Fragility, tensions and violence in Myanmar — including, but not limited to, the recent crisis in Rakhine State — risk jeopardizing important strides made in that country’s peace process, the top United Nations official in Myanmar warned the Security Council today, urging the 15-member organ to continue to lend support.
“While Bangladesh and host communities have been very generous, we cannot expect this to continue indefinitely,” said Christine Schraner Burgener, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, referring to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled across the border from Myanmar 18 months ago. While refugees continue to live in extremely challenging conditions with few signs of hope, she added that military and civilian tensions persist in Myanmar ahead of general elections in 2020. Peace remains fragile as the country continues to wrestle with the legacy of decades of military rule and fundamental human rights issues.
Calling for an end to violence, unfettered humanitarian access, efforts to tackle the root causes of tensions and inclusive sustainable development, she emphasized that the recently launched United Nations Joint Response Plan for 2019 — aimed at supporting both refugees and host communities — requires urgent funding. “Accountability is essential for combating impunity and genuine reconciliation,” she stressed, noting that Myanmar’s Independent Commission of Enquiry has responded positively to her recommendation that it engage with United Nations human rights entities. In that context, she urged the international community to continue to work to build trust with the Government.
As Council members took the floor, some stressed that insufficient action has been taken by the Government of Myanmar to improve the situation in Rakhine State — thereby allowing for the safe, voluntary and dignified return of refugees. Several called for the prompt and full implementation of the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, known as the Annan Report, and the memorandum of understanding agreed between the Government and several United Nations entities. Meanwhile, others warned that, if justice is not delivered to victims of serious crimes, the Council has the power to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.
The representative of the Dominican Republic was among those speakers who voiced grave concern that few signs of a clear, lasting solution to allow the return of Rohingya refugees have been seen to date. Noting that tensions in Myanmar are increasing, discrimination continues and security on the ground remains thin, he declared: “This is a disastrous situation on both sides of the border.” Condemning the serious violations of human rights and horrendous crimes perpetrated against the Rohingya, he said the time has come for the Council to move past its paralysis on the issue and act to prevent further atrocities.
The United Kingdom’s delegate agreed that the situation requires the Council’s attention. Expressing concern about the loss of life and the current conditions, she said the Myanmar armed forces are the problem and voiced her country’s support for the people. Her delegation is not dogmatic about who helps the refugees, but simply wants to see action, she stressed, noting that evidence of freedom of movement and a granting of access to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Office of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would be good starting points.
China’s representative, striking a different tone, said progress has been made, including commitments to close internally displaced persons camps and implement UNDP-UNHCR projects. Reports show that more than 60,000 people are waiting to be repatriated. Describing the issue of Rakhine State as a legacy matter, he said the root causes must be identified and addressed. For its part, China has set out an approach to end violence and promote repatriation, and is providing humanitarian assistance, including housing and food, to those in need.
Shahidul Haque, Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh, said that, while his country appreciates the Council’s willingness to resolve the protracted crisis, it is frustrated that no concrete action has been taken to ensure the Rohingya’s safe return. The problem in Myanmar is the result of decades-long State practices of deprivation, disenfranchisement and atrocities, he said, adding that “not a single Rohingya has volunteered to return to Rakhine due to the absence of a conducive environment there”. Indeed, the situation has gone from bad to worse, with the military engaging in heavy fighting. In the short-term, Myanmar can work to address accountability issues, while ensuring the full implementation of the UNDP‑UNCHR memorandum and the Annan Commission recommendations.
Myanmar’s representative said his Government has been implementing most of the recommendations in the Annan Commission report, having identified five priority areas covering issues of citizenship, freedom of movement, closure of camps for internally displaced persons, education and health. The most urgent task is to begin the repatriation process as soon as possible, he said, recalling that the Government recently proposed to Bangladesh to resume a Joint Working Group meeting in April. Rejecting both the Human Rights Council’s independent investigative mechanism and the United Nations fact-finding mission, he said the latter’s report was “biased and one-sided”, as well as politically motivated. Meanwhile, he stressed, the issues in Rakhine are based not in religious persecution — as portrayed by the massive media campaign launched against his country — but in political and economic challenges.
