What's In Blue

Myanmar: Briefing One Year After the Start of the Refugee Crisis

Tomorrow (28 August), the Security Council will be briefed by Secretary-General António Guterres, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett, and UN Development Programme (UNDP) Associate Administrator Tegegnework Gettu on the situation in Myanmar and the Rohingya refugee crisis. The UK Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the UN, Lord Ahmad, will chair the meeting.

The UK, this month’s president and the lead on Myanmar in the Council, has chosen to hold a meeting on Myanmar to mark the one year anniversary of the crisis that has led to more than 750,000 refugees fleeing to Bangladesh. The exodus of refugees from Myanmar to Bangladesh was sparked by the violent reaction by Myanmar military forces to the 25 August 2017 attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on security posts. Since then, the Council has kept a watchful eye on the situation in Myanmar. It was particularly active between August and December 2017, with a lull in activity in the first months of 2018. The Council visiting mission in late April and early May led to a press statement upon its return, as well as letters from the Council to Myanmar and Bangladesh on the refugee situation. Last month, Council members were updated on the Rohingya situation in consultations 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, UNDP Director, Country Office Liaison and Coordination for Asia-Pacific.

Guterres is expected to cover developments since his letter to the Council on the Rohingya issue last September expressing concern about the violence, including his appointment of a Special Envoy in April and the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the government of Myanmar and UNDP and UNHCR in June. Guterres, who visited Bangladesh with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim from 1 to 2 July, is also likely to convey his impressions of the experiences of refugees in Cox’s Bazar, which he referred to during his visit as a “humanitarian and human rights nightmare”. He may update members on the work being done by the humanitarian agencies in addressing the Rohingya crisis and emphasise the need for global efforts in this regard. In addition, Guterres may stress the need for international pressure on Myanmar to create the appropriate conditions for the safe and voluntary return of the Rohingya refugees. The Rohingya refugee situation is expected to be the focus of Blanchett’s remarks to the Council. She visited Cox’s Bazar on 17 March. Following her visit, she called on the international community to share responsibility for this crisis with the Bangladesh government.

The Secretary-General is also expected to refer to the report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Myanmar, which was released today. Guterres is likely to recognize that this is an important report that needs to be taken up by the UN system, although he is not expected to go into the details of the report. On 24 March 2017, the Human Rights Council authorised a three-person fact-finding mission to establish the circumstances of the alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces, as well as other abuses in Myanmar, with a particular focus on the situation in Rakhine State. The report concludes that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed, and that that there is sufficient information to “warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior officials in the Tatmadaw chain of command, so that a competent court can determine their liability for genocide in relation to the situation in Rakhine State”. The report also suggests that UN as a whole failed to address human rights concerns in Myanmar. It will be presented to the Human Rights Council on 18 September.

Although the Secretary-General may not describe the report in detail, some of the report’s recommendations may be addressed by Council members. The report recommends that the Council refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court or create an ad hoc international criminal tribunal. It also suggests that the Council should adopt targeted individual sanctions and impose an arms embargo on Myanmar. Until the Council acts, the report maintains, the General Assembly or the Human Rights Council should create an independent, impartial mechanism to collect evidence of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights violations.

Some members, who have been advocating similar ideas for some time, may reiterate their positions. In this context, members may have questions about the independent commission of inquiry into alleged human rights violations established by Myanmar on 30 July. These members are skeptical about the independence of the commission and whether it will be able to conduct a fair investigation into the allegations. They may ask for more information on the newly-adopted terms of reference of the commission, and when it might begin its work.

Other members are likely to be more critical of the report and may highlight that further investigation is needed, particularly with regard to the FFM’s determination that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed.

Another issue of concern for many members is the establishment of appropriate conditions for the return of the refugees. Members will be interested in hearing whether there has been progress in this area. In this context, they may want an update from Gettu on the implementation of the MOU. The tripartite agreement between UNHCR, UNDP and the Myanmar government was signed on 6 June, but humanitarian access has been limited. While recognising that the Myanmar government has formed an implementation committee and that UNDP and UNCHR staff have conducted a preliminary assessment, Gettu might also reiterate the 8 August call by UN agencies for the Myanmar government to demonstrate “tangible progress” in “operationalizing the MOU”. Gettu may further emphasise the need for root causes of the conflict to be addressed through the full implementation of the recommendations of the Advisory Commission.

The UK has worked with other Council members to keep the Council’s attention on this issue, while at the same time advocating quiet diplomacy with the Myanmar government. While the Myanmar government has taken a number of steps in line with the requests in the Council’s May letter, several members would like to see more concrete progress, particularly on the issue of repatriation of the refugees and humanitarian access. China, on the other hand, believes that these members are being overly critical in their judgment of the Myanmar government’s actions. The publication of the FFM report, and the lack of progress in some areas, may encourage some members to advocate stronger Council options in dealing with this situation. Although the Council has been able to achieve consensus on some broad areas related to the refugee crisis, getting agreement on a more forceful approach is likely to be difficult, given fundamental differences of view in how to deal with the Myanmar government.

Next month, there are no meetings on Myanmar scheduled, but there will be several side events on the Myanmar and the Rohingya situation during the high-level week of the General Assembly.

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