Myanmar’s military rulers are preventing life-saving humanitarian aid from reaching people who need it as the country falls deeper into violence, the United Nations human rights chief has said.
Addressing the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Volker Turk said the military, which seized power in a coup in February 2021, was engaged in a “systematic denial” of humanitarian relief to the millions of civilians in need of help.
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A series of legal, financial and bureaucratic barriers had been established to prevent people from receiving or even accessing assistance.
“This obstruction of life-saving aid is deliberate and targeted, a calculated denial of fundamental rights and freedoms for large swathes of the population,” said Turk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“This is being done in a situation where one-third of the entire population requires urgent help – including access to adequate housing, enough food and water, or employment.”
The generals plunged Myanmar into crisis when they seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi sparking mass protests that evolved into armed rebellion after the military responded with brutal force.
Despite the military later agreeing a five-point peace plan with its fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), under which it was supposed to end the violence and release political prisoners, the situation has only deteriorated. Nearly 3,800 people have been killed by the military since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which has been tracking deaths and arrests.
Turk said in the first six months of this year his office had seen a 33 percent increase in indiscriminate airstrikes compared with the same period in 2022. He noted that attacks on civilian targets, including villages, schools, hospitals and places of worship, were rising.
Artillery attacks also increased dramatically, he said, with more than 563 so far this year, representing 80 percent of the attacks throughout the whole of 2022. The UN had also documented repeated incidents of sexual violence, mass killings, extra-judicial executions, beheadings, dismemberments and mutilations.
“The country continues its deadly freefall into even deeper violence and heartbreak,” Turk told the council, accusing the military of displaying “an utter contempt for humanity.”
The escalating violence, including the deliberate burning of civilian villages, had forced 1.5 million people from their homes while the insecurity meant 15.2 million people were in need of urgent food support.
Humanitarian workers killed
In May, Cyclone Mocha swept across the western state of Rakhine, obliterating the displacement camps where many of the country’s remaining Rohingya had been living for years amid ethnic violence and successive military crackdowns even before the coup.
Turk said the lack of access to the area since the storm meant that the total number of dead among the mostly Muslim Rohingya, which the military had put at 116, remained unconfirmed. The toll among other communities in the state also remained unknown.
“All disbursements of Cyclone Mocha-related humanitarian aid remain frozen unless delivered by the military apparatus,” he said.
Humanitarian aid missions have also come under fire with a mission involving ASEAN diplomats in northeast Shan State attacked in May. The convoy was under military escort.
Turk also noted that as many as 40 humanitarian workers had been killed and more than 200 arrested since the coup.
Amid the spiralling violence, the UN rights chief urged the United Nations Security Council to refer the coup leaders to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
“The path out of this crisis must be anchored in accountability for the grave human rights violations and other violations of international law that are occurring,” he said. “Any political solution to this protracted emergency must include accountability.”
While the Security Council has so far resisted such calls, in January survivors of military atrocities since the coup and during the 2017 crackdown on the Rohingya lodged a criminal complaint with the German Office of the Federal Prosecutor. Germany has universal jurisdiction laws that allow for the prosecution of certain grave crimes no matter where they take place.
Myanmar is already facing charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice over the 2017 crackdown, which sent at least 750,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh.