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Only ‘following orders’, no defence for any Myanmar atrocities: UN expert

There are unconfirmed media reports that at least one individual, a woman, was shot in the head during protests on Tuesday. She is said to be in critical condition at a hospital in Yangon.  

Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews, an independent human rights expert, warned that all members of the security forces – regardless of rank – had an obligation under international law not to use excessive force, and that they risked being prosecuted if they did so. 

“Myanmar military personnel and police need to know that ‘following orders’ is no defence for committing atrocities and any such defence will fail, regardless of their place in the chain of command”, he said, in a news release on Wednesday. 

 “Officers, regardless of rank, can be held criminally liable for international crimes, including crimes against humanity involving killing, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture”, stressed the rights expert. 

This exposure to criminal liability extends through the entire chain of command, from the highest levels of the military to foot soldiers and police officers, and everyone in between, he added. 

Reported use of ‘lethal force’ 

The Special Rapporteur also voiced alarm at reports of lethal force by security forces against protesters.  

“I am alarmed at the increasing levels of force against peaceful protesters”, he said. 

“People are frightened but also determined. It is imperative that security forces stand down before there are more casualties of protesters who are exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and association.” 

Protests in various cities of Myanmar have grown steadily since last Monday’s military takeover and arrest of top political leaders, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, media reports added. 

The takeover followed escalating tensions between the military and the government after the November 2020 elections, which were won by Ms. Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD). The polls were only the second democratic elections in Myanmar since the end of nearly five decades of military rule. 

UN News
Thomas Andrews, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.

Arbitrary, incommunicado detentions reported 

According to the news release, during the first week of the military takeover, hundreds of arbitrary detentions were registered, including NLD members, civil society members and protesters. The whereabouts of many remain unknown and some are being held in incommunicado detention. It is also believed that many activists and human rights defenders have gone into hiding. 

The Special Rapporteur also underlined that security forces, including commanders, soldiers and other security personnel “have a moral, professional and legal obligation to protect the people of Myanmar, not provoke or assault them.” 

“As protesters take their message peacefully to the streets of Myanmar, I remind all security officials and officers that they must not use excessive force against peaceful protesters,” he said. 

What is a Special Rapporteur? 

Special Rapporteurs are part of the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Independent of any government or organization, they work on a voluntary basis. They are not UN staff members and do not receive a salary.   

The mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar was established by the then Commission on Human Rights in 1992. It was broadened in 2014 and 2016.

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