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GA/SHC/4301

‘Censorship Kills Scholarship’ Expert Warns Third Committee, amid Broad Calls for Upholding Rights in Myanmar, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Stressing that “censorship kills scholarship”, the United Nations expert on free expression launched a passionate defence of academia as a bastion of ideas that all too often comes under siege by States seeking to control or supress the flow of information, as Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) delegates continued their interactive dialogues on broad questions of human rights today.

Irene Khan, United Nations Special Rapporteur for the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, told delegates that “academics face social harassment, retaliation, repression, imprisonment and sometimes even death for the issues they pursue, the ideas they explore, the questions they raise.”  She cited the recent example of a teacher in France who was murdered for his views on free speech, underscoring the threat posed to the exercise of this right in many countries.

In the ensuing virtual dialogue, the United Kingdom’s delegate stressed that academic freedom is essential, as it allows the opportunity to test received wisdom, as well as develop new or controversial opinions.  Several delegates noted the impact of the pandemic on freedom of expression more generally, with the representative of the Netherlands underscoring the need for a free and independent press to hold public authorities accountable for their pandemic responses.

Ms. Khan was one of six independent experts participating in virtual dialogues, which covered a range of topics, from academic freedom of expression and minority issues to foreign debt, as well as specific human rights conditions in Myanmar and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Fernand De Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issues, explained that minorities exist regardless of their constitutional or legal status, noting that they comprise more than 75 per cent of the world’s stateless population.  “The objective existence of a minority is factual, not dependent on the ‘popularity’ of a minority or the whims of a Government,” she said, turning a spotlight on Assam, India, where laws have been created that largely exclude members of Muslim and Bengali minorities from the benefits of citizenship.

When the floor opened for comments and questions, India’s representative objected to the characterization of his country in the Special Rapporteur’s report, noting that the National Register of Citizens was not linked to statelessness, but is rather an amnesty scheme for citizenship.  Pakistan’s representative disagreed, stressing that religious intolerance has led to Muslims in India being turned into “oppressed second-class citizens and maybe even non-citizens”.

In the afternoon, delegates heard from Christine Schraner Burgener, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Myanmar, who expressed concern over elections set to take place in November in the shadow of COVID‑19 and entrenched armed conflict.  Despite repeated entreaties for a ceasefire, the fighting continues.  “This clearly does not bode well for a unifying electoral process that we have been advocating,” she cautioned.

In response, Myanmar’s representative struck an optimistic note, pointing out that political parties from all communities have put forward candidates.  Not only that, but there are more than 30 candidates of Muslim faith in the running, he said.

In his presentation, Tomás Ojea Quintana, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, said there is no improvement in the protection of human rights or accountability for serious violations.  He urged the Government to immediately review the use of live ammunition as a policy for preventing the spread of COVID‑19 by restricting people from entering the country, as appears to have been the case with an official from the Republic of Korea who was recently killed by security forces.

Also presenting reports today were Yuefen Li, Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights; and Thomas H. Andrews, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.

The Third Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Monday, 26 October, to continue its consideration of the promotion and protection of human rights.

Interactive Dialogues — Freedom of Opinion and Expression

As the Committee continued its broad focus on the promotion and protection of human rights, it began the day with an interactive dialogue featuring a presentation by Irene Khan, United Nations Special Rapporteur for the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

Ms. KHAN, introducing her report on academic freedom and its relationship to freedom of opinion and expression, recalled a horrific incident last week in which a teacher in France was decapitated on the street for what he had taught in classroom — a chilling reminder of the violence surrounding free expression.  “It is also a tragic example of the kind of risks academics face when they seek to push the boundaries of knowledge, debate and discourse,” she said.  In response, States must fully respect their obligations under international human rights law.

