On Tuesday 5th December, the Human Rights Council (Council) held a special session on the ‘human rights situation of the minority Rohingya Muslim population and other minorities in the Rakhine State of Myanmar’.
The special Session was requested on 28 November 2017, via two official letters written by H.E Mr Shameem Ahsan, Ambassador of Bangladesh; and H.E Dr Abdulaziz Alwasil, Ambassador of Saudi Arabia, on behalf of a group of 33 Council members States and 40 observer States.
In conformity with operative paragraph 10 of General Assembly resolution 60/251, the Council is ‘able to hold special sessions, when needed, at the request of a member of the Council with the support of one third of the membership of the Council’ (i.e. 16 Member States or more). Special sessions of the Council aim to provide a platform for the Council to consider and act on urgent human rights issues of either a country-specific or a thematic nature.
The Council’s action on the minority Rohingya Muslim population and other minorities in the Rakhine State of Myanmar to date
Since it was established in 2006, the Council has adopted numerous resolutions addressing the human rights situation in Myanmar, (nearly 20 resolutions and other texts). Before 2013, these texts, which were presented by the EU and generally adopted by consensus (though there were votes a number of occasions), focused on the broad human rights situation in the country (or, sometimes, on renewing the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar). There was also a special session on the (general) human rights situation in Myanmar, in 2007.
This began to change somewhat in 2013 with Presidential Statement 23/1, which focused on the particular situation of ‘Rohingya Muslims in Rhakine State and other Muslims.’ Even more significantly, in 2015, Pakistan, on behalf of the OIC – which normally opposes ‘country-specific’ resolutions addressing violations of human rights, with the exception of item 7 resolutions on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories – tabled a ‘hybrid’ resolution on the ‘situation of human rights of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar.’ This was adopted by consensus. The December 2017 special session was a continuation of this OIC – led effort.
Finally of note, in March 2017 the Council, through an EU-led resolution on the (general) human rights situation in Myanmar, decided to establish an Independent International Fact-Finding Mission to look into serious human rights violations in Myanmar, in particular in Rakhine State. The resolution requested the Mission to present an oral update to the Council at HRC36 and a full report at HRC37.
27th Special Session
The meeting, held on Tuesday 5 December 2017, began with keynote statements by H.E. Mr Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; Ms Catalina Devandas Aguilar, Chair of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures; Mr Marzuki Darusman, Chair of the International Fact Finding Mission (IFFM) on Myanmar (via a video statement); and Ms Pramila Patten, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on sexual violence in Conflict.
H.E. Mr Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein opened the session by reflecting on the situation in Myanmar, stating that ‘more than half the estimated number of Rohingya living in Rakhine State have been forced to leave their homes and country – and it is simply impossible to assess the number who may have been detained, disappeared, killed or died en route.’ He further observed that, ‘credible reports indicate widespread, systematic and shockingly brutal attacks against Rohingya community by the Myanmar security forces.’
The High Commissioner reported that ‘there are credible indications that these violent campaigns have targeted Rohingyas because they are Rohingyas – on an ethnic or religious basis, and possibly on both grounds’. He also recalled that patterns of human rights violations against the Rohingya have been documented by successive Special Rapporteurs since 1992, and that his Office has ‘for many years repeatedly and publicly reported the long-standing, systematic and institutionalised discrimination against the Rohingya, in policy, law and practice’. He further stated that ‘similarities in the patterns and modus operandi, over time and across a large area, also seem indicative of organised planning of a campaign of violence targeting large numbers of people.’
He expressed his concern over Myanmar’s refusal to grant the international community access to Rakhine State, which complicated the full monitoring of the violations that ‘have occurred, and are apparently still occurring’. In his concluding remarks, he stressed the gravity of the situation by mentioning the presence of ‘elements of genocide’ and concluded that ‘ultimately, this is a legal determination only a competent court can make. But the concerns are extremely serious (…).’
Ms Devandas Aguilar, speaking as the Chair of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, on behalf of Ms Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, opened her statement by expressing concern over the bilateral repatriation agreement signed between Myanmar and Bangladesh, that does not acknowledge the root causes of the situation: ‘neither government recognises that the Rohingya population who have fled Rakhine State since late last year, and continue to flee, have done so consequent to being persecuted.’ She also expressed her concern over the fact that the repatriation agreement does not make reference to the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission chaired by Mr Kofi Annan. Notably the agreement ‘has made no concrete commitment to engage or seek the assistance of international partners mandated by member States of the UN to address related issues such as refugee and returnee rights, as well as statelessness, for example.’ Ms Devandas Aguilar also expressed concern over reports of alleged reprisals, even summary executions, suffered by Rohingya villagers who spoke with Ms Yanghee Lee during her last visit.
