2011 Sep 07
September 7, 2011

Burma sets up Human Rights Commission

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The Burmese government has set up a National Human Rights Commission which it says will “safeguard the fundamental rights of its citizens”.

According to the State-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar, the 15-member panel will be made up of former ambassadors, government officials and academics.

The move comes after the United Nations Special Rapporteur for human rights in Burma called for the government to investigate alleged human rights abuses.

Presenter: Liam Cochrane
Speaker: Trevor Wilson, former Australian ambassador to Burma

WILSON: Well it was a step that the government in Burma had to take because they were one of the ASEAN countries for example who did not have an independent human rights commission. They’ve had a temporary body for some years now, so this is just one further step towards this point. It’s also connected to the review of Myanmar’s human rights, which was carried out in the Human Rights Council earlier this year. One of the recommendations was that they should get on with setting up an independent commission. And it’s also connected to the ASEAN Human Rights Charter, where it’s expected that ASEAN countries will have an independent human rights commission to look into human rights problems. So it’s a step that had to be taken.

COCHRANE: And do we know who’s on the commission?

WILSON: The names have all been listed and as you said in your introduction, former diplomats, academics and former officials mostly. I know a few of the people on the committee and they are very experienced diplomats, very knowledgeable academics, the most respected living historian in Burma is on the committee. Academic experts in international law and international relations, and the representation from other retired officials covers ministries that you would hope would have some experience and knowledge of human rights problems like the labour department, social welfare department and interestingly the forestry department. But the education ministry is also there, so it’s a broadly representative group of, yes, mostly former officials and retired academics. I think they are intelligent enough to be independent, to take an independent view; they don’t have to defend government policies unnecessarily. There are also a few representatives from ethnic minority groups, who I can just tell that from their names, I don’t know them. So it’s not a bad composition.

COCHRANE: And has there been any reaction from Aung San Suu Kyi’s political opposition party?

WILSON: Not that I’ve seen but I would expect people inside the country, including the opposition parties would say yes this is a good next step, but now we have to judge the Human Rights Commission by its deeds, by its action and see whether it really does take up issues independently, vigorously and does succeed in defending the human rights of victims.

COCHRANE: Now we’ve been told repeatedly that the biggest human rights issue in Burma is that of the two-thousand or so political prisoners in the country. Do you think that the commission will have to tackle that head-on as its first big project to sort of set out its legitimacy, or do you think it might start with a slightly smaller issue and try and work up to the political prisoners?

WILSON: Political prisoners by definition is a political issue, political problem. It is big, it’s high profile, but it’s not the most serious human rights problem in the country by any means. There are a whole lot of other issues; forced labour, the behaviour of the army, the impunity of the army from prosecution, child soldiers, etc., etc. I would have thought they would take up those sorts of issues rather than political prisoners. The government needs to take a decision about releasing political prisoners, but that’s not a straightforward matter. –http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/asiapac/stories/201109/s3312569.ht