Security Council Visiting Mission to Bangladesh and Myanmar
The Security Council embarked on a visiting mission to Bangladesh and Myanmar yesterday evening (26 April). The first stop for the delegation is Kuwait City, where the Kuwaiti Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Sabah will host a dinner for the delegation. A Kuwaiti plane will be used to transport the Council delegation during the visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar that will start the following day. During the visiting mission, which will take place from 28 April to 2 May, the Council delegation will visit Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka; refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh; Myanmar’s capital Naypitaw; and northern Rakhine state in Myanmar. The mission will be co-led by Kuwait, Peru and the UK, and will be the Council’s first visit to both Myanmar and Bangladesh and its first to Southeast Asia since 2012 when the Council visited Timor-Leste.
The main focus of the Council visit is the refugee crisis in Bangladesh, which was triggered by violence in Rakhine State that led to the large-scale displacement of the Rohingya, a mainly Muslim minority group in Myanmar. The Rohingya refugee crisis can be traced back to 1978. Since then, there have been major movements of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh in 1991, 2016 and 2017. Although there has been some repatriation of the refugees over the years, by 2016 there were already 200,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh.
The Council began to pay more attention to this situation in 2016, following attacks on security forces in northern Rakhine State by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). About a year later, on 25 August 2017, the ARSA again attacked Myanmar security forces at a number of locations. Government forces responded with violence to these attacks, prompting more than 671,000 Rohingya civilians to flee across the border into Bangladesh. From the end of August to December 2017, the Council maintained an active interest in the situation in Myanmar. During this period, the Council held at least six meetings (either formally or under “any other business” in consultations) and one Arria-formula briefing on Myanmar. On 6 November 2017, it adopted a presidential statement, its first on the country since 2008. The presidential statement:
• condemned the 25 August attacks and the widespread violence that followed;
• called on the government to ensure no further excessive use of military force in Rakhine State;
• stressed the importance of full humanitarian access and the voluntary return of all internally displaced persons to their homes;
• called on the government to address the root causes of the crisis in Rakhine State;
• welcomed the government’s commitment to implementing the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on the Rakhine State; and
• requested the Secretary-General to continue to provide his good offices and encouraged him to consider appointing a special adviser on Myanmar.
Since the start of 2018, the Council has had one briefing on Myanmar. In February, during Kuwait’s presidency and at the request of eight members of the Council, the Council heard from the High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi (via VTC) and the Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Miroslav Jenča. This briefing was followed by consultations where, in addition to Grandi and Jenča, representatives from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and OCHA were present.
Although there has been less public Council activity since the start of the year, there has been mounting interest in a visiting mission to Myanmar. Behind the scenes, a number of Council members have put in considerable effort to make this visiting mission possible. Both Kuwait and the Netherlands, which had presidencies in February and March, respectively, were keen to conduct the visiting mission during their presidencies and played an active role in trying to get agreement from the Myanmar government for the visit. It seems that China also played a key role in helping to persuade the Myanmar government to accept the visit. The UK, as penholder on the issue, has also been looking at ways of keeping the Council focused on this problem. It appears that members had even begun to consider a visit to Bangladesh, without a Myanmar leg, to assess the refugee situation there. By the end of March, the Myanmar government indicated that it was open to having the Council visit and preparations for the mission began in earnest.
The Visiting Mission
The terms of reference agreed for the mission outline a number of key objectives, including the full implementation of the November presidential statement, assessing the efforts of the UN and the Bangladesh government to provide protection and assistance to refugees in Bangladesh, and getting a better understanding of the views and concerns of all parties.
