Myanmar debate dominates Human Rights Council opening session

GS News
4 min readJun 22, 2021


The United Nations Human Rights Council opened its latest session on Monday with a tense debate over the representation of Myanmar at the body following the military coup in the country on 1 February.

Member states were split on whether planned debates about the human rights situation in the country were to go ahead or be postponed, with countries including Austria on behalf of the European Union, the United Kingdom and Indonesia arguing the scheduled sessions should take place as planned.

However, a number of countries including China, the Philippines and Venezuela insisted the debates should not occur without the presence of Myanmar, which has not been represented at the Geneva body since the ambassador left after the military junta took power.

The UN General Assembly’s credentials committee has not yet decided which representation of Myanmar will be recognised, which has led some states to argue no debates on the country should be held unless it can be present. Ambassador Chen Xu of China insisted it was “not fair” to go ahead with the two scheduled debates and urged the council to delay them until the next session in September.

But others argue that the grave human rights situation in the country — included alleged violations against both the Muslim Rohingya minority and anti-coup protesters — must be urgently addressed by the council.

“We recognise that we are dealing with an unusual set of circumstances that have not arisen before,” said Rita French, Britain’s international ambassador for human rights. “But we need to be guided by relevant practice of what has happened before.”

“The reason why two dialogues were mandated just a few months ago is because there is a human rights crisis in Myanmar,” she said.

Human Rights Council president Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan of Fiji declared the debates would remain on the agenda but were subject to change, as her office will continue to consider the decision.

The debate on Myanmar’s position at the council followed the UN General Assembly’s condemnation of the military coup last week. In a rare move which highlights growing pressure within the international community against the military junta, the UN body passed a resolution denouncing the coup and called for an arms embargo against the country.

EU ambassador Olof Skoog said the resolution, supported by 119 countries, “sends a strong and powerful message,” calling it “the broadest and most universal condemnation of the situation in Myanmar to date”.

“It delegitimises the military junta, condemns its abuse and violence against its own people and demonstrates its isolation in the eyes of the world,” he said. “The UN community of nations has expressed resounding support to the people of Myanmar — that their human rights and freedoms must be protected, and that their democratically elected leaders must be released from detention.”

Crisis in Tigray. Alongside the debate on Myanmar, the UN rights chief Bachelet used the opening of the council’s three-week session to express her concern for the situation in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

Bachelet said she was “deeply disturbed” by “continued reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights violations and abuses against civilians by all parties to the conflict” in the region, where violence erupted between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the government in November.

The UN reported in April that women and children in Tigray are being subjected to rape and sexual violence “with a cruelty that is beyond comprehension” , and there have been widespread reports of targeted sexual attacks and executions of civilians.

Bachelet said abuses had been committed by both sides in the northern region, where the UN has said some 350,000 people are facing famine and more than one million people have been displaced.

A group of NGOs including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Service for Human Rights released a joint statemen t on Friday calling on the council to adopt a resolution on the “human rights crisis” regarding “possible war crimes and crimes against humanity” in Tigray.

Addressing the council as Ethiopians headed to the polls for local and national elections on Monday, Bachelet said she expected the UN’s long-awaited joint investigation on the situation in Tigray to be completed by August. UN personnel have been present in Tigray since mid-May conducting an investigation with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

Confirmation of visit to Xinjiang. Bachelet also used her opening remarks to outline a timeline for a visit this year to China, including its Xinjiang region, to investigate reports of rights violations against Muslim Uighurs. Negotiations have been underway since 2018, with Bachelet under growing pressure from rights groups and Western states to secure access to the region.

Bachelet also voiced her concern over the arrest of 107 people under Hong Kong’s new security law and the “chilling impact” on the law on civic and democratic space, including the media. She said the first trial of one of those arrested, which is scheduled for later this week, will be an “important test of independence for Hong Kong’s judiciary”.

The human rights chief also called on Russia to uphold “civil and political rights” just days after US president Joe Biden met Russian president Vladimir Putin in Geneva last week and raised the topic of human rights and freedoms in the country.

She said she was “dismayed” by the escalating crackdown on opposition in the country and demanded Russia stop labelling individuals, journalists and NGOs as “extremist foreign agents or undesirable organisations”, citing the recent labelling of jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation as an “extremist organisation”.

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