The UN’s top human rights body held an urgent session on Friday to discuss the military coup in Myanmar, facing a call for the release of people “arbitrarily detained” – including civilian government leader Aung San Suu Kyi – and more action by UN officials to increase scrutiny of the country.
The Human Rights Council has no power to impose sanctions but can train a potent political spotlight on rights abuses and violations. Friday’s session comes shortly after the Biden administration, which has already imposed sanctions on top coup leaders, revived US participation at the 47-member Geneva body.
While China and Russia faulted attempts to politicize the situation and called it a domestic matter, many Western countries, the UN human rights office and others decried the coup and state of emergency and said it must end.
“The seizure of power by the Myanmar military earlier this month constitutes a profound setback for the country after a decade of hard-won gains in its democratic transition,” said the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada al-Nashif. “The world is watching.”
A draft resolution, presented by Britain and the European Union, calls for the “immediate and unconditional release” of Suu Kyi, President U Win Myint, and other top officials in the government, a lifting of restrictions on the internet and unimpeded humanitarian access, among other things.
It also calls on UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet to give the independent UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, Tom Andrews, “increased assistance, resources and expertise” to carry out his job.
“We need real action from the United Nations,” said Andrews, a former US Congressman, in a video message, citing information that the junta has detained 220 government officials and members of civil society.
“The message from the people of Myanmar to all of you and to the people of the world is clear: This cannot stand,” he said. Andrews has been seeking the right to visit Myanmar, which its government has denied.
Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod said in a video message his country will suspend “all direct development cooperation with the now illegitimate government” but “continue to support the civil society of Myanmar.”
The US charge d’affaires in Geneva, Mark Cassayre, said the US is urging Myanmar’s military to return power to the democratically elected government, among other things. He invited other countries to “join us in promoting accountability for those responsible for the coup, including through targeted sanctions.”
The Feb. 1 coup led by Min Aung Hlaing ousted Nobel laureate Suu Kyi and prevented recently elected lawmakers from opening a new session of Parliament. It reversed nearly a decade of progress toward democracy following 50 years of military rule, and has led to widespread protests.
The military has said it was forced to step in because Suu Kyi’s government failed to properly investigate allegations of fraud in November elections, though the election commission has said there is no evidence to support those claims.
Wearing a mask in a nearly-empty assembly hall at the UN’s Geneva offices amid the coronavirus pandemic, Myanmar’s ambassador, Myint Thu, largely rattled off general commitments from his country, such as in helping internally displaced people or fighting COVID-19, but justified the military’s actions.
“In light of the post-election irregularities and following complex situation, Tatmadaw was compelled to take the state responsibility in accordance with the state constitution,” said the ambassador, who took office in October under Suu Kyi’s government, using the local term for the military.
“Myanmar is undergoing the complex – extremely complex – challenges and delicate transition,” he said. “We do not want to stall our nascent democratic transition in the country.”
Russia and China, among a few others including Belarus, said they opposed attempts to make a human rights case of the situation in Myanmar, calling it a domestic matter.
“Attempts to whip hype around the situation in Myanmar need to cease,” said Gennadiy Gatilov, the Russian ambassador in Geneva, insisting that the international community instead should be “providing practical assistance to the new authorities in Myanmar to fulfill their obligations.”
Chinese ambassador Chen Xu said: “What happened in Myanmar is essentially Myanmar’s internal affairs,” adding that his country is communicating with contacts in Myanmar “to promote the relaxation and the return to normal of the situation.”
Sudan’s ambassador, Ali Ibn Abi Talib Abdelrahman Mahmoud, reminded the council about other concerns about human rights in Myanmar – namely abuses against Rohingya Muslims, who fled a military crackdown by the hundreds of thousands into neighboring Bangladesh.