In her conclusion, Ms Devandas Aguilar, urged Myanmar to ‘ensure full and unfettered access of human rights monitors including the Human Rights Council Fact-Finding Mission for an independent and impartial assessment of the situation on the ground’ and to accept the request of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar to visit the country in January.
Mr Marzuki Darusman, the Chair of the International Fact Finding Mission (IFFM) on Myanmar, echoed (via video statement) previous statements made during the session, by observing that the ‘allegations are numerous and many of extreme severity.’ Regarding the allegations that ‘genocide or crimes against humanity have taken place,’ he informed the Council, on behalf of the IFFM, that ‘we have not yet come to any conclusion on these issues but we are taking such allegations very seriously and are examining them in depth.’ He called for an end to the violence and for the State to ‘cease dubbing entire population groups as ‘extremist’ or ‘terrorist.’’ In conclusion, he called for urgent action and emphasised the need for: ‘immediate cessation of the violence in Rakhine state, with credible guarantees of non-recurrence; State action, including an official, nationwide campaign to counter the rise of hate speech and incitement to violence; and repatriation only with full guarantees of safety and human rights protection and under the supervision of international and national human rights monitors and the relevant UN agencies.’
The final opening statement was made by Ms Pramila Patten, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on sexual violence in Conflict, whose intervention aimed to ‘amplify the voices of the survivors [she] met in Cox’s Bazar.’ She reiterated that the Rohingya community, are targeted solely on the basis of their ethnicity and religion. Ms Pramila Patten informed the Council that systematic and widespread abuses occurred ‘in the context of collective persecution, the burning and looting of villages, torture, mutilation, and the slaughter of civilians – even new-born babies, who represent the next generation and the future of the Rohingya community.’ She further declared that ‘these shocking accounts indicate a pattern of grave violations of international humanitarian and human rights law committed against Rohingya women and girls in the context of military operations, with the widespread threat and use of sexual violence serving as a driver and ‘push factor’ for forced displacement on a massive scale, and a calculated tool of persecution and terror seemingly aimed at the extermination and removal of the Rohingya as a group.‘
She stressed the importance to view the current crisis in its broader historical and political perspective as ‘the Rohingya community has been trapped for many decades in a vicious cycle of violence, impunity, and forced displacement’, which risks of repeating ‘if the underlying conditions do not change.’ Against this backdrop, she agreed that the repatriation arrangement signed on 23rd of November was only a ‘first step’ and further urged the international community to ensure that the agreement ‘upholds international standards, and sets out all the necessary measures to ensure that returns are truly voluntary decisions based on informed consent, which take place in safe and dignified conditions that pave the way for lasting solutions.’
During the following debate, 72 State delegations (including Myanmar, as the country concerned) and 17 civil society representatives took the floor to deliver statements.
At the start of the debate, H.E. Mr Htin Lynn, Permanent Representative of Myanmar to the UN in Geneva – speaking on behalf of the country concerned – declared that Myanmar was making ‘every effort to resolve the issue as swiftly and comprehensively as possible’ and was ready to cooperate with the wider UN system to improve the situation in the Rakhine State. He however underlined that the efforts of the Council should be concentrated, as a priority, towards ‘addressing the immediate challenge of repatriating the international displaced people,’ as provided in the agreement recently signed with Bangladesh. H.E. Mr Htin Lynn also announced that the process of return would be launched within the next two months and that the Government was following a clear roadmap based on the Advisory Commission’s recommendations.
Bangladesh expressed deep concern over the lack of credible national investigation by Myanmar into the alleged gross violations of human rights in the country. Referring to the High Commissioner’s claim that the situation represented ‘textbook ethnic cleansing,’ Bangladesh further highlighted that ‘the denial of access to international investigation teams, the blanket denial of allegations of human rights violations by the government and the military, the lack of humanitarian access and the narratives from the displaced people and, finally, this large exodus in such a short time comparable only to the exodus following the 1994 Rwanda genocide’ could be indicators of crimes against humanity and possibly genocidal acts committed against the Rohingya community. Noting that the bilateral arrangements with Myanmar was only one component of a comprehensive long-term solution, they called on Myanmar to grant the IFFM unfettered access to Rakhine State, to fully implement Kofi Annan’s recommendations, and to address the issue of the statelessness of Rohingya.
