Myanmar Meetings on the Return of Refugees and Accountability
Council members will hold two meetings in the coming days on the situation in Myanmar. Tomorrow (21 August), Council members will discuss the return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar under “any other business”. The meeting was requested by Belgium, France, Germany, the UK and the US following the Myanmar government’s announcement that it had cleared 3,450 people for repatriation on 22 August from a list of 22,000 provided by Bangladesh. Briefings are expected from High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi and Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP Director of the Bureau of Policy and Programme Support Haoliang Xu.
On Friday (23 August), there will be an Arria-formula meeting on “Mass Atrocity Crimes in Myanmar: Where do we stand on accountability?”. The meeting is being organised by Germany, Peru and Kuwait.
The exodus of more than 700,000 refugees from Myanmar to Bangladesh was sparked by the violent reaction of Myanmar military forces to the 25 August 2017 attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on security posts. Since then, the refugees have been housed in Cox’s Bazar, joining almost 200,000 refugees that were there following previous waves of displacement.
Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a bilateral agreement on repatriation in November 2017, but tangible progress on returns has been elusive. Both countries, however, are eager to see some movement on the issue. Bangladesh has expressed concern about the environmental and security impact of housing the refugees, and Myanmar, which has been criticised for being slow to create the appropriate conditions for the returns, appears keen to show the international community that there has been progress.
On 6 June 2018, UNDP and UNHCR signed a Tripartite Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Myanmar, which was extended on 24 June. The MOU provides for UN support for the creation of appropriate conditions for the return of the refugees from Bangladesh. It seems that besides informing those on the list, UNHCR and Bangladesh are apparently involved in a return intention survey to verify the willingness of those on the list to be repatriated.
Discussion under “any other business”
In tomorrow’s meeting, Council members will want to hear from Grandi if there is indeed a willingness to return among those on the list. They may also have questions about how the list was created, and the process of clearing the 3,450 people. Some members may express concerns about the short notice for the start of the returns, and question the timing. In addition, many members are likely to stress the importance of conditions being in place for a safe, voluntary and dignified return of the refugees. An attempt to repatriate Rohingya refugees in November 2018 failed, as the refugees were unwilling to return to what they believed were unsafe conditions. The refugees were also looking for protection of rights to property, freedom of movement and a guarantee of citizenship.
Council members may ask about the implementation of the MOU and if the UN has been given better access in Rakhine state. The UN agencies have not been able to operate freely in Rakhine state, making it difficult for the UN to determine if conditions there are conducive to the return of the refugees. Members on the Council visiting mission in late March/early April 2018 will recall the embryonic development of transit centers and new homes in areas that had been destroyed, and may want information on progress in providing appropriate housing for returnees. There may be questions about whether refugees will be returning to their areas of origin, or be placed in transit centers. Some members may express concern about returnees’ possible placement in transit centers, as there is the risk that their stay could be protracted.
In this context, there may be questions about the closure of the camps where 128,000 Muslims have been living since fleeing violence in Rakhine state in 2012. The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, chaired by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, called for the internally displaced persons (IDPs) to be rehoused in a voluntary and consultative manner, near their original villages and with access to livelihoods. However, reports indicate that the IDPs are living in similar conditions to the camps they had been in, with little freedom of movement or access to livelihoods. Members may want to hear suggestions from the briefers for ways of addressing this issue. If the IDPs are given real freedom of movement, this may help boost the confidence of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who would like to return.
Given the recent unrest due to tensions between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw), members will be interested in whether the UN has been able to assess the security situation in the areas where the refugees may be returning. Concern over security has been cited as one of the reasons the UN has not being given access to many parts of Rakhine state.
It seems that the members initiating this meeting wanted to receive information on the repatriation process and provide Council members an opportunity to present their views on the potential repatriation of refugees ahead of the anticipated start of returns on Thursday (22 August).
This is an issue that the Council has followed closely, particularly since its visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar last year. The Council’s position on returns was made clear in a press statement on 9 May 2018 in which its members urged Myanmar to step up its efforts to create conditions conducive to the safe, voluntary and dignified return of Rohingya refugees and IDPs to their homes in Rakhine State. China, which has made clear that it believes that the return of the refugees should be a priority and has been working with Bangladesh and Myanmar to help resolve the refugee crisis, may convey as a positive step the agreement on a list of people cleared to return.
The Arria-Formula Meeting
The issue of the return of refugees is also likely to be raised during an Arria-formula meeting on Friday (23 August) organised by Germany, Kuwait and Peru. The meeting is expected to focus on accountability for mass atrocity crimes in Myanmar, with particular attention to Northern Rakhine. Members may highlight the connection between accountability for crimes and the Rohingya refugees’ confidence in their safe return.
The briefers are expected to be Radhika Coomaraswamy, a member of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (FFM) and author of the FFM report on sexual violence that is expected to be released on 25 August; Esther Htusan, a Pulitzer-prize winning Myanmar journalist who has reported extensively on the Rohingya situation, and Wakar Uddin, Director General of the Arakan Rohingya Union and founding chairman of the Burmese Rohingya Association, North America. A representative of the Independent Commission of Enquiry, established by the Myanmar government to investigate allegations of human rights violations in Rakhine State, was invited but declined.
The concept note for the Arria-formula meeting suggests that members could use the meeting to discuss ways in which Council members and the international community could support accountability in Myanmar, especially with respect to sexual and gender-based violence. In this context, members may want to hear from Coomaraswamy if her report makes recommendations for addressing obstacles to accountability for sexual and gender-based violence. The concept note also invites members to explore cooperation between the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, and the ICC, where the Prosecutor recently requested authorisation from the court’s judges to open an investigation into crimes relating to the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.