Myanmar: Human rights reforms in Myanmar | Letter

Re: Human reforms in Myanmar: release of political prisoners; adherence to international standards for the treatment of prisoners; adherence to principles of independence of judges and lawyers; protection of lawyers and human rights defenders in the exercise of their professional responsibilities

To: Lt-Gen. U Thein Sein

From: Gail Davidson, Executive Director, LRWC

Date: 2011-11-04

LRWC welcomed recent promises by your government for reform and respect for human rights in Myanmar. LRWC looked forward to the release of more than 2000 political prisoners imprisoned since late 2007. LRWC welcomed news that approximately 200 known political prisoners were among those released from jails on 12 October 2011. However, we are deeply disappointed that the vast majority of political prisoners remain in jail. LRWC hopes your government will demonstrate a sincere commitment to international human rights standards by immediately releasing all remaining political prisoners.

Among the political prisoners are lawyers and other human rights defenders sentenced to prison for their work defending human rights, as well as monks, students and political activists. Approximately half of the political prisoners were imprisoned because of their peaceful participation in 2007 demonstrations.

Prison conditions

Myanmar’s prison conditions are known to fall far short of international standards with insufficient food, water and medical care. It is reported that most prisoners are subject to torture or other prohibited ill-treatment including prolonged solitary confinement in deplorable conditions.

LRWC has learned that a number of political prisoners in Insein Prison embarked on a hunger strike on 27 October 2011 to protest the lack of reduction of their sentences even though ordinary criminals have had their sentences reduced as part of the release of thousands of prisoners on 12 October.

LRWC is horrified by reports that fifteen of the persons on hunger strike have been denied drinking water for a week, and that some have been placed in cells designed for military dogs (“dog cells”) that measure approximately seven feet by ten feet and are reportedly soundproof and windowless with no proper sanitation, no bed and no mats on the floor. In June 2011, prisoners detained in such cells reported that these cells were infested with vermin such as white lice and smelled of sewage.

Standards of arrest, detention and trial

In addition, LRWC is aware that authorities in Myanmar do not follow international human rights standards for arrest, detention and trial. Many people are detained for lengthy periods of time without trial. International standards require that only persons suspected of having committed internationally recognized offences are to be arrested and detained, and in such cases they are to be given a prompt and public trial using internationally recognized standards of fairness and impartiality. Otherwise, they must not be detained, but released unconditionally without delay.

Independence of judiciary

We understand that Chief Justice Aung Toe has stated his agreement with the 1995 Beijing Statement of Principles of the Independence of the Judiciary which emphasizes the importance of impartiality in all aspects of the administration of justice. Nevertheless, there have been no measures implemented to protect lawyers from administrative and judicial harassment during the course of their lawful work representing their clients or upholding international human rights principles and standards. Lawyers must be permitted to carry out their professional responsibilities without interference. LRWC has also been concerned about recent reports that human rights lawyers are regularly subjected to harassment, including threats, investigations and decisions to revoke licenses in judicial proceedings that are politically influenced. It is also reported that the Myanmar Special Branch intelligence personnel have followed and conducted surveillance of both lawyers and their clients involved in human right cases. These intimidating actions contradict internationally recognized principles of independence of lawyers and judges from political interference and the right of all persons to be represented by lawyers in a court of law.

Myanmar as a member of the United Nations (19 Apr. 1948) is bound by the purposes of the UN Charter including “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all…” Accordingly, Myanmar is obligated to respect and uphold the freedoms guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The rights to life and liberty and freedom from torture have been confirmed by innumerable Declarations and Resolutions of the UN General Assembly including:

  • Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, Adopted by General Assembly resolution 43/173 of 9 December 1988;
  • Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, General Assembly resolution 53/144.

These General Assembly resolutions were adopted without a vote; thus, to LRWC’s knowledge, Myanmar raised no objection to the principles and obligations to which States agreed in the adoption of these instruments.

LRWC also draws to your attention the following instruments:

  • Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, Adopted by the First United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, held at Geneva in 1955, and approved by the Economic and Social Council by its resolutions 663 C (XXIV) of 31 July 1957 and 2076 (LXII) of 13 May 1977,
  • Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, Adopted by the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, Havana, Cuba, 27 August to 7 September 1990 and the

LRWC emphasizes and reminds your government that Myanmar is legally bound by customary international law which includes the obligation to uphold the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment; the right to be free from prolonged arbitrary detention; and the right to a fair trial before an impartial tribunal.

Creation of Myanmar Human Rights Commission

LRWC has also noted the recent creation of a Myanmar Human Rights Commission. Such a step will be progress if the Commission proves itself to be genuinely independent from government and truly impartial in its actions.

LRWC requests that your government take immediate action to ensure:

1. the effective prevention and punishment of perpetrators of torture and other ill-treatment of prisoners identified in this cease; and,

2. that all prisoners are treated with the human dignity and given all necessities of life including proper food, water, sanitation and medical treatment.

3. the immediate release of all political prisoners as well as lawyers and human rights defenders detained because of their legitimate work upholding international human rights.

4. the independence of lawyers and judges, and

5. the effective prevention of all forms of intimidation and harassment of lawyers and human rights defenders.