Also speaking were representatives of Kuwait, Indonesia, France, Belgium, Poland, Côte d’Ivoire, South Africa, Germany, Peru, United States, Russian Federation and Equatorial Guinea.
The meeting began at 4:30 p.m. and ended at 6:39 p.m.
CHRISTINE SCHRANER BURGENER, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Myanmar, briefed the Security Council on her recent visits to that country, as well as to Bangladesh and other destinations in the region. Noting that 18 months have elapsed since violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya and others to flee their homes — including into neighbouring Bangladesh — she said military and civilian tensions persist in Myanmar ahead of general elections in 2020. Meanwhile, that country’s peace remains fragile as it continues to struggle with the legacy of decades of rule by the army and subsequently fundamental issues relating to the protection of human rights.
Outlining several priority steps that are needed, she cited ending the violence in Myanmar; facilitating unfettered access to affected people; addressing the root causes of tensions; and enabling inclusive and sustainable development. In Cox’s Bazar, refugees live in extremely challenging conditions and with little signs of hope. “While Bangladesh and host communities have been very generous, we cannot expect this to continue indefinitely,” she said. The recently launched United Nations Joint Response Plan for 2019, aimed at supporting both refugees and host communities, needs urgent funding.
Expressing concern that heavy fighting with the Arakan Army will further impact efforts towards the dignified, voluntary return of refugees, she appealed to both sides to ensure the protection of civilians and uphold their obligations under international law. It is vital that current efforts by Myanmar to draft a national strategy on the closure of internally displaced persons camps address the underlying violence in Rakhine, she said, including the question of citizenship and restoring freedom of movement. Bilateral efforts by Myanmar and Bangladesh, supported by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), are also needed.
“Accountability is essential for combating impunity and genuine reconciliation,” she stressed, noting that Myanmar’s Independent Commission of Enquiry has responded positively to her recommendation that it engage with United Nations human rights entities. National responsibility and ownership of accountability are also important. Citing recent setbacks in the peace process in areas beyond Rakhine — including Kachin and Shan States — she called on all parties to exercise restraint and avoid actions that can reverse the peace process’ important gains. Noting that the elections planned for 2020 could add to such domestic complexities, she said State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is evidently moving ahead carefully on democratic reform — which must address institutionalized discrimination as a matter of priority. “We must collectively continue to build trust and work in partnership with the Government of Myanmar,” she said.
KAREN PIERCE (United Kingdom) said the situation required the Council’s attention. Concerned about the loss of life and the current conditions, she said efforts must advance towards improving the situation. The Myanmar armed forces are the problem, she said, expressing her country’s support for the people. Disappointed that more has not been done to ensure the refugees’ return, she underlined the importance of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State’s recommendations. Welcoming efforts made by ASEAN in this regard, she said her delegation is not dogmatic about who helps the refugees, but simply wants to see action. Good starting points would be evidence of freedom of movement and for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to be granted broad access to refugees, who should have confidence that they can go home.
MANSOUR AYYAD SH. A. ALOTAIBI (Kuwait) said concerns are growing as the crisis continues, with more Rohingyas seeking shelter in Bangladesh, a country that is already hosting more than 1 million refugees. Since the Council’s visiting mission in April 2018, Myanmar has taken a number of steps, including the establishment of an investigative mechanism and the signing of memoranda of understanding. However, these and other measures have yet to be implemented. Recommendations going forward include ensuring the freedom of movement, closing internally displaced persons camps and taking necessary measures to combat violence and hatred.
WU HAITAO (China) said progress has been made, including commitments to close internally displaced persons camps and implement United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)-Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) projects. Reports show that more than 60,000 are waiting to be repatriated. The issue of Rakhine State is a legacy matter, and the root causes must be identified and addressed. For its part, China has set out an approach to end violence and promote repatriation. China has also provided humanitarian assistance, including housing and food, to those in need. ASEAN sent a visiting mission to lend its support. However, insisting on setting preconditions for repatriation would only place a settlement of the issue out of reach. The international community should increase support to Rakhine State to reduce poverty and promote development. Council members should stay united, playing a constructive role.