The situation of the refugees and issues around their repatriation will likely be the key focus during meetings both in Bangladesh and Myanmar. Council members will visit camps in both countries and hear from government and UN officials and will be looking to see if the appropriate conditions exist for the voluntary return of the refugees. In Bangladesh, the discussions are likely to focus on what the Bangladesh government and UN agencies have been doing to provide assistance to the refugees. The delegation is expected to be briefed on the impact of the presence of high numbers of refugees on Bangladesh. Members are also likely to be interested in issues around the protection of the refugees and the conditions in the camps, particularly in light of the upcoming monsoon season. In meetings with the refugees, Council members are hoping to get a better understanding of the extent of the violence that occurred in Rakhine after the 25 August attacks. There is also interest in hearing directly from those who have suffered violence, including sexual and gender-based violence and violations against children.
In the meetings in Myanmar, the Council delegation will most likely want to hear more about what is being done to create the conditions for the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable repatriation of refugees. Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a bilateral “arrangement” or memorandum of understanding (MOU) on 23 November 2017 that recognised the need for a “comprehensive and durable solution” to the situation and for the voluntary return of the refugees according to international law. In mid-January, the two countries agreed that they would complete the return of the refugees within two years. On 13 April, the UN High Commissioner’s Office for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Bangladesh government signed an MOU on the voluntary repatriation of refugees once conditions are conducive. UNHCR is currently discussing terms for an MOU with the Myanmar government on the repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh. Members are aware that the humanitarian situation remains troubling with Rohingya continuing to depart for Bangladesh in the face of discrimination and marginalisation. At a press briefing yesterday, Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson for the Secretary-General, citing UN humanitarian actors, said that the indications are that “refugees from Bangladesh cannot be expected to safely, voluntarily and sustainably return”.
In Rakhine State, the delegation is expected to visit transit camps as well as resettlement villages. Council members will be looking for whether freedom of movement, access to livelihood and services, and appropriate infrastructure will be provided to those that choose to return, as well as whether they will be allowed to return to their places of origin. Council members are hoping that the field visit to Rahkine State–together with the meetings with senior Myanmar government officials and civil society representatives–will provide them with a sense of how prepared Myanmar is for the return of the refugees.
In addition, Council members will be interested in learning more about the root causes of the crisis in Rakhine State. They are likely to have in mind the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on the Rakhine State, chaired by Kofi Annan, and established by Aung San Suu Kyi in August 2016, with a mandate to look at the root causes of conflict in Rakhine State. The Commission released its final report on 24 August 2017, just ahead of the 25 August attack. Among the recommendations were that:
• the government take concrete steps to end enforced segregation of Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims;
• ensure full and unfettered humanitarian access throughout the state;
• tackle Rohingya statelessness and “revisit” the 1982 Citizenship Law;
• hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable; and
• end restrictions on freedom of movement.
While in Myanmar, the Council delegation may meet members of the Committee for the Implementation of the Recommendations on Rakhine State to get an update on any progress that might have been made in the implementation of the recommendations. (The Committee is made up of 15 local experts and has an Advisory Board of ten local and 10 foreign experts led by Prof. Dr. Surakiart Sathirathai, former deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs of Thailand.) Council members may emphasise the urgency of swift implementation and the need to address the root causes of the crisis.
Another issue that may be raised is access for the International Fact Finding Mission (IFFM), established by the Human Rights Council on 24 March 2017, to investigate allegations of human rights abuses in Myanmar, especially in Rakhine State. Although the investigators from the International Fact-Finding Mission have not been given access in Myanmar, they have travelled to Bangladesh, Indonesia and Thailand. On 12 March, the IFFM gave an interim oral report to the Human Rights Council based on information gathered in these countries. Marzuki Darusman, former Indonesian Attorney-General and chair of the Fact-Finding Mission, who presented the report, said that there cannot be any denial of the seriousness of the situation in Rakhine. He also suggested that that there were credible reports of the various security forces having committed “gross human rights violations in the course of these operations”. Some members, during the meetings, may raise questions about the human rights situation and urge the Myanmar government to allow the IFFM investigators access.
On 26 April, UN Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Christine Schraner Burgener, most recently Switzerland’s ambassador to Germany, as his Special Envoy on Myanmar.