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UN Appeals for Action on ‘Human-Rights Catastrophe’ in Myanmar

A new United Nations report has warned of a “human-rights catastrophe” in Myanmar that will continue to spiral downward unless the rest of the world intervenes.

“The national consequences are terrible and tragic—the regional consequences could also be profound,” Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement Thursday. “The international community must redouble its efforts to restore democracy and prevent wider conflict before it is too late.”

The embattled Southeast Asian country has been in the throes of bloodshed and violence since the military wrested power from its quasi-democratic government eight months ago. More than 1,120 people have been killed since the coup began, according to the United Nations, many during efforts by security forces to quash unrest by responding to civilian protests with lethal force. Thousands more have been arrested, denied the right to a fair trial, tortured or worse.

Released for the 48th regular session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which runs through Oct. 8, the report describes a nation increasingly at risk of “state collapse.” Business and investor confidence imploded with the coup, prompting several multinational companies to freeze or withdraw sourcing. The resulting factory closures have been devastating for employment. By April 2021, the United Nations found, roughly 200,000 garment workers—predominantly women—had reportedly lost employment, as had between 300,000 to 400,000 construction workers. Agricultural producers have found their livelihoods strained by harvesting challenges due to disruptions in transport and logistics, increased insecurity in conflict-ridden areas and the soaring costs of agricultural inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides

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Myanmar’s health system has crashed, crippling the nation’s response to the still-raging Covid-19 pandemic. Mounting reports of deaths due to the lack of medical oxygen or denied treatment aside, security forces have also been launching attacks on medical facilities and healthcare workers, ​​including those assisting protesters, the United Nations said.

“There is no sign of any efforts by the military authorities to stop these violations nor implement previous recommendations to tackle impunity and security sector reform,” Bachelet said. “This underscores the urgent need for strong accountability measures. It also runs in the face of commitments made to ASEAN leaders to cease the violence and begin a constructive dialogue among all parties,” she added, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, an intergovernmental union.

The report comes as labor-rights campaigners are calling for the suspension of Myanmar’s trade privileges under the Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement, which allows it to export non-weapons goods to the European Union market tariff-free.

“The EBA has significantly bolstered Myanmar’s economy and the EU receives more than half of Myanmar’s total apparel exports,” said the Clean Clothes Campaign, the garment industry’s largest consortium of trade unions and non-governmental organizations. “EBA preferences can be revoked in cases of serious and systematic violations of human rights and suspension of it will hit the ruling military.”

The organization said it will also continue to urge apparel brands sourcing from Myanmar to prioritize the rights of the country’s 700,000 garment workers and ensure that they and their families do not “face further hardships.”

“This means that brands who are stopping production in Myanmar must abide by their responsibilities to exit responsibly, honor all existing commitments and payments and ensure workers receive all wages, benefits and severance pay owed to them,” the Clean Clothes Campaign said. “This is vital as the coup, combined with Covid-19, have resulted in job losses, poverty and economic instability, which are severely impacting upon workers and their families.”

Retailers that have suspended sourcing in Myanmar include Benetton Group and C&A. Bestseller paused production at the outset of the coup, restarted its orders, then pumped the brakes once more after the Industrial Workers’ Federation of Myanmar, an affiliate of IndustriALL Global Union, reported that 100 factory-level union leaders had been infected and two of its members had died from Covid-19 as a result of weak to nonexistent health protocols. A brief lull aside, H&M and Primark have continued to manufacture in Myanmar, citing a desire to safeguard livelihoods.

Last month, however, the Ethical Trading Initiative, a U.K.-based multistakeholder initiative, urged businesses to reassess their presence in Myanmar as a “matter of urgency.” The organization, whose members include Asos, H&M, Marks & Spencer and Next, said it was backing a call by IndustriALL Global Union, the International Trade Union Confederation and the Myanmar Labour Alliance for “comprehensive economic sanctions” against the junta amid a “deteriorating situation.”

“Having previously asked members to consider the balance of good versus harm being done by continuing to source from Myanmar, we have been conscious of the potential need to consider responsible withdrawal,” the Ethical Trading Initiative said. “The key question in that consideration is: Whether it is possible to continue to trade responsibly, providing workers with continued employment, or does this cause greater harm to the rights of workers and undermine a return to democracy? Such a decision would and should always be guided by evidence and up-to-date assessment of the social and economic implications.”

Workers’ rights, too, have disintegrated in the absence of guardrails, labor unions say. Under the military regime, they say, workers in Myanmar are denied the right to freedom of association, health and safety and freedom of speech. Not only are collective agreements no longer being honored but union members are also being dismissed en masse. For them, sanctions are the only answer.

“The situation in Myanmar is certainly not a normal situation; people are killed and tortured, workers cannot go to work due to repression. How can workers’ rights be protected in that kind of extreme situation?” Valter Sanches, general secretary at IndustriALL Global Union, said last month. “That is why we support the campaign calling for comprehensive economic sanctions, spearheaded by our affiliate Industrial Workers’ Federation of Myanmar, our partners Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar and the Myanmar Labour Alliance. Economic sanctions proved to be effective in ending apartheid in South Africa and could be so in Myanmar.”