What's In Blue

Posted Wed 27 May 2015

High Commissioner for Human Rights to Brief on Myanmar

Tomorrow morning (28 May), under “any other business” following consultations on Sudan sanctions and the 1718 Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Committee, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, is scheduled to brief Council members via video teleconference on the human rights situation in Myanmar, with a likely focus on the situation of the Rohingya and the related migration crisis in Southeast Asia. The briefing, which was requested a week ago but was initially opposed by China, is taking place just one day ahead of a regional meeting on the migration crisis hosted by Thailand that Myanmar will attend. (Myanmar initially said it would not attend the meeting, but later reversed its decision.)

Council members were most recently briefed on the situation in Myanmar on 2 April by the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar at the request of the UK. The focus of the briefing was on the political situation. Nambiar acknowledged recent positive developments in Myanmar such as continuing progress in the reform process and the 31 March nationwide ceasefire between ethnic armed groups and the government, although he also noted continuing challenges in Rakhine state, increasing violence in Kachin and Northern Shan states and concerns about the human rights situation.

Since Nambiar’s briefing, the recent wave of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh, many of them Rohingya seeking shelter in neighbouring countries and the initial refusal of these countries to allow the boats to land, has brought renewed attention to Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya. Although Indonesia and Malaysia on 21 May announced that they would offer temporary shelter to up to 7,000 migrants, several thousand are estimated to remain at sea and measures taken so far are considered inadequate by the international community. Human Rights Watch reported on 27 May that Rohingya had explained in interviews that they had fled persecution in Myanmar only to fall into the hands of smugglers and traffickers and had sometimes been forced into the boats. The NGO also described the situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar as “extremely dire” and called on countries in the region to ensure that all migrants and asylum seekers have full access to procedures for seeking international protection and humanitarian assistance.

With regard to Zeid’s briefing, he is likely to reiterate many of the points he made in an informal briefing to the Human Rights Council yesterday (26 May) that also covered other issues. In that briefing, Zeid said that in the first quarter of this year, 25,000 people had fled Myanmar and Bangladesh, some to escape persecution and some because of poverty, and that at least 1,050 people had died at sea. Many had been violently abused and robbed by smugglers. While he welcomed recent steps taken by states in the region to address the crisis, he emphasised that it was not enough and called for “far stronger arrangements for the protection of both migrants and asylum seekers”. Noting that thousands of the migrants were Rohingya fleeing Myanmar, he said that the Rohingya faced “widespread and systematic human rights violations, including ethnic and religious persecution and the denial of citizenship and the full range of economic, political and social rights”, and called for “strong efforts to revise policies that affect their human rights.” Zeid may also stress as he did in his 15 May statement that the 29 May regional meeting must address the root causes of the crisis. In that statement he also highlighted the importance of addressing the serious human rights situation in Rakhine state, which he described as “one of the principal motivators of these desperate maritime movements.” He emphasised that until the government of Myanmar addresses the institutional discrimination against the Rohingya population, including equal access to citizenship, the precarious migration would continue.

The Secretary-General and other UN officials have repeatedly expressed concern about the situation and called for additional steps to be taken by the countries concerned. In his most recent statement issued on 17 May, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed increasing concern about the plight of migrants and refugees stranded in the Andaman Sea and Straits of Malacca, and said he had spoken separately to leaders in Southeast Asia reiterating the need to protect lives and uphold the obligation of rescue at sea. In a 19 May joint statement, Zeid; High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres; William L. Swing, Director-General of the International Organization for Migration; and Peter Sutherland, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for International Migration and Development, also said they were deeply concerned at reports that boats full of vulnerable women, men and children were unable to land and were stranded at sea without access to urgently needed food, water, and medical assistance. They urged states in the region to allow them to disembark safely.

The US and other Council members have also taken steps bilaterally to call on states to address the situation. During a visit to Myanmar on 21 and 22 May, US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed concern about the situation in Rakhine state and called on Myanmar officials to improve conditions there “so that people don’t feel that their only choice is to put their lives at risk by leaving and taking to sea.” He said he had told government officials that the root of the problem of those leaving Myanmar was the political and social situation on the ground in Rakhine state. The UK, which has traditionally taken the lead on Myanmar in the Council, on 19 May expressed concern “about the thousands of people adrift in the Andaman Sea and Malacca Straits with limited supplies of food, water and fuel and called for a regional response to address immediate humanitarian issues”, while also stressing the need for Myanmar to address “the root of the problem – namely the desperate conditions in which Rohingya communities are living in Rakhine state.”

At the meeting tomorrow, Council members will likely be particularly interested in hearing the views of Malaysia as a country directly impacted by the refugee crisis, which is also playing a leading role in the region. Malaysia is currently the chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations and on 21 May participated in a trilateral meeting with Indonesia and Myanmar to discuss the crisis and apparently encouraged Myanmar to become more engaged. Malaysia is expected to update members on the tripartite meetings and on progress on their search and rescue operation in their territorial waters.

Some members may be interested in having Nambiar, who is currently visiting Myanmar, brief in his capacity as Special Adviser on Myanmar when he returns.

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