DIAN TRIANSYAH DJANI (Indonesia) raised several concerns, including a need to seek a lasting solution. On the humanitarian crisis, he commended Bangladesh for assisting the refugees, but remained in camps awaiting the Council’s assistance. Members should elevate efforts to ensure the voluntary, safe and dignified return of the refugees. Underlining the importance of stakeholders’ constructive engagement, he said Indonesia’s Foreign Minister has conducted a series of meetings with interlocutors. The role of ASEAN is critical to finding a sustainable solution and nurturing confidence among all stakeholders.
FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France), noting that the Myanmar authorities’ actions on the ground remain insufficient, called for humanitarian support for the Rohingya and others still in Rakhine State, as well as unhindered humanitarian access to them. “We must allow the internally displaced Rohingya to have full freedom of movement” without any discrimination, he stressed, noting that the condition for safe, voluntary and dignified return for refugees has not yet been met. A second priority action is to combat impunity, he said, stressing that there are still no guarantees of a credible, impartial investigation of crimes committed. No tangible improvement in the situation of the most vulnerable communities has yet been seen, he said, noting that the authorities must adhere to the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State — especially those regarding freedom of movement, citizenship and equal rights. For all those reasons, the Council must remain fully mobilized to ensure follow-up on its November 2017 presidential statement, while ensuring that dialogue is translated into concrete improvements on the ground.
JOSÉ SINGER WEISINGER (Dominican Republic) said the Rohingya crisis continues to impact more than a million people. Meanwhile, tensions in Myanmar are increasing, discrimination continues and security on the ground remains thin. “This is a disastrous situation on both sides of the border,” as well as a threat to international peace and security, he said, condemning the serious violations of human rights and horrendous crimes perpetrated against the Rohingya. To date, the Council has not seen any indications of a clear, lasting solution that will allow refugees to return to Myanmar in a safe, voluntary and dignified manner. Describing the crimes committed against that population as genocide, he voiced concern that the Council has remained paralysed and inert on the matter. “The time has come for us to mobilize and act to prevent further atrocities,” and ensure perpetrators are held to account, he stressed. Calling on the Government to protect the citizens on its territory, he stressed that human rights and humanitarian principles cannot be watered down, disregarded or applied selectively.
MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYTSWERVE (Belgium), calling upon the authorities to ensure full humanitarian access, said progress to implement the memorandum of understanding agreed with United Nations partners remains too slow. Welcoming support by ASEAN and Bangladesh in particular, he echoed other speakers that the situation in Rakhine State has been identified as genocide. Emphasizing that it must be credibly and impartially investigated as a matter of priority, he noted that the Council has the authority to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court if justice is not delivered. Calling for the urgent implementation of the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, he said all human rights — including freedom of movement and expression and access to basic services — must be guaranteed.
JOANNA WRONECKA (Poland) said that there are legitimate concerns that the Myanmar authorities are backtracking on their commitments to address the Rohingya refugee crisis. Just a couple of days ago, the media reported that the highest ranked Myanmar military official denied the systematic army persecution of Rohingya Muslim minority. She asked: “If he refuses to believe in thousands of eyewitness testimonies of raped women and orphaned children who fled for their lives and found shelter in Cox’s Bazaar, how can we believe official Government rhetoric on bringing perpetrators to justice?” Poland called on the Government to ensure that security, rule of law and accountability prevail in Myanmar, including in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States. She urged the Government to take all measures to defuse tensions between communities and grant full, safe and unconditional humanitarian access without delay. She said that Poland will not forget about the two Reuters journalists jailed and sentenced for investigating the killing of Rohingya villagers in Rakhine State. She urged the immediate and unconditional release of the journalists.
