The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ fears on Myanmar’s shrinking political space

Morgane Dussud analyzes the High Commissioner’s announcement that he won’t seek a second mandate.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein announced on December 20, 2017 that he wouldn’t be seeking a second mandate, due to the “appalling climate for advocacy” in the current geopolitical system. This comes as a worrying warning regarding the inability of the UN system to respond to multiplying conflicts across the globe, from Syria to Yemen, and from Myanmar to Iraq, with acts amounting to crimes against humanity.

His nomination in 2014— which was unanimously approved by all 193 member states of the UN General Assembly— was at the time perceived as a positive sign, showing a political will to strengthen human rights within the UN system.

The former professional diplomat, who has acquired a strong reputation as a fierce defender of human rights, never shied away from speaking truth even to the most powerful states within the UN. He was especially vocal in his criticism of Russian support to the Syrian government, and regularly denounced the Trump administration’s faux pas, from the travel bans against citizens from Muslim majority countries to the administration’s reaction to the demonstrations organized by white supremacists in Virginia.

Fearing that signing up for a second mandate heading the High Commissariat would too often mean having to “bend a knee in supplication”, his decision is a clear reflection of the deep crisis human rights institutions are currently suffering, while even UN agencies are under increasing pressure from governments who openly disregard their international engagements.

The insufficient action of the international community in regard to the terror campaign conducted by the Burmese army against the Rohingya minority must have also weighed in his decision. Several NGOs have reported on the unprecedented large scale violence the Muslim minority has been subjected to: murders, deportations and forced displacements, entire villages burned to the ground, and sexual violence have forced over 620,000 refugees to seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh, in the space of a few months. 

Positioning the UN High Commissariat for Human Rights at the forefront of the denunciation of what he qualified as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” last September, Zeid opened himself and the UN to harsh criticism from the Myanmar government and its allies in the region. Facing the threat of a Chinese veto, it took several months for the UN Security Council to finally adopt in November 2017 a lightweight statement condemning Myanmar for the unprecedented humanitarian crisis that unfolded following the exodus of close to two thirds of the Rohingya population to Bangladesh.

Nonetheless, a month later on December 24, 2017, China and Russia voted against a resolution by the UN General Assembly calling on Myanmar to halt its military campaign in Rakhine state, to give Rohingya full citizenship rights and to grant aid workers access. The resolution, which was adopted by a vote of 122 to 10 with 24 abstentions also called on UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to assign a special envoy to the country.

Zeid’s worries that he would have to navigate a very narrow political space should he seek to renew his mandate, making his job heading the High Commissariat for Human Rights close to impossible, seem even more valid as the Myanmar authorities announced the same day their denial of UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee’s entry into the territory and their refusal to engage into further collaboration on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. 

In June 2017, the government had already denied visas to the members of the UN fact finding mission, tasked by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate the human rights situation on the ground. Following her previous visit in July 2017, Ms Lee had denounced the intimidation tactics dating back to the previous military government’s rule— tactics still used today to limit access of independent international observers and to pressure individuals who dare speak to them.

Myanmar is often shamelessly defying humanitarian law and the various UN organs, providing a perfect example of the complex advocacy context Zeid deplored in his recent statement, explaining that he might not be able to maintain his independence and the integrity of his voice for another 4 years.   

In a poignant speech in Paris on December 10, 2017, a year before the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, Zeid called once more upon the international community not to shy away from its responsibilities in the field of human rights:

“This abandonment of humanity’s values puts all of us in danger”, he pleaded. “Time and again, the denial of human rights considerations by the leaders of nations has proven itself to be absolutely disastrous in terms of preventing terrorism, misery, violence and conflict. Only justice can build sustainable peace – within nations, and between them.”

As his decision not to seek a new mandate illustrates, it appears few members of the UN system are really inclined to protect justice and law above their own interests. Zeid put his foot down one last time and by choosing to leave with such fracas, he is probably leaving no option to the UN heavy weights, including Secretary General Antonio Guterres, but to name a strong and credible candidate to replace him—and continue the fight. Myanmar will sadly but surely continue to rank high on his successor’s agenda.

After three years working as Executive Coordinator for the Secretary General of Amnesty International in London, Morgane Dussud is currently a Research Fellow with the International NGO ActionAid in Myanmar. A graduate from Sciences Po Lyon (France) in International Affairs and from the University of Gothenburg (Sweden) with a Master in Human Rights Policy and Practice, she started her career as Parliamentary Legal Officer at the French Senate. She currently works on human rights and international development issues, focusing on women rights, youth empowerment and peace building processes in Myanmar, based in Yangon.