The United Nations Human Rights Council took a significant step toward protecting the rights of Rohingya in Burma by adopting by consensus today a presidential statement on the human rights situation of the country’s Muslims. The statement, drafted by Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, called for an end to violence against Muslims, the establishment of accountability mechanisms, and the granting of citizenship to Rohingya. Under current Burmese law, Rohingya are denied citizenship, and they face systemic persecution that keeps them from accessing essential public services. The statement, supported by the Government of Burma, reflects the council’s unified voice in supporting the rights of the country’s Muslims.
While the council should be applauded for calling attention to the often-ignored situation of stateless Rohingya as well as violence against Muslims in general, the statement should have been stronger. For example, it referred only to attacks on Muslims, and not attacks on other minority groups. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has investigated abuses against civilians in Chin State, Kachin State, Karen State, and Shan State, where the military and local government authorities have committed heinous human rights violations against religious and ethnic minorities. These systematic attacks were not mentioned in the statement adopted today by the council. The statement also made no mention of the potential opening of an Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights office in the country, even though Burma’s government has already agreed to its establishment, nor does it mention the extremely worrisome reinvigorated policy that limits Rohingya couples in northern Rakhine State to having only two children.
The statement also fell short by calling for a domestic investigation of acts of violence instead of an international investigation. Burma’s government has shown with its recent Rakhine Investigation Commission that its methodology for local investigations does not respect human rights and instead preys upon stereotypes about minority populations. Those drafting the statement should have called for an investigation by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, who has already announced his willingness to assist in pursuing investigations of attacks on minority groups. To date, there has been no thorough and impartial investigation by Burmese authorities of the massacre in Meiktila, Mandalay Division, which occurred in March of this year. Physicians for Human Rights documented the massacre of two dozen people in Meiktila that was carried out by civilians with the acquiescence of local police.
PHR has been calling for the Government of Burma to address the massacre in Meiktila, and the Burmese ambassador to the Human Rights Council did mention the incident in his remarks about the presidential statement. Sadly, he chose to gloss over the serious violence that took place in Meiktila by only mentioning those Buddhists who extended a helping hand to people at risk of attack. While PHR did find that some people bravely saved potential victims from attack, the events in Meiktila should not be remembered as a moment of interfaith solidarity but as a crime scene where brutal violence was tolerated and remains unpunished. The victims and survivors of the violence in Meiktila deserve more from their government.
Today’s presidential statement by the Human Rights Council was a welcome step to recognize the situation of Rohingya in Burma, but the council should prepare to show renewed and stronger support for minorities in the country in the future. If the situation of ethnic and religious minorities in Burma continues to deteriorate, and if the country’s government continues to shirk its responsibilities to protect its people and enact fair accountability mechanisms, then we must look to the council to establish an international investigation at its next session in September.