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Press Conference by Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, 25 October 2012

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

While the fast pace of reform in Myanmar was encouraging, bolder steps were needed to end persistent right violations, particularly in strife-torn border areas, that were testing the country’s nascent democracy, a top human rights expert said during a Headquarters news conference today.

“I’m concerned that violence has continued and that more people have lost their lives and homes in recent days,” said Tomás Ojea Quintana, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, pointing to sectarian violence between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine State, in the west, which had left 88 people dead, 858 detained and 70,000 displaced.

Mr. Quintana praised the Myanmar Government’s move to set up an independent Investigation Commission into the matter as an important first step to hold perpetrators to account.

“The Government and all stakeholders in Myanmar must tackle all these human rights challenges in order for democratic transition and national reconciliation to progress,” he said, stressing that human rights considerations must shape the process of economic growth, legislative reform and institutional change.

Mr. Quintana briefed correspondents before presenting his annual report to the General Assembly’s Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural), which focused on his findings during a trip to Myanmar in August and his recommendations to advance reforms there. (See Press Release GA/SHC/4048.)

He urged the Government to address the deep-rooted ethnic and religious prejudices and discrimination fuelling tension and conflict between the Buddhist and Muslims communities. In addition, he called for a review of the 1982 Citizenship Act, and a new Government policy that would integrate, rather than segregate, the two groups.

While lauding the Government’s progress in negotiating ceasefires with ethnic armed groups, he pointed to allegations of continued attacks on civilians, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, internal displacement, torture, forced labour, and the continued recruitment of child soldiers and landmine use by all parties to the conflict in Kachin state. The Government must, he stated, address all such allegations and allow United Nations and aid agencies full access to people in need of humanitarian relief in all areas.

During his August trip, Mr. Quintana told reporters, he had met with several United Nations and international non-governmental organization staff who had been detained in connection with the violence in Rakhine. Many had been secretly released since then. However, an employee of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and four non-governmental organizations remained in custody, he said, calling for their immediate release.

He also urged further lifting of restrictions on the media and freedom of expression, setting up a truth commission to address past rights violations, and institutional and legal reforms to bolster land and housing rights in the face of land confiscations by Government forces and large private companies.

Asked if the Myanmar Government was ready to make amends for the recent massacres of the Rohingya communities, Mr. Quintana said that there clearly was endemic discrimination against Rohingya people in Myanmar. While some Government officials were ready to listen and find solutions, there were no concrete steps to address the root causes of the problem. The report of the Government’s Investigation Commission into the matter was due in mid-November, but its release would likely be postponed. In the meantime, there were huge street demonstrations against the United Nations and the Rohingya population.

Asked to comment on the 56 Rohingya killed and 2,000 homes burned in their communities earlier in the day and on potential legal steps to prevent Myanmar from experiencing the type of ethnic cleansing that had occurred in Bosnia and Herzegovina, he said the situation was quite serious and he was in the process of verifying the facts of today’s events.

He had discussed the need to protect the Rohingya’s human rights and housing during a meeting on Tuesday with Myanmar’s new Permanent Representative to the United Nations, he said, and was awaiting feedback during the Third Committee meeting in the afternoon from Myanmar officials and delegates of countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference that had been working with Myanmar to resolve the sectarian violence.

Asked if he had visited Rohingya communities that had fled to Bangladesh and whether the United Nations was doing enough to help them, he said his mandate specifically covered the situation in Myanmar. He noted, however, that UNHCR was working hard to protect civilians fleeing Myanmar to other nations.

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