What's In Blue

Myanmar Briefing

On Monday (23 July), Council members will meet in consultations to discuss a number of issues related to the situation in Myanmar and the Rohingya refugee crisis. Briefings are expected from Special Envoy Christine Burgener; Volker Türk, the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection in the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who will brief by video-teleconference; and a UNDP representative. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is expected to be present to answer questions. Sweden has made it a practice during its presidency to issue press elements following meetings; this is likely to be the case on Monday.

Last week it looked like there might be two meetings on Myanmar this month. Burgener, who visited Myanmar from 12 to 21 June and Bangladesh from 14 to 16 July, was expected to provide a briefing. There was also an attempt from some Council members to schedule a separate briefing by the High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, on 11 July. However, China was opposed to having two briefings on Myanmar so close together. As a result, the Monday meeting is expected to cover a wide range of issues.

Burgener is expected to brief on her meetings with officials in Myanmar and Bangladesh. The visit was an opportunity to understand different perspectives and to build trust and confidence. She is likely to reiterate points she has made in press briefings during her visit to these countries. Having been in Rakhine State in early May, Council members will have a clear recollection of what they saw there and would be interested in hearing if there has been significant progress towards creating conditions conducive to voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable repatriation of the Rohingya. Burgener is expected to stress the need for a political solution that addresses underlying causes, and to reiterate her call for greater international assistance to the refugees and host communities. In this context, she may address issues around the implementation of the 23 November MOU between Bangladesh and Myanmar, and the Panglong peace conference, which Burgener attended at the invitation of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.

In his briefing, Türk is expected to cover the implementation of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by the government of Myanmar, UNDP and UNHCR on 6 June. Council members, who have yet to see the MOU, are likely to have questions for Türk about its substance. They are also likely to be interested in aspects of its implementation, particularly regarding effective access by humanitarian agencies to Rakhine State. It seems that the UN agencies have requested permission to go to a number of townships in Rakhine State to undertake assessments and carry out quick impact projects, but so far have not been able to operate freely in the area. Members may ask about the situation on the ground, and the potential for further violence. Other issues that may be covered include the continuing lack of freedom of movement of Rohingya in Rakhine State, and their citizenship. The Advisory Commission on the Rakhine State, chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, recommended that the statelessness of the Rohingya needed to be tackled by “revisiting” the 1982 Citizenship Law. Some members may ask for an assessment of possible UN involvement in addressing this issue, which is fundamental to the return of the refugees, but was not directly addressed in the MOU.

In addition, Council members may want to know if significant issues have arisen in the refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar since the start of the monsoon period in June. Having seen for themselves the perilous living conditions of the refugees, members are acutely aware of the potential for a humanitarian catastrophe with the heavy rain that is expected in the next few months. It seems that the preparations for the monsoon by UN agencies have proved adequate so far, but there may be questions about more long-term solutions for the annual monsoon period if it looks like the repatriation of refugees may take more than a year.

In late June, Bangladesh and UNHCR began a joint verification programme for Rohingya refugees to consolidate a unified database. Members may be interested in whether the data, which will help establish the identities and places of origin of the refugees, could be used to facilitate the return of the Rohingya refugees to Myanmar.

The presence of OHCHR will allow members to ask questions about the independent Commission of Inquiry, which Myanmar announced on 31 May that it would set up in order to investigate allegations of human rights violations following the 25 August attacks. Among the main concerns are the independence of the Commission and whether it will be able to conduct a fair investigation into the allegations and address accountability issues in a way that would satisfy international human rights standards. Members will be interested in whether OHCHR has any information about membership of the Commission, and may emphasise the importance of participation of individuals from outside Myanmar.

Another recent development that will be discussed is the 27 June letter from the Myanmar permanent representative to the president of the Council. This letter was in response to the Council’s 31 May letter, which requested the Myanmar government to update it on the developments and steps taken in addressing issues around humanitarian access; accountability for human rights abuses; and implementation of the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on the Rakhine State. Regarding humanitarian access, the letter highlights the signing of the memorandum of understanding between the Myanmar government, UNHCR and UNDP. On accountability, the letter states that while the government would take action against perpetrators if there were sufficient evidence, the human rights of all communities need to be protected. It notes 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 provides information on the implementation of the Advisory Commission’s recommendations. Other areas covered in the letter include progress in the repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh and the importance of the correct process for such returns. This meeting will be the first opportunity for Council members to discuss Myanmar’s response and next steps for the Council.

Since their return from the visiting mission in early May, the UK, which is the penholder on Myanmar, has worked with other like-minded members to keep the Council focused on this issue. It is aware of the delicate balance needed to maintain pressure on the Myanmar government while continuing to engage with it. While a number of members see Myanmar’s willingness to engage as a promising sign, they would like to see more practical progress on the ground. China is opposed to any strong Council action on Myanmar and would like to see the Council be more encouraging of developments such as the MOU and Independent Commission of Inquiry. Over the last couple of months, the Council has issued a press statement and sent letters to Bangladesh, Myanmar and the Secretary-General on the refugee situation, but a stronger outcome seems unlikely at the moment.

Looking ahead, it seems the UK is interested in discussing Myanmar during its presidency in August, which marks one year since the start of the violence that led to the refugee outflow. At this point, if there continues to be limited progress in creating the conditions for the safe return of the refugees, some Council members may start to push harder for stronger Council action. In September, the report of the Fact-Finding Mission established by the Human Rights Council in March 2017 is expected, and there may be meetings on Myanmar on the sidelines of the high-level week of the opening of the General Assembly in late September.

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