohingya rights defence in recent years to 2015’s criticism of specific legislation – the “race and religion protection” laws – passed by parliament last year.

The 2015 resolution’s veiled criticism of the Tatmadaw and its call for “the Government to take necessary measures to ensure accountability and end impunity” remain unaddressed, Mr Farmaner insisted.

“Earlier this year, for the first time, the UN said war crimes and crimes against humanity are being committed against ethnic people in the country, so dropping the resolution ignores the facts on the ground,” Mr Farmaner said, adding, “If the EU drops the resolution on top of the US lifting sanctions, there will be champagne corks popping in the military headquarters.

This story is an updated version of a story published in the September 16 print version of The Myanmar Times to reflect comments made by EU delegation to Myanmar after press time.