To be sure, academic freedom is protected by a wide range of human rights, she said, notably freedom of opinion and expression.  It includes individual human rights as well as the obligation to respect the autonomy of academic institutions so they can carry out their functions without political interference.  Yet, it is under threat in many countries.  “Academics face social harassment, retaliation, repression, imprisonment and sometimes even death for the issues they pursue, the ideas they explore, the questions they raise and the methodologies they bring to bear on public policy,” she stressed, adding that the autonomy of academic institutions is also being undermined by Governments.  “Censorship kills scholarship,” she said, explaining that attacks on academic freedom corrode the pillars of democratic life, scientific progress and human development.  The report recommends that States revise laws and ensure the autonomy of academic institutions.  For its part, the United Nations human rights system should include considerations of academic freedom when reviewing States’ compliance with human rights norms, while academic institutions should stand up for the rights of all members of their communities.  As a newly appointed Special Rapporteur, she will focus on four thematic areas:  human rights and sustainable development, media freedom and safety of journalists, a gender lens on freedom of opinion and expression, and digital technology.

In the ensuing dialogue, delegates explored the impact of the pandemic on freedom of expression.  The representative of the Netherlands said COVID‑19 demonstrates the unequivocal importance of free and independent media to inform the public, ensure access to information and the Internet, and to hold public authorities accountable.  The representative of Austria, associating herself with the European Union, denounced restrictions on access to information, the Internet and telecommunications services in the name of national security and public order during the pandemic.  The representative of the United States meanwhile expressed alarm over China’s lack of transparency during the pandemic, detaining health care workers and halting journalists from providing information on the initial outbreak.

On the issue of academic freedom, the United Kingdom’s representative said the principle is fundamental to academia, as it allows academics to question and test received wisdom, as well as to develop new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without risking their jobs or privileges.  He asked about the best options for academic institutions that face a high degree of restrictions from the State and lose a large degree of autonomy.

Delegates also addressed questions around press freedom, with the Russian Federation’s representative recalling “glaring” examples of journalists being targeted while carrying out their duties.  His country has always supported freedom of expression, but does not see it as an absolute privilege:  its exercise entails certain restrictions, notably for protecting security, public health or morals.  Syria’s representative said the ranking of the United States on press freedom indices has deteriorated, according to The Washington Post.  The United States press freedom tracker has reported 130 attacks against journalists, as well as criminal indictments against media workers.  Also, Washington, D.C.’s, blocking of TikTok in the United States is a violation of digital freedom, he said, asking the Special Rapporteur to assess the situation.

Still other delegates spoke about free speech in their own countries, with Bahrain’s representative noting that his country’s constitution contains the right to freedom of expression, while ensuring that such expression does not incite violence or extremism or constitute a threat to national security.  The representative of the United Arab Emirates likewise drew attention to his country’s constitution, which guarantees that right, expressing concern that the Special Rapporteur has highlighted the detention of two foreign nationals as a violation of that right.  Nasser bin Ghaith was arrested and tried for being a member and a leader of an organization prohibited by a federal law on terrorism, he said, while Matthew Hedges confessed in court to the crimes of which he was accused.  There is no truth to allegations that he was tortured and forced to admit to espionage.

Ms. KHAN replied to these queries, referring first to article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which relates to freedom of expression and the Human Rights Council, and article 19-1 on the freedom of opinion, the latter of which is absolute.  Freedom of expression, on the other hand, is subject to restrictions, but they must be applied without overreach of laws dealing with public health, security and protecting the rights and reputations of others.  She called on States to be vigilant about their obligations under this article.

On academic autonomy, she said the report places the responsibility for this principle both on States and the institutions themselves to maintain high standards of autonomy through transparency.  Governments send a strong message when they attack the autonomy of public institutions.  “When academic freedom is attacked, society loses its capacity for self-reflection improvement and progress,” she asserted.  On national security concerns in the context of academic freedom, she underscored the importance of addressing the issue very narrowly due to the restrictions demanded by article 19, and also because the stifling of debate cripples democratic society.  She recommended that Governments handle the issue of academic freedom by following the report’s recommendations and by paying more attention to academic freedom as an object to be protected in its own right.

Also speaking were representatives of Brazil, Egypt, Lithuania (on behalf of the Nordic countries), Turkey, France, Poland, Canada, India, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and China, as well as an observer for the European Union.

Foreign Debt

Next, the Committee held an interactive dialogue on foreign debt, which featured a presentation by Yuefen Li, Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights.

