Big stick or softly-softly? UN split over tackling human rights in Myanmar

    A fierce debate within the highest echelons of the United Nations over how to deal with Myanmar on the issue of the Rohingya is moving from behind closed doors into the public domain, casting doubts over whether the UN body has formulated a coherent strategy.

    By Guy Dinmore   |   Thursday, 11 June 2015

    UN officials say the divisions are at the same time ideological, personal and tactical. But they ultimately boil down to the question of how best to get Myanmar to address what are seen as the “root” causes of the recent boat migrant crisis – the systematic persecution of the Muslim minority who are said to make up the world’s largest stateless community. Bangladesh’s own harsh rejection of the Rohingya is also in the spotlight.

    Calls for a more robust rights-oriented approach is strongest at UN headquarters in New York, although divisions exist there too. Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein of Jordan, the high commissioner for human rights appointed last year, is said to be leading the charge with the backing of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who in turn is under pressure to act from Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN.

    Defending a more “softly-softly” line that prioritises development issues is Renata Dessallien, the UN resident coordinator in Yangon and the most senior UN official in Myanmar. Vijay Nambiar, a veteran Indian diplomat who has been the secretary general’s special adviser on Myanmar since 2010, is also seen as a strong advocate of non-confrontational diplomacy who previously has not placed human rights high on his agenda.

    “The UN has got to have backbone,” a senior official in New York told The Myanmar Times, requesting anonymity. “But the UN is divided and there are those who say that Myanmar is at a difficult and delicate stage of transition, that being tough backfires. It is not a united line.”

    The policy divisions trace their own roots to fears of a repeat of the genocidal massacres witnessed in Rwanda and Bosnia and more recently in Sri Lanka in 2009, when thousands of civilians were slaughtered in the closing months of its long-running civil war. An independent review by Charles Petrie, commissioned by Mr Ban, was hugely critical of the UN, calling its actions in Sri Lanka a “systematic failure”.

    In response to the Petrie report, Mr Ban launched the “Rights Up Front” initiative in late 2013 with the aim to “ensure the UN system takes early and effective action, as mandated by the charter and UN resolutions, to prevent or respond to large-scale violations of human rights or international humanitarian law”.

    Achieving this, the UN said, would require “a cultural change within the UN system, so that human rights and the protection of civilians are seen as a system-wide core responsibility”.

    In that spirit, Prince Zeid briefed UN Security Council members in New York on May 28 on the human rights situation in Myanmar as thousands of Bangladeshi and Myanmar migrants, many of them Rohingya, were drifting in open seas, abandoned by human traffickers.

    Ms Power tweeted that the briefing was a “historic first”. Participants said Prince Zeid delivered a damning report on the institutional discrimination that the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State face, and how root causes of the migrant crisis should be addressed.

    The first signs of a backlash were not long in coming.

    Thura U Shwe Mann, Speaker of parliament and a possible contender for the presidency next year, wrote an open letter to Mr Ban on June 3 requesting that “national and international organisations exercise great care to avoid creating misconceptions about our country and aggravating communal tensions and conflict”.

    “Keeping in mind the peace and security of the whole world, including Myanmar, the international community needs to adopt an objective and impartial approach,” he said.

    While some UN workers in Myanmar welcomed Prince Zeid’s get-tough approach, a majority was said to be opposed. One official, who asked not to be named, said his report was “accusatory and unbalanced” and risked undermining concrete signs of progress from the government.

    “We push and engage but others want to pound on the door. But the risk is that Myanmar closes the door and that’s it,” he said.

    In terms of progress, he noted that Myanmar’s participation in the regional conference called by Thailand on May 29 was the first time that Myanmar had agreed to discuss the Rohingya issue with the international community.

    The official also disclosed that since mid-March, U Maung Maung Ohn, chief minister of Rakhine State, had overseen the return to their homes of some 10,000 Rohingya from detention camps holding a total of 140,000 Muslims. Homes destroyed in the 2012 inter-communal violence are being rebuilt. A further 25,000 are planned to follow in the coming months.

    A former deputy minister for border affairs, U Maung Maung Ohn was installed as chief minister by President U Thein Sein in part because of his proven ability to work with the international community, including the UN.

    “The government cannot say publicly that these people are returning,” the official said, noting the dangers of a backlash, both in Rakhine State from the Buddhist majority and from Buddhist nationalists, including influential monks. The latter have already protested in Yangon against foreign pressure on Myanmar over the Rohingya, while Rakhine groups will take to the streets on June 14.

    Shortly before Prince Zeid’s intervention, Ms Dessallien and Mr Nambiar released a joint statement in Rakhine State following the Myanmar navy’s “rescue” of more than 200 migrants in desperate condition aboard a human smugglers’ boat. The statement was noted in New York for its mostly conciliatory approach and dismayed those seeking a tougher line.

    “It is Prince Zeid versus Dessallien and she is feeling the heat. She is a big supporter of the Rakhine chief minister and has bought the government line,” the UN official in New York said.

    Ms Dessallien’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Mr Nambiar could not be reached as he was involved in week-long talks in a remote border area with leaders of armed ethnic groups discussing a nationwide ceasefire agreement.

    With the immediate boat crisis abating, UN attention is shifting to the “citizenship verification” program that is getting under way, with the Muslim minority offered the chance to prove they meet legal criteria to gain citizenship. This includes renouncing the label Rohingya, which the government argues is a recent political construct and not an ethnic identity.

    A pilot project in Myebon township and elsewhere has already led to 900 people granted citizenship, although they are still confined to IDP camps. Some UN officials are sceptical about Myanmar’s real intentions behind the program, fearing it could lead to another exodus.

    “Myebon is a fake. It is for PR. They are not serious about giving them citizenship,” said one official involved.

    He noted that many Rohingya IDPs would have difficulty proving their identity and credentials because their documents were destroyed during communal conflict in 2012.

    Asked if Mr Ban was requesting the UN in Myanmar to take a tougher approach over government policy toward the Rohingya, his office replied, “The UN has consistently condemned policies of discrimination, hate speech and incitement to violence by extreme elements in Myanmar and called on the government to take strong action against those who engage in such conduct.

    “We have been pressing the government to address the substantive issues affecting the Rohingya community in the Rakhine State comprehensively and urgently, including their access to citizenship,” the statement said.

    It went on to say that Mr Ban noted that all people have suffered in Rakhine State and that the UN continued to work to support the government in addressing development and humanitarian needs of all people there.