Expected Council Action
In August, the Council is expected to hold a public meeting on the situation in Myanmar, one year after the 25 August 2017 attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on security posts and the violent reaction by the Myanmar military forces that led to over 750,000 persons fleeing to Bangladesh. Secretary-General António Guterres, who has recently returned from Bangladesh, is expected to brief. The meeting will likely be chaired by a UK minister; a civil society briefer may also address the Council.
Key Recent Developments
On 23 July, Council members were briefed by Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener; Volker Türk, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection in the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees; and Claire Van der Vaeren, Director for Country Office Liaison and Coordination for Asia-Pacific from the UN Development Programme (UNDP). A representative from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was present to answer questions. In her briefing, Burgener covered her recent visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh. Burgener, who was appointed on 26 April, was in Myanmar from 12 to 21 June, during which she met with Myanmar government and military officials and visited Rakhine State. She returned to Myanmar on 11 July to attend the Panglong Peace Conference at the invitation of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Burgener visited Bangladesh from 14 to 16 July, where she met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and visited the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp. Council members adopted press elements, expressing their strong support for Burgener and addressing other issues, including the memoranda of understanding, investigations of alleged human rights abuses and violations, and conditions conducive to the return of Rohingya refugees and internally displaced persons.
Guterres visited Bangladesh with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim from 1 to 2 July, during which they met with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and senior Bangladesh officials and visited Cox’s Bazar. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi and International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer accompanied them. During the visit, Guterres heard from those who had fled Rakhine State, what he described as “unimaginable” accounts of atrocities. He highlighted the plight of the refugees, calling the situation a “humanitarian and human rights nightmare”. He made a plea for greater support from the international community, stressing that a refugee crisis called for a global sharing of responsibility. The World Bank has announced that it will provide Bangladesh with $480 million to support Rohingya refugees and local communities in Cox’s Bazar. The UN Joint Response Plan for almost $1 billion was launched on 16 March in Geneva.
In a 27 June letter to the president of the Council, the Myanmar permanent representative updated the Council on developments and steps taken to address a number of issues as requested in a 31 May Council letter. The areas covered were humanitarian access, accountability for alleged human rights abuses, and implementation of the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on the Rakhine State. Regarding humanitarian access, the letter highlighted the signing of the memorandum of understanding between the Myanmar government, UNHCR and UNDP. On accountability, the letter said that while the government would take action against perpetrators if there was sufficient evidence, the human rights of all communities needed to be protected. It noted the government’s decision to appoint an independent commission of inquiry to look into allegations of human rights violations following the attacks on 25 August and provided information on the implementation of the advisory commission’s recommendations. Other areas covered in the letter include steps being taken for the repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh and the importance of the correct process for such returns.
As a follow-up to the 27 June letter, the Myanmar permanent representative wrote to the Council on 20 July. The letter listed recent developments and initiatives taken by the government under the three main areas identified by the Security Council—humanitarian access, accountability for human rights abuses, and implementation of the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on the Rakhine State—in the Council’s 31 May letter. Following up on its earlier announcement of intending to establish an independent commission of inquiry into alleged human rights violations, the government also informed the Council that it had completed the selection of members of this commission and that the establishment of the commission will be announced soon. It also covered the activities of the technical working group set up to implement the memorandum of understanding between the Myanmar government, UNHCR and UNDP.
The third round of the 21st Century Panglong Conference between key stakeholders of the peace process ended on 16 July with the adoption of 14 new principles, which will be included in a draft union accord aimed at creating a democratic federal union. So far, 51 principles covering political, economic, social and land rights have been agreed. However, representatives of the government, parliament, military, political parties, and ethnic armed groups failed to agree on a number of basic principles, including equality and non-secession from the union.
In late June, Bangladesh and UNHCR began a joint verification programme for Rohingya refugees to create a unified database. The information is expected to help establish the identities and places of origin of the refugees, which could be used in facilitating the return of the Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. By 6 July, 4,200 individuals had been verified according to UNHCR.
Human Rights-Related Developments
During its 38th session, the Human Rights Council (HRC) held an interactive dialogue with the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, who urged the HRC to support efforts to investigate and prosecute at the ICC those responsible for the crimes alleged to have occurred. The special rapporteur expressed deep concern about the apparent inability of the Security Council to unite behind referring the situation to the ICC and called on the HRC, as a matter of urgency, to back her proposal to establish an international accountability mechanism. Lee said that “far too many crimes have been committed, and have been documented and reported with scant consequences faced by those who perpetrated them”.
On 4 July, High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein gave an oral briefing on the human rights situation of the Rohingya people in which he urged Myanmar to grant immediate access to special rapporteur Lee; urged the Security Council to refer Myanmar to the ICC; and requested the HRC to recommend to the General Assembly the establishment of a new international, impartial and independent mechanism, complementary to the fact-finding mission.
From 29 June to 8 July, Lee visited Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where she met with government officials, UN entities, humanitarian organisations, civil society organisations, and Rohingya refugees. Lee noted that the Myanmar government’s failure to redress discriminatory laws against the Rohingya made it impossible for hundreds of thousands of refugees to return to their homes anytime soon. She added that there must be a shift to medium- and longer-term planning in Cox’s Bazar.
