The United Nations’ top rights body opened an urgent session on the Myanmar military coup on Friday, amid calls for sanctions against the junta.

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has no power to impose sanctions, but it can act as a vehicle to train international attention to human rights violations.

What did the UN Human Rights Council say?

  • More than 350 people in Myanmar have been arrested since the February 1 military coup
  • Some of those arrested, including officials, activists, and monks, face charges on “dubious grounds”
  • There are growing reports and photographic evidence that “Myanmar security forces have used live ammunition against protesters”
  • There was evidence that the military had given “draconian orders” against freedom of expression
  • There has been a growing presence of soldiers on the street

  • Protest movement symbols grab attention

    Three-finger salute

    In Myanmar, people show the three-finger salute as a sign of protest against the military coup. The gesture stems from the dystopian novel and film series “Hunger Games” and has also been a symbol of resistance in neighboring Thailand, which has been under a military dictatorship since 2014. There, some protesters were arrested when they showed the salute.

  • Protest movement symbols grab attention

    Kneeling as a sign of solidarity

    “I can’t breathe” — that sentence went around the world in the summer of 2020, when African American George Floyd was brutally killed by police officers in the US. People around the world demonstrated against racism and police violence. At Black Lives Matter demonstrations, they showed solidarity with the victims of police violence by kneeling down.

  • Protest movement symbols grab attention

    A clenched fist

    In the 19th century, the clenched fist was a symbol of the labor movement. Later, it became a sign of the Black Power movement, which grew out of the US civil rights movement and was criticized for its call for violence. The symbolic power is still effective today. At the Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year, protesters posed with their fists raised.

  • Protest movement symbols grab attention

    Red as a color of protest

    Protests are increasingly taking place on the internet and social media. This is evident in Russia: Under the hashtag “Don’t be sad, everything will be fine” (Russian: #негрустивсебудетхорошо), people post pictures of themselves in red clothing. It is a way of showing solidarity with opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s wife Yulia, who wore a fiery red sweater on the day of her husband’s sentencing.

  • Protest movement symbols grab attention

    Protest in green

    In the struggle for the legalization of abortion in Argentina, the green scarf has become a symbol — for the right to abortion, but beyond that also for women’s rights and the fight for equality. When parliament legalized abortions in December, people spoke of a “marea verde,” a green wave that swept the country and the entire continent.

  • Protest movement symbols grab attention

    When high-vis vests become a symbol of protest

    Not only colors or gestures have what it takes to be a protest symbol, as the yellow vest movement shows. The high-visibility vests were the distinctive symbol of the “Gilets Jaunes,” hundreds of thousands of whom poured onto the French streets in 2018. The movement was organized mainly via social media and protested for months against the political course taken by President Emmanuel Macron.

  • Protest movement symbols grab attention

    Umbrella revolution

    In 2014, thousands of people in Hong Kong took to the streets for more democracy. The fact that these protests were dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution” by the media was due to the fact that the demonstrators took umbrellas with them to protect themselves from the sun, pepper spray and police batons.

  • Protest movement symbols grab attention

    Flowers for Belarus

    Reacting to the police’s brutal crackdown on demonstrators following the contested reelection of longtime President Alexander Lukashenko, in 2020 Belarusian women adopted powerful symbols of peace to pursue protests. Dressed in white and bearing flowers, they marched and formed solidarity chains in the streets of Minsk, the country’s capital. Flowers have often served as a revolutionary symbol.

  • Protest movement symbols grab attention

    The Carnation Revolution

    When tanks rolled through the streets of Lisbon in 1974, red carnations adorned the uniforms of soldiers and also stuck out of their rifles. Military rule in Portugal was at an end, and the upheaval ended in a peaceful revolution. The “Carnation Revolution” marked the beginning of a new democratic movement in Europe, and dictatorships were also overthrown in Greece and Spain.

    Author: Maria John Sánchez

‘The world is watching’

The UN’s deputy human rights chief Nada al-Nashif said the international community must make clear the coup and subsequent crackdown were unacceptable.

“The world is watching,” al-Nashif warned. “Draconian orders have been issued this week to prevent peaceful assembly and free expression, and police and military presence on the streets has grown progressively over the last several days.

“Let us be clear: the indiscriminate use of lethal or less-than-lethal weapons against peaceful protestors is unacceptable,” she said.

However, al-Nashif stressed it was important that any sanctions against the regime should be targeted against “specific individuals who are credibly alleged to have violated the people’s rights.”

The US has already announced new sanctions that target junta leader Min Aung Hlaing and other top generals.

Woman shot in head

Amnesty International told DW on Friday that it had evidence that security forces had used live ammunition.

A woman was critically injured after being shot in the head at a protest in Naypyitaw on Tuesday.

“The incident in question in Naypyitaw, the capital, was filmed. We were able to geolocate where the incident took place. We saw that they were using a locally made clone of an Uzi weapon,” Kayleigh Long, a researcher covering Myanmar for Amnesty International, told DW. “The shells would indicate it was light ammunition and not rubber bullets.” 

“That is, as far as we can tell, the first use of live ammunition against protesters. We’ve also seen them using water cannons and other disproportionate force in trying to quell the protests.”

Renewed protests across country

Demonstrations against the coup continued unabated on Friday with tens of thousands of people reportedly turning out.

While demonstrations in the country’s largest city Yangon remained peaceful, there were reports that those elsewhere had resulted in clashes with police.

After its arrest of the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi last week, the junta has proclaimed a state of emergency lasting a year. It had promised to hold fresh elections, but with no precise offer of a timeframe.

While the coup has triggered widespread international condemnation, China — a regional and economic ally — has declined to criticize the generals that presided over it.

Myanmar, a former British colony then known as Burma, was under military rule for five decades following a 1962 coup. While Suu Kyi’s five years as the nation’s effective leader have represented a brief period of relative democracy, the country’s authorities have continued to apply repressive colonial-era laws and engage in ethnic conflict.

rc/aw (Reuters, AFP, AP)