posted on Thu 16 Mar 2017 4:44 PM
Briefing on the Situation in Myanmar

Tomorrow morning (17 March), at the request of the UK, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman is scheduled to brief Council members on the situation in Myanmar during informal consultations under “any other business”. A representative from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) will be present to answer questions. The UK initiative comes amidst growing concern about the situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, with widespread reports of grave abuses against the Rohingya Muslim minority there. While Feltman is expected to provide a comprehensive briefing, covering developments in the peace process and the political situation more broadly, as well as the recent escalation of violence in Kachin, Sha and other states, the situation in Rakhine will most likely be a key focus of the discussions.

When Council members last considered the situation in Myanmar on 17 November 2016, there was already heightened concern about the escalation of violence in Rakhine state following the 9 October attacks against three separate border police posts reportedly by an émigré-led force of trained fighters from the Rohingya community. Nine police officers were killed in the attacks. National security forces immediately responded with a “clearance operation” leading to further clashes, the most serious of which took place on 12 and 13 November, when another police officer was killed.

The discussion on 17 November, which was requested by the US and was also held under “any other business”, included a briefing by Vijay Nambiar, the Secretary-General’s outgoing Special Adviser on Myanmar (whose mandate was not renewed by the General Assembly before it expired at the end of 2016), while Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmour was present to answer questions. At the time, Nambiar expressed concern about the disproportionate nature of the military response to the killings, while also emphasising that lack of access made it difficult to assess the situation. Nambiar warned that there were signs of more organised resistance by Rohingya and a risk of further radicalisation of the conflict.

Since the discussion in November, the situation has further deteriorated, with mounting evidence emerging about violations committed against the Rohingya, including allegations of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. OHCHR issued a report on 3 February based on interviews with Rohingya fleeing from Myanmar since the 9 October attacks. According to the report, the vast majority of those interviewed had experienced multiple violations, including extrajudicial executions or other killings; enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention; rape, including gang rape and other forms of sexual violence; destruction of property; and ethnic and religious discrimination and persecution. It described the recent violence against the Rohingya as unprecedented and concluded that “the attacks against the Rohingya … seem to have been widespread as well as systematic, indicating the very likely commission of crimes against humanity.”

The OHCHR’s report was followed by the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, submitted to the Human Rights Council (HRC) on 1 March (A/HRC/34/67) and presented in a meeting on 13 March. Her report highlighted the OHCHR findings and emphasised the need to ensure accountability. She called on the international community to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate “the systematic, structural and institutional discrimination in policy, law and practice, as well as long-standing persecutions, against the Rohingya and other minorities in Rakhine state”. She also called on the UN under the leadership of the new Secretary-General to “arrive at a more comprehensive and coordinated approach to UN action in Myanmar, including peacebuilding, development, humanitarian assistance, with human rights principles at their core.” At the time of writing, the HRC was expected to adopt a resolution on Myanmar before the end of the current session on 24 March, extending the Special Rapporteur’s mandate. The draft currently being discussed does not, however, call for the establishment of a commission of inquiry, but for an independent international fact-finding mission.

This morning (16 March), the State Advisory Commission headed by Kofi Annan and appointed by the Myanmar government in August last year, with a mandate to provide recommendations to the government on how to improve the lives of all communities in Rakhine, presented its interim recommendations. (Its final report is due in the second half of the year.) The Commission called on Myanmar to immediately start allowing members of the Rohingya community to return home, and ultimately to close down the camps for the displaced in western Rakhine. It also called for an independent and impartial investigation of the military operations conducted in response to the 9 October attacks. Meanwhile, another commission appointed by the government on 1 December, also referred to as the Presidential Maungdaw Investigation Commission, to specifically investigate the violence in Rakhine, said in an interim report released on 3 January that it had found no cases of genocide or religious persecution of Rohingya in the wake of the attacks.

In addition to the traditional reluctance by China regarding any significant Council involvement on Myanmar, there appears to have been some hesitation on the part of other members, who have been supportive in the past, about the value at this stage of having another briefing with no outcome. There were attempts earlier in the year, most notably by Sweden, to discuss the situation in Myanmar, but these efforts received only limited support.

It seems that contributing to the hesitation among some Council members was an apparent reluctance on the part of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperaion (OIC) to have the Council engage on the issue earlier in the year. Following the OIC’s 19 January extraordinary session on the situation of the Rohingya, an OIC representative met with the President of the Council for the month of February, Ambassador Volodymyr Yelchenko (Ukraine). The session adopted a resolution expressing concern about acts of violence and serious human rights abuses committed against the Rohingya, as well as violations of international humanitarian law; and requested the OIC Secretary-General “to explore joint initiatives with the UN Secretary-General and ASEAN Secretary-General which may support the government of Myanmar in developing and implementing inter-faith and inter-communal dialogues” in the country and in the wider region. It seems the OIC suggested that that instead of Council engagement, other bilateral and regional avenues should be explored.

In addition, there are political sensitivities for some members surrounding any Council initiative which might be seen as criticising Myanmar’s democratically elected government, given that it does not control the military and is thus not directly responsible for the operations in Rakhine. Nevertheless, there is disappointment over the quality of the work of the Presidential Maungdaw Investigation Commission and, more generally, the unwillingness of Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor and de facto leader of the government, to speak up in defense of the Rohingya.

While it not entirely clear what prompted the UK to request the briefing at this particular moment, other Council members seem to welcome the initiative. They are keen to get more information about the situation in Rakhine and what immediate steps the UN is taking to address it, and are also eager to get an update on the overall situation in Myanmar, including with regard to efforts to advance the peace process and to the escalation of tensions in other areas. Moreover, they will be interested in getting a sense of how the Secretary-General intends to organise the UN’s overall engagement in Myanmar now that the mandate of the Special Advisor has ended, especially in light of the call for a comprehensive and coordinated approach made by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.