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Southeast Asian Movement at Yale

Brownbag Insider

Mar 09, 2022

Up Close with a UN Special Rapporteur: Perspectives on the Situation in Myanmar

by Sharmaine Koh

Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews does essential work to maintain the spotlight on the situation in Myanmar, particularly as the world’s attention is distracted by violence and conflict happening elsewhere today. Speaking to the Yale Council of Southeast Asian Studies, Andrews explained the work of expert investigators mandated by the UN to carry out independent fact-finding on human rights around the world, and shared the findings of recently-published reports he led.

Special Rapporteurs are independent human rights experts who have a mandate from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to monitor, advise, and publicly report on human rights situations and violations around the world.

For Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews, his responsibility lies with covering Myanmar, where the military junta has waged war against civilians for the past thirteen months.

Echoing the recent findings of a new report by the Schell Center for International Human Rights at the Yale Law School, where he is now a Robina Senior Human Rights Fellow, Andrews gave the audience at the Council of Southeast Asian Studies a grim picture of the situation in Myanmar. The report, which was based on extensive fieldwork, 120 testimonies, leaked documents and information, as well as in-depth legal analysis on emerging evidence, confirmed allegations of serious human rights violations in Myanmar. Between September 2021 and February 2022, the junta killed at least 1,600 civilians and displaced over 500,000. The people of Myanmar led  peaceful protests which were crushed by violence. The Tatmadaw wields its monopoly of force on civilians, targeting them with airstrikes, mortars, arson, extrajudicial killings, forced labor, detention and torture.

The difficult task of surveying this specter of violence, excavating the evidence, and representing the truth, falls to Andrews and his team. Citing his personal interactions with affected individuals from the Rohingya communities of Bangladesh—now the largest refugee camp in the world— Andrews called our attention to the tragedies of real people, families, and lives that are frequently masked beneath inundating streams of numbers and statistics.

Documenting human rights violations also entails assigning responsibility to its perpetrators. The violence, as the evidence suggests, is a systematic policy directed from the highest echelons of the military. However, mounting evidence—in the form of a large corpus of documents, photographs, shipping records, and financial statements—also incriminates foreign actors who aid and abet the junta’s actions by facilitating a steady inflow of foreign weapons and capital into Naypyidaw. Holding these abettors accountable is a crucial piece of Andrews’ work, but it is an uphill battle. Although implicated state actors are given the chance to review, contest, and revise the reports before publication, they frequently refuse to engage with and attempt to discredit the independent fact-finding mission. More than once, abettor states have lodged complaints to the UNHCR against Andrews for failing to “stay in his lane” while dismissing his reports as spurious and groundless “speculations”.

“I think it’s important to put public attention on these countries, even when they don’t like it,” asserted Andrews, when recounting these aggressive objections to his work. He raised one example where international scrutiny generated by his report put pressure on a foreign state to publicly declare a cessation of weapons exports to Myanmar. By and large, however, the response to Andrew’s reports by indicted actors is hostile and evasive.

When asked about how he maintains his certainty in the “objective truth” of his report despite conflicting perspectives and denunciations by angry state actors, Andrews replied: “We have to keep asking ourselves, again and again, how do we know this?” Transparency, certainty, and veracity are sacrosanct throughout the process of fact-finding, interpretation and presentation. Every claim is backed by verified evidence, vigorous cross-checking, and supported by careful engagement with stakeholders. This is because any single piece of erroneous evidence provides fodder for the junta and its allies to question the independence and denigrate the credibility of the Special Rapporteur. Given the importance of Andrews’ work to maintaining the spotlight on Myanmar, the stakes are high, and mistakes cannot be afforded.

Andrews concluded by calling on the audience and the international community to support the people of Myanmar. He pointed out three things that the junta depends on to survive: money, weapons, and legitimacy. Thus, economic sanctions by the UN Security Council and member states, the cessation of weapons exports to Myanmar, as well as continued public education about the junta’s atrocities, are crucial steps to weakening its oppressive grip on the country.

“I’ve talked for far too long now,” he said with a light smile, in closing his remarks. From the perspective of a man whose professional responsibility is to represent this weighty knowledge to us and the rest of the world, however, we can only imagine how much more Andrews has left unsaid. ︎


Watch the Report Summary of “Nowhere is Safe” on the Fortify Rights YouTube Channel here:

Questions? Email the author:

Sharmaine Koh