Denmark, speaking on behalf of the Nordic countries, expressed concern over the reports of ‘grave sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls and the abuse of children among the refugees arriving from Rakhine State.’ They recalled that gender-based violence is a severe violation of human rights and constitutes one of the most brutal forms of discrimination and injustices against women and girls. In this regard, they welcomed the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)’s request to the Government of Myanmar to submit a report on the situation of Rohingya women and girls from northern Rakhine State in 2018. Finally, they emphasised that putting an end to the violence and addressing underlying causes, as well as ensuring accountability and access to services should be the ‘highest political priority’ of the Council.
Croatia expressed its concern by what was ‘possibly the most severe human rights crisis in the world.’ It stressed the need to allow unrestricted humanitarian access for ‘those who desperately need it – without discrimination’. Croatia also expressed its full support for the Fact Finding Mission’s ‘intention to seek dialogue and ensure full transparency’ and called upon Myanmar ‘to grant it full, unrestricted and unmonitored access to all areas, as its role can first and foremost be beneficial to the country itself.’
Brazil expressed deep concern over cases of violence against women and children in Rakhine State and observed that the displacement of the Rohingya population was the ‘fastest growing humanitarian crisis today.’ Brazil emphasised the need to ’restore mutual trust among the communities and especially to address the root causes of the crisis, including statelessness.’ They commended the repatriation agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Nigeria stated that the international community could not ‘remain silent on the brutal depopulation of the Rohingya people on the basis of ethnicity and religion.’ It highlighted the importance of accountability, stating that it was essential that ‘the perpetrators be identified and brought to justice’ and recalled that is was the State’s primary responsibility ‘to protect its population from human rights violations, irrespective of ethnic, religious or other differences.’
Qatar called upon Myanmar to ‘address the deep-rooted causes of this conflict and take concrete measures to prevent the humanitarian situation from deteriorating.’ They further highlighted the need to ‘open the path to humanitarian assistance to be delivered to the communities in need and to the victims; to promote development in Rakhine State; and guarantee safe and stable return of the refugees and IDPS.’
The Philippines agreed that the international community ‘must sustain efforts to effectively address the humanitarian situation in Bangladesh and Myanmar’ and called for the international community to address ‘the humanitarian situation and its root causes while fully respecting international human rights and humanitarian law and sovereignty of both Bangladesh and Myanmar.’ In this respect, they emphasised that Member States need ‘to respect and support the internal processes in Myanmar to resolve the situation and end the violence in Rakhine state, as well the bilateral negotiations between Bangladesh and Myanmar and the resulting agreements.’
France, echoing the statements of a number of States, stressed the importance of the following four priorities of action mentioned by the Secretary-General and Mr Kofi Annan on 13 October: ‘put an end to the abuses and ensure the protection of civilians, without discrimination; allow safe and unhindered access to humanitarian aid, to the fact finding mission, and the media; to ensure a safe, voluntary and dignity return of the refugees; and implement the recommendation of the Advisory Committee on Arakan presided by Kofi Annan.’
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines reminded that ‘according to eyewitness accounts, photographic evidence, and multiple reports, antipersonnel mines have been laid between Myanmar’s two major land crossings with Bangladesh, resulting in casualties’ and called upon Myanmar to ‘mark and clear the minefields, in order to prevent more civilian casualties.’
Human Rights Watch highlighted that the wide support to the 27th Special Session sent a ‘powerful message.’ They further emphasised the importance of the draft resolution, which aimed at following the situation for the next three years and concluded that: ‘if Myanmar imagines that in the months to come, the gaze of the international community will wander on to other crises and the plight of the Rohingya again be forgotten, then it is deeply mistaken.’
During the second meeting of the Special Session, Saudi Arabia presented, on behalf of a core group of States, draft resolution S27/L.1 on the ‘situation of human rights of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar.’ It explained that the resolution aimed to ‘set out the human rights violations being perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslim minority and to call upon Myanmar to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to put an end to any incitement to hatred and violence through the denunciation and condemnation of such acts and the prosecution of the perpetrators.’