Ms. LI, presenting her first report to the Committee since taking up her mandate in May (document A/75/164), said that many developing countries entered the COVID‑19 pandemic with high public and private debt levels.  That made it hard for Governments to address the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic, or to slow the spread of the coronavirus due to limited fiscal space and foreign reserves.  Normally, poor countries can reduce their debt burden when the global economy is benign and commodity prices stable.  However, the global economy now is in a deep recession, generating fears of a worldwide systemic debt crisis, with more sovereign and private defaults to come.  She recommended a “debt standstill”, including extension of the Debt Service Suspension Initiative, as well as more international cooperation to prepare for a robust, sustained and inclusive global economic recovery.  Governments must also focus on ensuring human rights and fighting inequality as they respond to the pandemic, particularly in their allocation of financial resources, she said.

In the ensuing dialogue, delegates described the heavy impact of COVID‑19 on the foreign debt of developing countries, with the representative of Antigua and Barbuda, speaking for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), pointing to the correlation, outlined in the report, between debt servicing and a decrease in public spending in the global South.  Servicing debt during the pandemic diverts financial resources urgently needed to save lives and protect the most vulnerable.  He requested recommendations to help countries facing crippling foreign debt, and at the same time working to address climate change.  The Russian Federation’s representative called for collective efforts to help countries suffering the most, including by lowering their debt burden.  He drew attention to the Russian Federation’s “green corridors, free from trade wars” initiative, particularly for the supply of medicine and essential goods.

The representative of Cuba meanwhile said he agreed that debt problems, especially for developing countries, must be dealt with in an effective manner in order to provide sustainable situations for everyone.  The impact of debt on human rights and the right to development are undeniable, especially in the context of the pandemic and especially for Southern countries.  These countries have a larger burden than others, making it difficult for them to simultaneously provide for the health of their citizens and service their debt.  He asked the Special Rapporteur for her opinion on unilateralism, especially by the United States.

Ms. LI, responding, said the pandemic has caused supply and demand side shocks, meaning that a country’s earning potential and gross domestic product (GDP) both have been reduced, leading to an economic recession.

For small island developing States, some 70 per cent of revenue depends on tourism, a sector that has nearly ground to a halt, she said.  The priority for these countries is to save lives and livelihoods.  Under international law, debt servicing is secondary to this type of life‑or‑death problem.  International support and multilateralism are urgently needed, as more than 1 million lives have been lost to the virus, she said, describing unilateral coercive actions as detrimental to the common fight against COVID‑19.

Also speaking were representatives of Argentina, China and Ethiopia.

Minorities

FERNAND DE VARENNES, Special Rapporteur on minority issues, presenting his report (document A/75/211), pointed out that the absence of clarity on the scope and significance of the four recognized categories of minorities in United Nations instruments has been a stumbling block for the full and effective realization of their human rights.  It has been used to restrict those who can claim human rights protection as members of a minority.  Noting that the report contains a comprehensive framework that aims to end such gaps and ambiguities, he said it also makes clear that a minority’s existence does not depend on a State’s approval.  “The objective existence of a minority is factual, not dependent on the ‘popularity’ of a minority or the whims of a Government,” he stressed.  A linguistic minority, for example, exists objectively regardless of constitutional or legal status, and a religious or belief minority includes a wide range of religious, non-religious, non-theistic and other beliefs, including animists, atheists and agnostics, among others.  Moreover, categories of national and ethnic minorities referred to in United Nations instruments, while closely related, are not synonymous.  The former includes categories of individuals on the basis of origin, descent, or culture, and therefore includes nomadic and caste-based groups.  The study also emphasizes the importance of the free self-identification of individuals in all these categories.

