Myanmar: High Commissioner details severe violations amid shocking violence
Delivered by Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the 52nd Session of the Human Rights Council.
Myanmar is a country close to my heart – one that I have travelled to often. At the time of the elections in 2015, I witnessed the complex process of opening to the world that the nation had embarked on, and I was inspired by the hope and optimism that we saw at that time as part of the nation-building process.
The people of Myanmar knew that they faced many challenges. Decades of isolation. Protracted repression. Ethnic nationalism – and particularly severe discrimination, structural exclusion and violence against the Rohingya, many of whom I've met over many years. Lost educational opportunities. Poverty. It was never going to be simple, but there was sincere, whole-hearted hope.
But hope is rare now in Myanmar.
As the country enters the third year of the crisis generated by military rule, its people continue to suffer profound human rights harms; an expanding humanitarian emergency; continuing impunity of the military authorities; and a deepening economic crisis.
Armed conflict has continued to grow in scope and intensity, with attacks on civilians reminiscent of those in 2017, when the military attacked Rohingya communities in Rakhine State.
However, military operations now increasingly involve the use of airstrikes, artillery shelling and heavy weaponry against civilian communities across the country.
Our latest report (A/HRC/52/21) details a number of incidents, investigated by my staff, in which hundreds of houses were burned and dozens of people – including children – killed by shelling and military raids.
Overall, the military increased airstrikes against civilian locations by 141% in the second year of the military takeover. Its artillery shelling of communities, including hospitals, schools and places of worship, increased by over 100%.
Despite official claims that such tactics are aimed at anti-military armed groups, in numerous cases, testimony gathered by my Office has not indicated the presence of such groups.
The military’s use of arson throughout the country echoes its past attacks on civilians in Rakhine State. Incidents in which homes and neighbourhoods have been set on fire have risen by 380% in the second year after the coup -- leading to an estimated 1,200% increase in the number of homes destroyed.
Particularly in Sagaing Region, northwest of Mandalay, we continue to receive daily reports of new incidents, with soldiers reportedly moving from village to village, looting and then setting fire to homes and farms.
UN colleagues indicate that since the military takeover, some 39,000 structures have been burned in villages and towns where the military has operated. Satellite images confirm that numerous incidents have involved destruction of entire villages, while other villages have been set on fire on multiple occasions.
People who are unable to flee risk being burned to death. Those who can escape – over 1.3 million people displaced since the coup was launched – face destitution.
Overall, credible sources have verified that at least 2,947 civilians have been killed by the military and its affiliates since 2021, including 244 children. More than one third of these confirmed deaths occurred in military custody. The actual number of civilian killings is almost certainly far higher.
The disregard and contempt for human life and human rights that are continuously demonstrated by the military constitute an outrage to the conscience of humanity.
Cases have been reported of some armed groups attacking and killing civilians perceived to be working for or with the military. In some of these incidents, the targets have included family members. Such acts are not in any way a legitimate form of opposition or resistance. They constitute murder and must be condemned.
While I note that the scale of human rights abuses committed by armed groups appears considerably lower than the violations committed by the military, I must emphasise that all armed parties must institute or strengthen efforts to comply with the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law, notably civilian protection.
It is imperative that the military respect the Security Council’s December resolution S/RES/2669 and take steps to end the violence.
On 1 February 2023, two years since seizing power, the military extended the state of emergency, and since then has twice expanded martial law to cover large areas of the northwest and southeast of the country.
This subjects civilians to the expanded jurisdiction of military tribunals, with no right of appeal – even upon imposition of the death penalty. Credible sources verified that since 1 February 2021, at least 17,572 people have been arrested (including 381 children) with 13,763 remaining in detention.
Detainees across the country have reported severe beatings; mock executions; suspension from ceilings without food or water; electrocution; and acts of sexual violence. I condemn this apparently widespread use of torture and ill-treatment, as well as consistent reports of squalid conditions of detention.
The rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, and movement have been increasingly – it appears, strategically – restricted, and continue to strangle media freedoms and civic space.
Merely “liking” a Facebook post may lead to terrorism charges, with sentences of ten years or more in prison, following opaque trials that do not meet fair trial standards at all.
Additional burdensome restrictions have been imposed on the registration of non-profit organizations and their capacity to function.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on people’s basic subsistence and poverty levels in the country is also alarming.
Across the country, 17.6 million people now need humanitarian assistance, and over 15.2 million face acute food insecurity. At a time of such dire humanitarian needs, these regulations will impede the capacity of many NGOs to deliver essential goods and services.
The Rohingya community still remaining in Myanmar, which has already endured decades of persecution, continues to face widespread and systematic discrimination in every area of life.
The necessary conditions for voluntary, safe and dignified returns of refugees to Rakhine State simply do not exist, and the over one million Rohingya who remain in forced exile in Bangladesh and other countries, as well as hundreds of thousands who are internally displaced, face a bleak present, and worse future.
Over the past year, thousands more Rohingya have sought to flee unbearable conditions. At least 3,500 attempted sea crossings in 2022– a 360 percent increase from 2021. At least 348 of them died or went missing at sea. It is a tragedy.
In addition, around 2,000 Rohingya people were arrested in 2022 for so-called “unauthorised travel” within Myanmar.
The urgent goals must be recognition of citizenship, and the exercise of rights associated with it, as well as security – repeatedly requested by the Rohingya as essential to conditions that would be conducive for their return.
In the interim, I appeal to all countries to provide continued robust support to people fleeing Myanmar, and to their host communities in the region, notably in Bangladesh. Host countries really need continued and sustained support.
The terrible fire that raged last night across part of the camps in southern Bangladesh where more than one million Rohingya refugees take shelter underscores the precarity of their position. Recent sharp reductions of food rations in the camps – due to shortfalls in funding – compound their hardship and the general insecurity in these camps.
There needs to be increased international support, as well as the provision of education and livelihood opportunities to the refugees, to uphold their dignity and reduce their dependency. I was moved last month to see the gesture of a number of Rohingya, who have lost everything, but nonetheless providing support to earthquake victims in Türkiye and Syria.
There will be no durable vision for the future without accountability for the cruel violence of the past.
The continuing proceedings before both the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, with respect to the severe violations of the most basic human rights that have been visited upon the Rohingya as a group, simply for who they are, warrant every support.
I remain deeply concerned by the prospect of new elections taking place in Myanmar while violence spirals out of control, amid mass displacement, and the arbitrary detention of elected political leaders in February 2021, and thousands of others since then, whose only crime was to oppose the military takeover.
The elections of November 2020 made clear that what the people of the country wanted was to continue the hard-won path of democratic reform. It is critical that the country’s future is decided by a process led by the people of Myanmar.
I call on members of this Council to do their utmost to deliver humanitarian support directly to Myanmar’s people, including by channelling operations through grassroots organisations.
And I call on all United Nations Member States to promote dialogue and sustainable solutions that are representative of the will of the Myanmar people, in order to bring an end to this brutal crisis.
The people of Myanmar deserve a better future.