Myanmar: Human Rights Council must hold the line on freedom of expression, rights violations

The UN Human Rights Council must press the Myanmar government to end attacks on freedom of expression and prioritise reforms to the country’s legal and policy framework, ARTICLE 19 said in a briefing for Human Rights Council member states. Despite previous recommendations from the Human Rights Council, the government has made no progress in tackling human rights concerns and has continued to stifle expression and severely restrict civic space. The Human Rights Council must strengthen its calls to the Myanmar government to end the judicial harassment of government critics, ensure justice for attacks against journalists, human rights defenders, and others, halt government contributions to misinformation and discriminatory rhetoric concerning the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities, and reform or repeal a raft of repressive laws to ensure compliance with international human rights standards.

“Over the past year, the Myanmar government has repeatedly demonstrated its contempt for human rights and its willingness to go to extraordinary lengths to silence its critics,” said Matthew Bugher, ARTICLE 19’s Head of Asia Programme. “The Human Rights Council should condemn the Myanmar government’s continued attacks on expression in the clearest possible terms and should not shy away from calling on authorities to take the type of bold and immediate actions needed to restore rights protections in the country.”

In recent years, Myanmar authorities have arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned journalists, human rights defenders, peaceful protestors and others exposing human rights violations or speaking out against government policies. Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, former child soldier Aung Ko Htwe, and Kachin activists Zau Jat, Lum Zawng, and Nang Pu are among many who have been convicted under the Official Secrets Act, Penal Code and other repressive legislation in the past year, while others continue to face lengthy trials because of their exercise of the right to freedom of expression. Authorities have used the Unlawful Associations Act to prosecute journalists and others who contact ethnic armed organisations and section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law to target critics expressing their opinions online.

Impunity for attacks on journalists, human rights defenders and activists remains a major concern. Despite the February 2019 conviction of two individuals for the murder of prominent lawyer U Ko Ni, the investigation into his killing was deeply flawed and the trial was beset by procedural irregularities. No progress has been made in ensuring justice for the killings of journalists Ko Par Gyi in 2014 and Soe Moe Tun in 2016, and rights activist Naw Chit Pandaing in 2016.

Myanmar authorities have frequently applied the vague and broad restrictions contained in the 2012 Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act and the Penal Code to restrict the right to peaceful assembly. These restrictive provisions have been used to prevent peaceful assemblies from being organised, and authorities have sought to suppress protests through the use of mass arrests and the disproportionate and unlawful use of force against protesters, including at a protest in Loikaw in February 2019. Proposed amendments to the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act that were passed by the Upper House in 2018 are due to be considered by Parliament in March 2019. If passed, they would further limit the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly.

Following a campaign of violence against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State that included international crimes perpetrated by state security forces, the government has continued to disseminate misinformation, stoke anti-Rohingya sentiment, and suppress independent reporting on the crisis. Restrictions on the access of journalists and rights monitors to conflict areas, most notably in northern Rakhine State, continue to severely hamper independent reporting and impede long term and sustainable solutions to the grave challenges facing the country.

Despite calls from the Human Rights Council to combat hate speech by implementing measures outlined in Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 and the Rabat Plan of Action, the Myanmar government has continued to directly contravene the guidance contained in these documents. Instead of implementing positive policy measures to address “hate speech” and intolerance, government officials have themselves contributed to divisive narratives and spread discriminatory messages. While the Myanmar government has yet to release the current draft of a proposed “Anti-Hate Speech Bill”, the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs is reportedly chairing a committee tasked with developing the proposed legislation. Previous drafts of the bill analysed by ARTICLE 19 relied primarily on censorship and criminal penalties to combat “hate speech”, neglecting the range of policy initiatives that should form the foundation of any effort toward promoting tolerance and inclusion. If new legislation takes the approach of these previous efforts it will likely close space for inter-communal dialogue, increase tensions within and between groups, and further stifle the free expression of ethnic and religious minorities.

The report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, which she will present to the Human Rights Council next week, paints a bleak picture of developments in the country, highlighting attacks on civic space and condemning “institutionalised hate speech.” She will call for urgent action from the Myanmar government and international community to address the deterioration of rights and prevent the transition to democracy being “stymied.”

“Aung San Suu Kyi’s government seems to be settling into a pattern of persecution and abuse that is all too familiar to the people of Myanmar,” said Matthew Bugher. “The Human Rights Council should echo the Special Rapporteur’s strong condemnation of the government’s human rights abuses, and should not in any way accommodate its brutal and persecutory policies.”


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