UNITED NATIONS — Recent steps by Burma's new government could improve the country's human rights situation and deepen its transition to democracy, a UN investigator said Wednesday.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, the special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, said he is encouraged by the government's commitment to reform and President Thein Sein's priorities including protecting human rights and respecting the rule of law.
But he said there are still many serious human rights issues that must be addressed: discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, a judiciary that is "neither independent nor impartial," the continued detention of a large number of political prisoners, allegations of torture and ill-treatment during interrogations, and the use of prisoners as porters or "human shields."
This is a "key moment in Myanmar's [Burma’s] history," Quintana told the General Assembly's human rights committee. "Myanmar's new government faces a wide range of daunting challenges from the urgent need to improve the socio-economic situation to ending armed conflict and ensuring lasting peace through national reconciliation."
He called on the international community to help the government meet these challenges so that a real transition to democracy, which the people of Burma have waited many years for, "takes root."
Quintana, who visited Burma in August, welcomed the release of an estimated 200 political prisoners last week but said the government's first priority must be to release all remaining "prisoners of conscience."
The political prisoners released under a presidential amnesty represent about 10 percent of an estimated 2,000 in prison.
Quintana said "it is imperative that the government completes the liberation of all such prisoners" before upcoming by-elections, expected by the end of November.
"This is a central and necessary step towards national reconciliation and would greatly benefit Myanmar's efforts towards democracy," he said.
Quintana welcomed talks between government officials and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, saying it's crucial that the Nobel peace laureate and her party are included in the political process.
He called for a revision of election laws to lift restrictions on the development and activities of political parties and reduce the high cost of registration for candidates.
President Thein Sein, who took power in March following November elections, has said his government is trying to ease tensions in the country. He is considered a moderate compared to previous leaders but critics have accused him of creating a facade of liberalization to prompt Western nations to lift sanctions imposed over the country's political and human rights record.
Quintana welcomed Thein Sein's "commitment to keep the door open to peace and to invite armed groups to peace talks" and his establishment last month of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, which recently called on the president to release prisoners.
"While I am encouraged that this new body has started to act and hope that it will continue to advance human rights issues in the country," Quintana said, "many questions remain about its composition, role and functioning."