Turning to statelessness, he stressed that it is first and foremost a minority issue, given that more than three quarters of the world’s more than 10 million recognized stateless are persons belonging to minorities.  The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) campaign to eradicate statelessness by 2024 risks failing “abysmally”, he warned, “since global statelessness may in fact be increasing significantly by millions in the near future, contributing to a potential humanitarian crisis and destabilizing situation.”  He expressed great concern over reports in Assam, India, that legislation, regulations and policies in that state and other parts of the country are likely to exclude mainly members of Muslim and Bengali minorities from citizenship.  “Let us be clear:  This may lead to millions of individuals in India being deemed to be ‘foreigners’, and therefore non-citizens, and probably in most cases, resulting in them becoming for all intents and purposes stateless,” he said.  The spectre of violence and hatred is “skyrocketing” since the onset of the COVID‑19 pandemic, he said, with many social media attacks targeted towards persons belonging to minority groups, including Romas, Dalits, Jews and Asians.  This issue will be the priority of his mandate this year, as well as the focus of the upcoming session of the Forum on Minority Issues, in November in Geneva.

In the ensuing dialogue, several delegates echoed the Special Rapporteur’s concerns about the rising incidence of hate speech around the world.  In this context, the representative of Hungary expressed concern about the “alarming trend” of rising hate speech during the pandemic, which undermines respect for minorities and can lead to serious human rights violations.  He supported the elaboration of legally binding instruments on combating hate speech and asked about how hate speech can be stemmed during the ongoing crisis.

The representative of Mexico emphasized the importance of protecting the rights of indigenous peoples, as 25 million Mexicans identify as indigenous, and asked about the best practices to eliminate discrimination when carrying out measures to stem COVID‑19, including physical distancing.

The representative of Austria, associating with the European Union, said despite the “fundamental misconception” that minority rights fuel secessionist movements, “the opposite is true”, as research demonstrates that the cause of many conflicts is lack of protection of minority groups.  He asked how to ensure that the protection of minority rights is adequately incorporated in the United Nations agenda for conflict prevention, and effectively addressed in all relevant intergovernmental fora, including the Security Council.

Meanwhile, the representative of India strenuously objected to the report’s “sweeping” inferences about events in his country, adding that its National Register of Citizens is merely an enumeration of citizens, directed by the Supreme Court.  “It is an amnesty scheme that fast-tracks citizenship for illegal residents,” he said, adding that the programme’s “linkage to statelessness is fiction at its best”.  Rejecting the report’s “biased insinuations”, he added that “nothing comes out of deliberate politicization.”

The representative of Pakistan echoed concerns referenced in the report on the “despicable treatment” of Muslims in India, adding that the atmosphere of religious intolerance is turning them into “oppressed second-class citizens and maybe even non-citizens”.  He called for immediate action to be taken on the issue and asked if the Special Rapporteur has been invited to visit Assam to investigate the matter.

Mr. DE VARENNES, responding to questions and comments, said he will release a practical guideline next year on the scourge of hate speech affecting minorities, following regional consultations and the Forum on Minority Issues.  According to the best data, minorities are almost always targets of hate speech and it is important to highlight just how much they are affected by it, as it is “not fully appreciated in the United Nations”.  In 2021, he will also prepare guidelines for States and stakeholders on human rights in education in minority languages.

To India’s delegate, he responded that numerous reports from various sources indicate minorities are not effectively protected, suggesting that existing legal and constitutional protections are insufficient.  He reiterated his invitation to dialogue with India, and his idea, raised in 2019, of a mission to examine the situation on the ground.  “There has been no response to the suggestion thus far,” he recalled.

Turning to conflict prevention, he said it will be the theme of his work in 2021, as it is increasingly clear that the rights of oppressed minorities must be upheld to achieve peace, security and justice.

Recalling that 2022 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, he said it will be a good time to evaluate how to improve respect for the rights of minorities.  More precise, fleshed-out tools may be needed to tackle the virus of hate speech, and the worsening problem of statelessness.  “We must have a hard think about how effective our tools are, and how they’re being implemented,” he said.

Also speaking were representatives of the Russian Federation, United States and China.  An observer for the European Union also spoke.

Myanmar

In the afternoon, the Committee continued its interactive dialogues on the broad theme of human rights, with presentations on country-specific situations led by Christine Schraner Burgener, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Myanmar.

Prior to her presentation, the representative of Azerbaijan, speaking for the Non-Aligned Movement, underscored the need for a non-selective, dialogue-based approach to human rights in specific countries.  She objected to the selective adoption of country-specific resolutions, pointing out that the Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review is the main mechanism for reviewing human rights issues in all countries.