KACOU HOUADJA LÉON ADOM (Côte d’Ivoire) raised concerns about the precarious security situation in north Rakhine State and the humanitarian situation. The tripartite agreement should be implemented to set the stage for the repatriation of Rohingyas, with the Governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar working together towards that goal. Commending efforts to reach vulnerable communities, he said the international community must play its role in, among other things, holding accountable those responsible for atrocities and other crimes and to mobilize support to assist the refugees.
MARTHINUS VAN SCHALKWYK (South Africa) expressed concern for the serious humanitarian crisis that affects almost 1 million Rohingya refugees. He commended the efforts of the Government of Bangladesh for assisting vulnerable people and called on Myanmar to work with the United Nations to facilitate conditions that will allow a voluntary return of displaced persons. The humanitarian crisis is being perpetrated by a lack of access to life-saving humanitarian assistance, including to health, education and other essential services. He called on the Myanmar Government to fully implement the memorandum of understanding signed in June 2018. It is also essential that relevant aid agencies receive the resources needed to address this humanitarian crisis.
CHRISTOPH HEUSGEN (Germany), recalling the Council’s 2018 visiting mission, said that, nearly one year later, hardly any progress has been made. Expressing gratitude to Bangladesh for its hospitality, he said what is fearsome is imagining that those people living in the camps will remain there for one, two or three years from now, opening a potential for radicalization. “We have to do everything to allow these refugees to return,” he said, adding that the proper conditions must be ensured. One way forward is to establish a sustained intercommunal dialogue, with a view to ensuring the acceptance of Rohingya communities upon their return. Raising concerns about the acts committed that led to the exodus, he said that those responsible for ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity must be brought to justice and the investigative mechanism must advance in its mandate.
PAUL DUCLOS (Peru), condemning attacks by the Arkan Army in Rakhine State, nevertheless called upon the Government of Myanmar to avoid a military escalation. Reiterating the importance of the memorandum of understanding signed between the Government and UNDP-UNHCR, he voiced regret that bureaucratic obstacles have prevented its full implementation. If effectively implemented, it would send a positive message to the Rohingya. The report of the Advisory Commission must serve as a guide, he said, calling in particular for efforts to address the issue of citizenship. He echoed other speakers’ calls for a prompt investigation into the crimes committed against the Rohingya, as well as for redoubled efforts to combat violence against women.
JONATHAN R. COHEN (United States), noting that progress on the ground in Myanmar remains limited, stressed that the violence and persecution that led so many Rohingya to flee the country is without any justification. The conditions for their safe, voluntary and dignified return have not yet been met, he said, urging the Government to create the conditions needed for repatriation. While the international community is willing to help, it must be allowed to do so with unhindered media and humanitarian access. Responsibility ultimately rests with the Government. Applauding the generosity of Bangladesh, he said the international community cannot ignore the world’s largest refugee crisis. Action is needed.
DMITRY A. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation), expressing support for shuttle diplomacy, underlined the importance of continued bilateral discussions between Myanmar and Bangladesh, with assistance of the Special Envoy. It is necessary to build bridges, not burn them down. Commending the work of ASEAN and the independent inquiry commission, he said the military had also taken steps by implementing a ceasefire until April. Efforts must identify ways to normalize conditions in Rakhine State, with authorities already working towards implementing the Advisory Commission’s recommendations. The key to resolving the refugee issue rests on the relationship between the neighbouring States. Policies of artificially dragging out or politicizing repatriation efforts are counterproductive. United Nations staff’s professionalism on the ground will determine a great deal about the way forward. The only resolution to the issue will come through diplomacy.
ANATOLIO NDONG MBA (Equatorial Guinea), Council president for February, speaking in his national capacity, raised several concerns, including the lack of voluntary returns and the low level of implementation of the memorandum of understanding among Myanmar, OHCHR and UNDP. Recalling letters the Government of Myanmar sent to the Council in June and July 2018 on its ongoing efforts in the areas of humanitarian access, accountability for human rights violations and implementation of the Advisory Commission recommendations, he said Equatorial Guinea would like to see that all the concerns about the refugee returns are addressed. He also encouraged the Government to redouble its efforts to ensure the complete settlement of issues in Rakhine State so the Rohingya can safely return.
