Myanmar: Draft Interfaith Harmonious Coexistence Bill continues to endanger fundamental rights

In this analysis, ARTICLE 19 reviews the third version of the draft Bill for Interfaith Harmonious Coexistence (the draft Bill) for its compliance with international human rights standards.

The draft Bill is quite distinct from its 2016 predecessor, which ARTICLE 19 also analysed. While more narrowly focused in some ways, the draft Bill remains dangerous to the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of religion or belief, and freedom from discrimination. It still adopts a very broad definition of “hate speech”, and relies entirely upon the criminal law and coercive measures. As such, it fails to comply with international human rights standards.

The draft Bill, as with its predecessor, still prioritises censorship as the primary tool for responding to “hate speech”, in a manner that will only increase legal uncertainty and close space for peaceful inter-communal dialogue. If the draft Bill is enacted, it would add to the numerous tools the government frequently uses to suppress the expression of oppositional or critical views and dissent. This poses particular risks for minority and marginalised groups, who are most often the victims of the most severe forms of “hate speech”. The draft Bill is therefore likely to be counter-productive to its intended objectives.

Of new concern is the proposal in the draft Bill to create a Central Committee and Board of Investigation, new executive bodies which will not be independent from political influence, and which have undefined and sweeping powers to determine what constitutes “hate speech” and what the response to it should be. No oversight or accountability mechanisms exist to ensure those powers are not abused to violate human rights, including the right to freedom of expression.

Summary of recommendations

  • The draft Bill should be withdrawn in its entirety, in favour of a new approach combining positive policy measures to promote and protect the rights to freedom of expression and equality, including through reforms to the Penal Code and the enactment of a comprehensive legal framework for the right to equality;
  • The advocacy of discriminatory hatred that constitutes incitement to hostility, discrimination or violence should be prohibited in line with Articles 19(3) and 20(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), establishing a high threshold for limitations on free expression as set out in the Rabat Plan of Action, as well as prohibitions on direct and public incitement to genocide and incitement to crimes against humanity;
  • The protective scope of any measures to address “hate speech” should encompass all protected characteristics recognised under international human rights law, and not be limited to ethnicity and religion;
  • The Myanmar government should refrain from the creation of politicised administrative bodies for the purpose of identifying, investigating or initiating prosecutions for “hate speech” cases;
  • The Myanmar government must sign and ratify the ICCPR and all other major international human rights treaties without delay.

Read this report in full.