On 19 July, the HRC-mandated fact-finding mission on Myanmar concluded a five-day visit to Bangladesh, where they met newly-arrived Rohingya refugees from Rakhine State. Having last visited in October 2017, the fact-finding mission saw first-hand how the refugees’ situation had evolved since last year and their current living conditions. The fact-finding mission will submit a final report to the HRC at its 39th session in September.
Key Issues and Options
The key issue continues to be ensuring follow-up to the November 2017 presidential statement, which urged the Myanmar government to work with Bangladesh and the UN to allow voluntary return of the refugees and called for the full implementation of the Advisory Commission’s recommendations. A connected issue is how to push for concrete steps to be taken to create conditions for the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees. The Council needs to find a balance between pressure and persuasion to convey its determination to see progress on this issue without alienating the Myanmar government. To start with, possible options include closed briefings and quiet diplomacy, such as demarches from Council members. If over time it appears that the Myanmar government is not putting in place conditions for the voluntary, safe and dignified return of refugees from Bangladesh, the Council could ratchet up its response with more public meetings and stronger outcomes.
A related issue is an impartial investigation into allegations of human rights violations following the 25 August 2017 attacks. Although the Myanmar government announced on 31 May that it would set up an independent commission of inquiry into alleged human rights violations, some members have concerns about the independence of the commission and whether it will be able to conduct a fair investigation into the allegations. Council members could press the Myanmar government privately on this issue, and if it appears that the investigation does not meet international human rights standards, pressure could be increased through more public statements or a resolution with references to the need for accountability.
Another issue is monitoring the implementation of the trilateral memorandum of understanding, signed by the Myanmar government, UNHCR and UNDP on 6 June, particularly regarding access in Rakhine State by UN agencies. Regular updates from UNHCR may be useful to keep Council members informed and to allow them to react if it appears that implementation has stalled.
Given the underlying tensions between the communities in Rakhine State, receiving early alerts to any signs that another outbreak of violence is imminent is crucial if the Council is to play a role in preventing further conflict. One option is for the Council to make clear that it wants to be briefed immediately by the Secretariat and the relevant UN agencies if there are any warning signs.
Full implementation of the Rakhine Advisory Commission’s recommendations continues to be a concern, particularly regarding the sensitive issue of the Rohingya being denied citizenship, given the potential for this to lead to an escalation in tensions.
A future issue is the impact on Bangladesh and the host community in Cox’s Bazar if it looks unlikely that repatriation will be possible in the foreseeable future. Continued funding and the role of the UN, if the refugees are not able to be repatriated soon, would also be an issue.
Since the August 2017 attack and the wave of violence against civilians, which led large numbers of Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh, the Council has kept a watchful eye on the situation in Myanmar and was particularly active between August and December 2017, with a slight dip in activity in the first months of 2018. It seems that the visiting mission in late April and early May revived the interest of a number of members in the Rohingya issue. Together with permanent members France, the UK and the US, a number of elected members, including Kazakhstan, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Peru and Sweden, have been very supportive of keeping the spotlight on developments in Myanmar.
The UK, the lead on Myanmar in the Council, is keen to engage Myanmar and work with China and currently favours a less vigorous approach. A number of other members, while seeing Myanmar’s willingness to engage as a promising sign, are concerned that a softer approach could result in a lack of real progress on the ground. China views recent action by Myanmar, such as the signing of the memorandum of understanding and the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry, as positive, and would like to see the Council be more encouraging of these developments. It has promoted dialogue between Bangladesh and Myanmar as the key to repatriation of the Rohingya refugees and has shown signs of wanting to play a role in resolving the Rohingya crisis. On 28 June, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi brought together State Counsellor U Kyaw Tint Swe of Myanmar and Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali to discuss the issue of repatriation of the refugees. As long as Myanmar appears to be taking steps in the right direction, even if there is little practical progress in creating the conditions for repatriation, it may be difficult for the Council to take stronger action unless there is a change in China’s position.
UN Documents on Myanmar
|Security Council Presidential Statements|
|6 November 2017 S/PRST/2017/22||This was a presidential statement on the situation in the Rakhine.|
|Security Council Press Statements|
|9 May 2018 SC/13331||This was a press statement on the Council visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|14 May 2018 S/PV.8255||This was a briefing on the Council’s visiting mission to Bangladesh and Myanmar from 28 April to 1 May.|
|13 February 2018 S/PV.8179||This was a briefing by High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi (via video teleconference) and Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Miroslav Jenča on the situation in Myanmar.|
|Security Council Letters|
|27 June 2018 S/2018/638||This was a letter from Myanmar to the Security Council responding to the 31 May letter sent to Myanmar in an effort to find a durable solution to the humanitarian situation in Rakhine State.|
|26 April 2018 S/2018/391||This was the letter on the terms of reference for the Council visiting mission to Bangladesh and Myanmar.|