HAU DO SUAN (Myanmar) said that, soon after taking over State responsibility, the National League for Democracy Government set as a top priority the need to bring sustainable peace, stability and development to Rakhine. It has been implementing most of the recommendations in the Rakhine Advisory Commission report, having identified five priority areas covering issues of citizenship, freedom of movement, closure of camps for internally displaced persons, education and health. The most urgent task is to begin the repatriation process as soon as possible, he said, recalling that the Government recently proposed to Bangladesh to resume a Joint Working Group meeting in April. “We are confident that we can make the repatriation plan a success if we both act strictly in compliance with the agreements,” he said.
Outlining work already under way with UNDP and UNHCR, as well as with ASEAN, he reiterated his country’s rejection of the Independent Investigative Mechanism — established by the Human Rights Council outside the Security Council’s mandate — as well as the United Nations fact-finding mission and its “biased and one-sided” narrative-based report. Expressing concern that the investigation targeted only Myanmar security forces, he said its conclusions were politically motivated with the aim of inflicting maximum damage to his country’s image and leadership. Noting that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army is alive and active, he cited several recent attacks, and stressed that his Government will not condone any human rights violations and will take action against perpetrators.
In that context, he said, Myanmar established an Independent Commission of Enquiry to investigate all allegations of human rights violations following ARSA terrorist attacks in August 2017 in Rakhine State. Emphasizing that such actions demonstrate his Government’s willingness and ability to address the accountability issue, he strongly rejected any attempt to move the matter into the international judicial system. Challenges in Rakhine are not issues of religious persecution, as portrayed by the massive media campaign launched against his country. Stressing that Myanmar is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, he said the issue is, in fact, a political and economic one involving prolonged cross-border illegal immigration, poverty, lack of rule of law and national security.
HAHIDUL HAQUE, Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh, said that, while his country appreciates the Council’s willingness to resolve this protracted humanitarian and human rights crisis, it is frustrating that nothing concrete has yet happened to ensure safe return of the Rohingya to Myanmar. The problem originates from Myanmar and is the result of decades-long State practices of deprivation, disenfranchisement and atrocities. Hence, its solution must be found in Myanmar by Myanmar. It is unfortunate Myanmar is trying to shift the blame, accusing Bangladesh of harbouring terrorists when, in reality, his Government has a zero-tolerance policy in this regard.
Turning to humanitarian concerns, he said Rohingya and those in their host communities are suffering, with their prolonged presence posing formidable challenges and adversely affecting the country’s economy, environment, social fabric and security. The idea of long-term hosting by Bangladesh is not at all a viable proposition. Even if repatriation began today, it would take another 12 years based on an estimated 300 Rohingyas returning every day. Despite his Government’s efforts, “not a single Rohingya has volunteered to return to Rakhine due to the absence of a conducive environment there”, he said, adding that as far as repatriation is concerned, the situation has gone from bad to worse, with the Myanmar military having engaged in heavy fighting since November 2018.
He regretted to inform the Council that Bangladesh will no longer be in a position to accommodate more people from Myanmar. Going forward, he said the priority is to ensure the safe, voluntary, sustainable and dignified return of the Rohingyas, which requires building confidence among them. In the short-term Myanmar can take several steps in this regard, including addressing accountability issues and ensuring the full implementation of the memorandum of understanding among Myanmar, UNDP, UNHCR and of recommendations of the Advisory Commission on the Rakhine State. In addition, Myanmar can dismantle existing internally displaced persons camps, where more than 130,000 Muslim inmates have been detained for more than six years.
However, pronouncements from the Council have not had any impact on improving the situation on the ground, he said. Concrete action is needed to prevent the situation from spiralling out of control. The Council could negotiate the draft resolution to set out a reporting cycle as an oversight mechanism, visit the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar and Rakhine State, and create safe zones in conflict‑affected areas. “We should not allow Myanmar to turn the clock backward on any ground and, therefore, we urge the Council to act in a decisive manner,” he said.