Ms. SCHRANER BURGENER, recalling the Secretary-General’s report (document A/75/295), said the 8 November elections in Myanmar will take place under challenging circumstances that have been exacerbated by the COVID‑19 crisis, which has particularly affected Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, and the conflict-affected Rakhine State.  The democratic transition requires full civilian control over governance, however, significant military influence continues in both the legislature and the administration.  The Myanmar armed forces, Tatmadaw, have resisted constitutional reforms aimed at addressing this issue.  Calling for greater action to address the underlying causes of communal and ethnic violence, she said festering issues underpinning the tensions will continue to threaten Myanmar’s reform process — and the region — if the Government does not take a more decisive stance against incitement and discrimination.

Turning to the issue of refugee returns, she said an already challenging operating environment is further aggravated by the intensifying conflict between Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army, renewed activities by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, COVID‑19 and electioneering.  Despite continued appeals for a cessation of hostilities, the fighting rages on and has affected the northern parts of Rakhine State.  “This clearly does not bode well for a unifying electoral process that we have been advocating,” she stressed.  Rohingya refugees and internally displaced persons cite the lack of safety, effective citizenship pathways and freedom of movement and the inability to return to their places of origin as major impediments to their repatriation.  Moreover, free movement, access to livelihood opportunities and basic services are still restricted for Rohingya and other displaced communities confined in camps in Rakhine State and other ethnic areas.  Concerns have already emerged about the disenfranchisement of communities across Myanmar, highlighting the urgent need to address the questions of statelessness and citizenship.

When the floor opened for questions and comments, delegates spoke out along two lines, with some voicing concerns about the conflict, and others raising alarm over humanitarian conditions in Rakhine and Chin States, where fighting persists.

The representative of Myanmar said it would be more encouraging if the Secretary-General’s report also reflected positive developments in the country.  Despite the conflict in Rakhine, Chin, Shan, and Kachin States, Myanmar is determined to mend community and foster an environment of peace, unity and democracy.  To this end, it signed a peace accord in August, which lays out a path for nation-building, and will continue the democratization process in a peaceful manner.  The country will hold elections in less than a month, in which political parties from all communities have put forward their candidates.  More than 30 candidates of Muslim faith from various political parties will participate, he said.  Despite ongoing clashes between the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw in Rakhine, Myanmar has granted permission to the World Food Programme (WFP) and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to provide food and emergency supplies.  On the repatriation process, he said Myanmar is committed to receiving verified persons under the bilateral agreement; however, no repatriations have taken place since January 2017.  He called on Bangladesh to faithfully implement the bilateral arrangement and to deter the Arakan Army from intimidating those who wished to return.  Myanmar is committed to ending the conflict and is implementing the recommendations of the [now-ended] Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, led by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.  It is also committed to accountability and will take legal action against perpetrators where there is “clear evidence of violations”.  To that end, it established an Independent Commission of Enquiry in 2018, which submitted a report to the President in January 2020.

A number of delegates, including from Japan, Saudi Arabia, Germany and Malaysia, asked what can be done to facilitate the safe, dignified return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar.

The representative of Bangladesh likewise asked about plans to help the Rohingya return home following the elections.  Bangladesh is faithfully adhering to the bilateral agreement, he said, adding:  “It is Myanmar that does not create favourable conditions for the Rohingya to safely return.”  A democratic transition is important, he said, calling on Myanmar to “come out of denial mode, address the root cause of the crisis and expedite the process of repatriation.”

The representative of the United Kingdom expressed concern about the “disturbing military tactic” of targeting civilians in Rakhine and Chin States, including “horrific reports” of the deaths of Rohingya children allegedly used as human shields by Myanmar’s military.  He called on the Tatmadaw to extend its unilateral ceasefire to all areas of the fighting and asked about steps that can be taken to deescalate conflict in Rakhine and Chin States.

The representative of Liechtenstein asked about updates on accountability, and whether Myanmar has cooperated with United Nations mechanisms specific to its situation.  The safe, dignified return of Rohingya refugees can only take place if it is clear that there is no impunity for crimes committed in the past.