The country concerned, Myanmar, declared its willingness to ‘be part of the solution, not of the problem’ while stating their regret over the issuing of country-specific resolutions. Myanmar dissociated itself from the resolution.
|Albania, Bangladesh, Belgium, Botswana, Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire, Croatia, Egypt, El Salvador, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Hungary, Indonesia, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Panama, Paraguay, Portugal, Qatar, the Republic of Korea, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Togo, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.||Burundi, China, and the Philippines.||Congo, Ecuador, Ethiopia, India, Japan, Kenya, Mongolia, South Africa, and Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of).|
With the adoption of resolution S27/L.1, the Council ‘strongly calls upon Myanmar to fully cooperate with the Fact-Finding Mission established by HRC resolution 34/22 and grant unfettered access for the Fact-Finding Mission, other human rights mechanisms and the UN’ (OP7), as well as to ‘allow full, immediate, safe, unconditional and unhindered access to the UN agencies and other international humanitarian actors’ (OP9).
Furthermore, the Council calls upon Myanmar to ‘address the root causes of the Rohingya crisis including through addressing the issue of statelessness of the Rohingya population by ensuring their equal access to full citizenship and related rights (…)’ (OP18) and urges the Government to ‘take steps to create conducive atmosphere for safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return to their places of origin in Myanmar of those who have been forcibly displaced’ (OP11).
Finally, resolution S27/L.1 requests a thorough monitoring of the human rights situation of the Rohingya people by the Council through regular oral updates by the High Commissioner during the upcoming 38th, 41th, and 44th sessions of the Council (OP21), and ‘a comprehensive written report on the situation, including on the level of cooperation and access given to the Fact Finding Mission and other UN human rights mechanisms, the implementation of this resolution, findings and recommendations of the UN system on the situation of human rights of Rohingya people in Rakhine State, recommendations on future course of action, and to present the report to the Human Rights Council, at its 40th session in March 2019, and submit the report to the United Nations General Assembly for consideration’ (OP22).
 Albania, Bangladesh, Belgium, Botswana, Côte d’Ivoire, Croatia, Egypt, El Salvador, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Hungary, Indonesia, Iraq, Japan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Panama, Paraguay, Portugal, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, Togo, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.
 Afghanistan, Algeria, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bulgaria, Canada, Cyprus, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, the Maldives, Malta, Norway, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Senegal, Slovakia, Spain, the State of Palestine, Sudan, Sweden, and Turkey.
 Only two out of the twenty-seven Special sessions of the Human Rights Council have been of a thematic nature, however, namely, on: ‘the negative impact on the realization of the right to food of the worsening of the world food crisis, caused inter alia by the soaring food prices’ (7th Special Session); and ‘The Impact of the Global Economic and Financial Crises on the Universal Realization and Effective Enjoyment of Human Rights’ (10th Special Session).
 Albania, Bangladesh, Belgium, Botswana, Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire, Croatia, Egypt, El Salvador, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Hungary, Indonesia, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Panama, Paraguay, Portugal, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Togo, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.
 Burundi, China, and the Philippines.
 Congo, Ecuador, Ethiopia, India, Japan, Kenya, Mongolia, South Africa, and Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of).
Feature photo: During the vote of the resolution L1 at the Special Session on ‘the human rights situation of the minority Rohingya Muslim population and other minorities in the Rakhine State of Myanmar ‘. 5 December 2017. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Pramila Patten, Special Representative of Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, at the Special Session on ‘the human rights situation of the minority Rohingya Muslim population and other minorities in the Rakhine State of Myanmar »^’. 5 December 2017. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Htin Lynn, Permanent Representative of Myanmar to the United Nations Office at Geneva ( Concerned Country ) , at the Special Session on ‘the human rights situation of the minority Rohingya Muslim population and other minorities in the Rakhine State of Myanmar’. 5 December 2017. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Mohammed Shahriar Alam, State Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh, at the Special Session on ‘the human rights situation of the minority Rohingya Muslim population and other minorities in the Rakhine State of Myanmar’. 5 December 2017. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Catalina Aguilar Devandas, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, at the Special Session on ‘the human rights situation of the minority Rohingya Muslim population and other minorities in the Rakhine State of Myanmar’. 5 December 2017. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.