Myanmar – A bleeding country – and the need for UN-wide solidarity

Gabriele Köhler

Myanmar: 900 people murdered by the junta which usurped power four months ago, 1000s arrested – many of them tortured, some to death. The elected government has been arrested and put on trial. 

The World Food Programme predicts a hunger catastrophe. Income poverty is exploding. Access to already dismal health services has collapsed; it can be assumed that the covid-19 pandemic is raging since testing and care are hardly available. 

So, in SDG-speak, the country is egregiously cheated on all levels on the promises and commitments of the UN Agenda 2030 . 

A number of UN agencies are courageously supporting Myanmar’s democracy movement, continuing to provide services on the ground, notably to at least 2 million people who have lost their incomes; to the exploding number of internally displaced persons who need food, shelter, health services; and to millions of children foregoing schooling and losing loved ones in the conflict. 

Some parts of the UN system continue to speak up for human rights and asserting child rights. And, via the Security Council, behind the scenes there are attempts to negotiate a cessation in the junta’s violence, or to stop arms exports and financial dealings with the regime. 

Running counter to these efforts, the ECOSOC High Level Political Forum (HLPF), meeting virtually from 6-16 July, is going ahead with a sanitised presentation of Myanmar’s current catastrophe. The country’s Voluntary National Review  (VNR) completely ignores the systematic daily attacks on human rights, social justice, gender equality, the right to health, the right to political voice, and the very right to life, perpetrated by the junta and its military, the Tatmadaw. 

It is not clear whether the Review was submitted early by the NLD-led government before they were deposed; or recently by the junta government. But the fact that this text has been accepted by the UN – in form of publishing it in the summary for the HLPF session – suggests an alarming disconnect and dysfunctionality in the UN department servicing the HLPF process.

Ironically, the thematic segment of the HLPF will be focussing on SDG Goals 1 – poverty, 2 – hunger, 3 -health, 10 -equality and 16 – governance. All of these are of existential importance in and relevant to Myanmar’s current situation.  

We are aware of the enormous constraints under which the UN Secretariat operates – the UN as an institution is challenged politically in terms of its relevance as a multilateral institution, with ever more autocratic governments filling the ranks of the member states, and with unfettered capitalist globalisation putting ideals of social and economic justice and civil liberties on the backburner. We know as well that the UN system  is under extreme financial pressure also, which is likely to worsen in 2022 as governments deal with GDP regression, adopt austerity budgets, and/ or are hamstrung by enormous public debt

So, a certain degree of “pragmatism” is understandable in light of these pressures, and seeing that the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs has to each year handle some 40 countries’ submissions to the HLPF process. Myanmar is, unfortunately, not the only dictatorship submitting a VNR and thereby making an empty spectacle of the 2030 Agenda.

But at the same time, this constellation does not give license to diverge from the UN’s ethical commitment that flows from the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Charter. There is a recent General Assembly re-affirmation of the responsibility to protect.  There is also a handbook on SDG16 – good governance with guidance on conflict analysis. The secretariat ought to fiercely and proudly use these references to speak up for the rights of those who are being slaughtered by their own government.

Procedurally, countries under HLPF review are meant to consult with civil society, who can either be invited to contribute to the country report – admittedly an avenue for co-optation in undemocratic settings –  or are allowed to submit a critical counter-report rebutting the official view. In addition, the meeting schedule slots in a (2-minute!) intervention from independent civil society on the day the national review is presented. 

With regard to Myanmar at this year’s HLPF, this then is an appeal 

  • to all parties involved to support civil society and the free media in Myanmar in their struggle to reinstate democracy, including before such fora as the HLPF;
  • to all democratic countries presenting their VNRs this year to distance themselves from the Myanmar report if it is not corrected to reflect the true situation in the country; and
  • to ensure that the UN continues to recognise the legitimate government of Myanmar represented by the National Unity Government. and its courageous permanent representative to the UN New York

More generally, it is an appeal for the UN to continue 

  • its on-the-ground support to the people of Myanmar; 
  • its statements on the human rights situation; and
  • its efforts to speed up multilateral decisions and resolutions for a genuine arms embargo with a monitoring system, and to halt all economic activities that benefit the junta and its associates.

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