Meanwhile, an observer for the European Union expressed concern that the Secretary-General’s report noted a sharp increase in the killing and maiming of children, attacks on schools and the recruitment and use of children.  He asked for an assessment of the situation, in light of the conflict, pandemic and priorities for the post-election period.

The representative of the Russian Federation reiterated that he does not support country-specific human rights resolutions.  Such issues can only be resolved through bilateral consultations without artificial timelines.  Any assistance must be provided upon request and with the consent of the State in question, he said.

Ms. SCHRANER BURGENER, responding to questions on repatriation, said she hopes for momentum after the elections.  For now, Myanmar faces “two high obstacles”:  armed conflict in Rakhine, and the ongoing pandemic, which is difficult for a poor country with a poor health system to address.  Progress had been made on several quick-impact projects, notably a Burmese curriculum introduced in Cox’s Bazar, however, these initiatives ended due to the pandemic.  After the election, conflict will continue to pose a challenge.  Stopping the violence is a priority, she stressed.  If it is brought to a halt, the Secretary-General’s office will work with Myanmar to implement the recommendations of the Kofi Annan Advisory Commission — chiefly, tackling the citizen laws and enabling the Rohingya to access health, education, and freedom of movement.  On accountability, she reiterated the Secretary‑General’s call for Myanmar to cooperate with existing independent investigative bodies.  Moreover, one big issue remains:  the Government’s ability to change the Constitution, which can hinder the democratization of the country.

Also speaking were representatives of Denmark, United States, Philippines, Czech Republic, Thailand, Switzerland and Indonesia.

Next, the Committee heard a presentation by Thomas H. Andrews, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.

Mr. ANDREWS, introducing his report (document A/75/335), said the situation of human rights in Myanmar is grave.  The Government has taken some positive steps, including its engagement with the International Court of Justice and public condemnation of hate speech, while Parliament has demonstrated its willingness to investigate human rights issues.  The Government also is working to address escalating rates of COVID‑19, and at the same time rebuild its health care system, which has suffered decades of neglect.  The COVID‑19 crisis has been made immeasurably worse by the escalation of war.  Noting that he has received reports about the indiscriminate shelling of villages and non-military targets in Rakhine State, he said jet fighters, naval vessels and ground troops have been involved, and there has been systematic burning of homes and villages of suspected Arakan Army sympathizers.  Just two weeks ago, two boys were killed when they were allegedly forced to walk in front of a unit of Tatmadaw soldiers to protect them from landmines and enemy fire.  These and other allegations of the targeting of innocent villagers, including children, must be immediately and thoroughly investigated.  As of September, nearly 90,000 civilians had been displaced in Rakhine and Chin States due to clashes between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army.

Voters in Myanmar are scheduled to have their say about the future of their country in national elections in the coming weeks, he said.  While commending the Government for aspiring to laudable standards, he said it is already clear that the elections will fail to meet them, as an election cannot reflect the will of the people when the right to vote is denied based on race, ethnicity or religion.  In his first report to the Human Rights Council, he urged election officials to consider measures to accommodate voters living in war-torn areas.  “A ballot, I argued, must always be preferable to a bullet,” he said, adding that there is no evidence that alternative measures were ever taken or considered.  The Union Election Commission announced that for security reasons, elections will be cancelled in several areas, including a majority of the townships in Rakhine State.  To make matters worse, a lack of transparency in decision-making has predictably led to charges that decisions about where to shut down elections have had more to do with politics than security.  In addition, pandemic-related restrictions on candidates and the media have created significant hardships for voters seeking to make informed decisions.  One of the few remaining sources of information is the “mVoter2020” app, which identifies candidates by characteristics including, regrettably, their race and religion.  He has also received reports about a coordinated campaign to arrest students for engaging in peaceful protests that are critical of the military or Government, he said, noting that dozens of students have reportedly been charged, or are facing arrest, for enjoying these basic rights.

