Myanmar coup: UN Human Rights Council calls for release of Aung San Suu Kyi

A Buddhist monk holds a picture of deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a street march against the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar on Feb. 12, 2021. (AP Photo)

The United Nations Human Rights Council has unanimously adopted a resolution calling for the release of Myanmar’s ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and a return to civilian rule.

The human rights body has demanded “the immediate and unconditional release of all those arbitrarily detained” since the military coup on 1 February and for the state of emergency imposed by the military to be lifted. The resolution also called for the restoration of the elected government and for UN monitors to be granted access to the country.

"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, addressing the Council during a special session convened on Friday.

She said that more than 350 people in Myanmar have now been detained by the military - known locally as the Tatmadaw - including state officials, journalists, activists and academics, many of whom are now facing criminal charges on “dubious grounds”.

“To this Council, we recommend the strongest possible call for the military authorities to respect the election result, to return power to civilian control and immediately release all individuals arbitrarily detained,” she told the forum.

Al-Nashif also noted the growing military presence across the country in recent days, and the incidents of violence against protestors. "Let us be clear: the indiscriminate use of lethal or less-than-lethal weapons against peaceful protestors is unacceptable,” she told the Council. “More violence against Myanmar’s people will only compound the illegitimacy of the coup and the culpability of its leaders.”

Although the resolution was adopted unanimously without a vote during the session, a number of countries said that they “disassociated” themselves from it afterwards, including China and Russia. Myint Thu, Myanmar’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, said before the vote that “country-specific resolutions” were “not acceptable”.

Growing violence. Supporters of Suu Kyi clashed with security forces on Friday as hundreds of thousands of people joined pro-democracy demonstrations across the country, defying the military junta’s call to halt mass gatherings.

Addressing member states during the plenary session, Thomas Andrews, the special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said there were “growing reports and photographic evidence” that the police had used live ammunition against peaceful protestors, including one woman who was shot in the head during a demonstration.

“This violence violates international law,” he said. The special rapporteur also urged the UN Security Council to consider bringing in sanctions and arms embargoes in response to the military’s actions.

“Security Council resolutions dealing with similar situations have mandated sanctions, arms embargoes, and travel bans, and calling for judicial action at the International Criminal Court or ad hoc tribunals,” he told member states. “All of these options should be on the table.”

The United States, which imposed its own sanctions against Myanmar on Thursday, called on other countries to do the same in its first remarks to the Council since returning to the forum as an observer this week. US Charge d'Affaires Mark Cassayre asked all Council members “to join the United States and others….in promoting accountability for those responsible for the coup, including through targeted sanctions.”

The meeting to consider the resolution was convened at the request of the European Union and the United Kingdom. In a letter read out by UK ambassador Julian Braithwaite, some 300 elected Myanmar parliamentarians urged the UN to investigate “gross human rights violations” they allege have been carried out by the military, including illegal arrests and arbitrary detentions of elected politicians, human rights defenders and later civilians taking part in non-violent civil disobedience movements.

The letter also said the junta, led by military leader General Min Aung Hlaing, had “placed restrictions on people’s freedom of speech” by preparing a telecommunications bill to restrict access to the internet and mobile services.

Need for humanitarian access. The resolution adopted by the Council also called for unimpeded humanitarian access to Myanmar. Many member states stressed the need for unobstructed access for international NGOs and civil society organisations to reach people in need, in a country where nearly one million people depend on aid. This point was emphasised by civil society groups who addressed the member states during the session, with particular focus on ethnic and religious minority groups including the Rohingya people in Rakhine State.

“The military must remove blocks to humanitarian access in ethnic states and the international community should provide immediate cross border humanitarian aid to access those who cannot be reached within the country,” said a spokesperson for Caritas International.

Representatives from civil society also urged the Council to take decisive action before the situation escalated further. “The warning signs are ominous,” said a spokesperson for Civicus. “Myanmar risks returning to the days of mass incarceration of human rights defenders, violent crackdowns on mass protests, and isolation - both inside and outside.”

Opposition from Russia and China. A handful of member states did not support the resolution. China and Russia - both which have close ties to Myanmar - said they opposed the session even being held and that the Council should not try to interfere with events in the country.

“What happened in Myanmar is essentially Myanmar’s internal affairs,” said Chen Xu, China’s ambassador. He went on to say China was in communication with “relevant parties in Myanmar to promote the relaxation and return to normal of the situation”.

Russian ambassador Gennady Gatilov also accused the Council of interfering. “We believe that settling disagreements between the political forces in Myanmar is a purely domestic affair of the sovereign state,” said Gatilov. “Attempts to whip up hype around the situation in Myanmar need to cease,” he added.

Venezuela, Bolivia and the Philippines joined Russia and China in asking that their disassociation from the resolution be noted.