The Lower House of Burma’s Parliament on Thursday approved the controversial Myanmar National Human Rights Commission Bill (NHRC), which governs the appointment process for the commission as well as procedures for handling reports of rights abuses.
The Upper House and Lower House have made over 40 changes to the bill since it was introduced in Parliament last July. Lawmakers in the combined Union Parliament are expected to vote on the bill in upcoming weeks to determine whether it is passed into law.
Following pressure from activists, the latest draft calls for stronger involvement of civil society organizations in the commission.
“The [Lower House] Parliament has agreed to our suggestions for the bill, and it is in accordance with all the facts we discussed with civil society groups last year,” Sandar Min, a Lower House lawmaker representing the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), told The Irrawaddy on Thursday.
The bill, if passed into law, governs the process for appointing new members to the commission after the next elections in 2015.
One sticking point in previous drafts concerned the selection committee. Some lawmakers opposed a provision that would have required the selection committee to include a member of the Myanmar Women’s Affairs Federation, which is affiliated with the government and not an independent NGO.
In the draft approved by the Lower House, the nine-member selection committee would include two members from NGOs or civil society organizations, and the Myanmar Women’s Affairs Federation would not be represented. The selection committee would also include lawmakers, the union chief justice, the attorney general, the minister of home affairs and the minister of social welfare.
The Lower House MPs also reduced the minimum number of members on the NHRC, from nine members in the original draft to seven members. The maximum number of members is 15.
Another change was the addition of a time limit for the commission to respond to complaints about rights abuses. “The NRC [NHRC] must respond to complaints within 30 days,” Sandar Min said. Previously there was no deadline written into the bill. “And the NRC must help provide legal support for the victims when complaints are received.”
The key obligations and authority of the commission have not been altered in the bill, said Sitt Myaing, secretary of the NHRC, which currently includes retired professors and public servants.
The commission was formed at the order of President Thein Sein in September 2011. Since then it has offered workshops on human rights, conducted outreach to communities, and monitored standards in prisons in Lower Burma. It has also responded to complaints of rights abuses from the public, although critics say response times are slow and a majority of inquiries have never been addressed.
The NHRC secretary said relevant authorities replied to 350 cases of about 1,400 complaints between September 2011 and October 2013.
Most complaints concern old land disputes, with many cases dating back 20 years and related to government departments.
Sitt Myaint said few complaints had been raised from war-torn areas.