The representative of Myanmar said his country is not averse to positive criticism, but it has in fact made significant progress in protecting the human rights of all people, including minorities.  On the economic front, the Government is paying attention to investment and social responsibility, working with international and regional organizations to promote responsible business conduct.  In terms of its social safety net, the Government provides a pension to older persons, as well as cash support for vulnerable groups.  It is also drafting a bill on anti-hate speech.  Since the Government came into office in 2016, it has prioritized promotion of the rule of law, and its fight against corruption is gaining momentum, he said.  However, Myanmar is facing challenges in the fight against COVID‑19.  The elections will bring Myanmar a step closer to a fully democratic system, he added.

In the ensuing dialogue, several delegates expressed concern over the upcoming elections in Myanmar, with the representative of the Republic of Korea asking the Special Rapporteur how the international community can engage with Myanmar to guarantee free, fair and transparent polls.  The National Election Commission of the Republic of Korea held a virtual conference with Myanmar, sharing its experiences and lessons learned.  The representative of Indonesia said Myanmar should hold free and fair elections that comply with international standards, and asked how the Special Rapporteur plans to engage with United Nations agencies and social media companies to support democratic processes in the region.  The representative of Canada meanwhile asked how the Special Rapporteur evaluates the trajectory of human rights in Myanmar, expressing his hope that elections will be followed by a constitutional process that ensures respect for minority rights in the establishment of a true democracy.

In a similar vein, the representative of the United Kingdom asked about immediate steps Myanmar can take to improve the freedom of speech and expression.  He called for reforms to the Telecommunications Law, the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens, the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law and the Unlawful Associations Act, all of which are being used to restrict criticism of the authorities.  He also expressed disappointment that the Broadcasting Directive enforces tight restrictions on State-owned media regarding political party broadcasts.

Other delegates focused on the continued plight of the Rohingya, with the representative of Thailand underlining the need to resolve the situation in Rakhine State.  The representative of Turkey said conditions in Rakhine are still not conducive for repatriating the Rohingya.  The representative of Bangladesh meanwhile reiterated concerns outlined in the report that the Rohingya will be excluded from the electoral process.  Myanmar has failed to create conducive conditions for their return, while access to humanitarian actors remains limited and cumbersome.  The observer for the European Union similarly urged the Government to resume cooperation with the Special Rapporteur and grant him unrestricted access to the country.

Offering an opposing viewpoint, the representative of Belarus objected to the practice of creating country-specific special procedures, whose recommendations he takes with “a pinch of salt”.  The representative of Cambodia commended Myanmar for its tremendous progress towards national reconciliation and democratic transformation, noting that its recent economic stimulus measures and COVID‑19 hotline place people at the centre of efforts to deliver support.

Mr. ANDREWS, in response, said the key questions being raised today centre on universal principles and human rights.  Recalling that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides the foundation for the work of the Special Rapporteur, he said rights are not the domain of a particular culture.  Rather, they are the birth right of all human beings and enshrined in the Declaration to provide a “true north” for countries to follow.  The Declaration was established not as an act of imperialism but as an act of cooperation.  Citizenship rights and freedom of movement are critical for resolving the Rohingya crisis.

He went on to stress that the main prerequisite for elections hinges on political will:  Myanmar must demonstrate the will to ensure that the elections are free, fair, credible and reflective of people’s aspirations.  The Government must provide the Rohingya the right to vote.  The elections cannot reflect the will of people if people are denied the right to vote based on race, ethnicity or religion.  In addition, there are 1.1 million people in conflict-ridden areas in Myanmar who will be denied the right the vote.  Providing people in conflict areas with the right to vote is an answer the Secretary-General’s call for a ceasefire. Describing free association, free expression and a free press as the “lifeblood” of a free and fair election, he said these rights are being denied to people in Myanmar in various ways.  When a new Government takes office, the laws that obstruct these rights must be re-examined and overturned so that peaceful assembly and a free press can be established.  Currently, political candidates who normally go village to village are unable to due to the pandemic.  Instead, they rely on State media to give them that opportunity.  For candidates to gain access to State media, they need to have their messages approved by the State media, even if the messages are critical of the State, he said.

Also speaking were representatives of Luxembourg, Norway, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Viet Nam, Malaysia, Czech Republic, China, Malta and the United States.

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Next, the Committee heard from Tomás Ojea Quintana, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Mr. QUINTANA introduced his report, warning that there is no improvement in the protection and accountability for serious human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  No cases of COVID‑19 have been officially confirmed and authorities continue to prevent an outbreak, a success made possible in part by a 7.4 per cent increase in the health budget.  However, the scale of the pandemic is still unknown, and the limited capacities of health facilities are a concern.  Describing the humanitarian situation as dire, he said the prolonged border shutdown with China since January has resulted in a drastic decline in trade and commercial activities, affecting the overall economy and people’s livelihoods.  In August and September, the country was hit hard by a series of natural disasters, which damaged infrastructure, houses and crops.  He called on the Government to immediately review policies, such as the use of live ammunition as a way to prevent the spread of COVID‑19 by restricting people from entering the country, as appears to have been the case with an official from the Republic of Korea who was recently killed by security forces.

Noting that the State-controlled labour system applies to all citizens from the age of 17, when students graduate from high school, he said all men are obliged to provide military service for 13 years and women for 8 years.  He also described a system for mobilizing young people through “shock brigades” — unpaid paramilitary labour brigades primarily deployed to construction sites, including power plants.  After completing school or military service, every citizen is assigned to a workplace by the State.  Continuation of the State-assigned employment system is of great concern in relation to the right to work, which in some instances may constitute forced labour, according to international human rights standards.  Turning to enforced disappearances, he said authorities must address these cases and provide accurate information to the families of victims about the fate and whereabouts of their missing relatives.

When the floor opened for questions and comments, the representative of the United Kingdom expressed concern about resources diverted by the regime to its reckless illegal weapons programme, and asked about the obstacles to potentially negotiating greater space for United Nations actors — including perhaps for the Special Rapporteur himself — in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, once the regime loosens its COVID‑19 border restrictions and allows the international community to return.

On similar lines, the representative of Norway asked how States can help bring accountability measures forward.  She called for a full assessment of the humanitarian situation and urged the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to “break the cycle of isolation”, enable full, unimpeded access to humanitarian organizations, and to engage with United Nations human rights mechanisms.

Meanwhile, representatives of Venezuela, Cuba, China, Russian Federation, Nicaragua, Iran and Syria reiterated their rejection of using the Third Committee as a platform to target specific countries and called for non-confrontational dialogue, instead of the “selective” “politicization” of human rights issues.

The representative of Belarus underscored his country’s rejection of country-specific resolutions, noting that he takes the related reports with “a pinch of salt”, and considers their recommendations “impractical”.

The representative of Japan, meanwhile, urged the international community to help facilitate the return of abducted Japanese citizens.  “Japan will leave no stone unturned” in trying to facilitate their return to Japan.  Recalling the Special Rapporteur’s comment on the detrimental impact of sanctions, he said that the international community must nonetheless implement the relevant Security Council resolutions that called for such measures.

The representative of the Republic of Korea called for stronger cooperation to mitigate the pandemic and humanitarian impact in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and stressed the urgency of reuniting separated families.  Recalling the incident referred to by the Special Rapporteur, of the unarmed civilian killed by the military in the Yellow Sea, he said the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea must respond to calls for a thorough investigation.

Mr. QUINTANA, responding briefly, said his report is based on verifiable, reliable information from a number of sources.  His work is objective and has no political agenda at all; it is seeking engagement to improve the humanitarian situation in the country in compliance with the Human Rights Council.  “The reality is they are isolating themselves,” he said, adding that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is planning to reject humanitarian assistance from the international community and instead call for advancing progress in the country under the right to development.  He urged the Security Council to demonstrate more coherence when working to facilitate human rights, development, denuclearization and humanitarian assistance.  On sanctions, he reiterated that they are detrimental, and that discussions about lifting them must not be avoided.  To those challenging country-specific resolutions, he endorsed the implementation of the Universal Periodic Review process, adding:  “Let me tell you, the Government of North Korea/DPRK is not engaging with the High Commissioner of Human Rights to provide technical assistance and be on the ground.  International calls for accountability will not expire until justice is attained,” he stressed.

Also speaking today were representatives of Switzerland, Czech Republic, Germany, Viet Nam, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and the United States.  An observer for the European Union also spoke.

For information media. Not an official record.