Myanmar’s Refugee Problem among World’s Worst Humanitarian, Human Rights Crises, Secretary-General Says in Briefing to Security Council
Fact-Finding Mission’s Impartiality Questioned as Bangladesh Stresses Naypyidaw’s Duty to Build Rohingya’s Trust in Safe, Peaceful Returns
One year after the start of the Rohingya refugee crisis, the Security Council considered today the report issued by the independent fact-finding mission dispatched to that country, which alleges that national security forces committed gross human rights violations and abuses that “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law”.
Briefing the 15-member Council, Secretary-General António Guterres said the massive refugee emergency that began in Myanmar’s Rakhine State has become “one of the world’s worst humanitarian and human rights crises”. While condemning attacks against the security forces by extremists in October 2016 and August 2017, he nevertheless emphasized that nothing can ever justify the disproportionate use of force against civilians or the gross human rights violations committed by the Myanmar security forces and their allies.
Regrettably, the Secretary-General continued, Myanmar has refused to cooperate with United Nations human rights entities and mechanisms, despite repeated calls to do so, including by members of the Council. Emphasizing that patterns of violations against ethnic and religious minorities beyond Rakhine must also end in order for genuine democracy to take root, he said unity among Council members was essential.
Also addressing the Council was Tegegnework Gettu, Associate Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), who said that creating sustainable conditions for the voluntary return of refugees from Bangladesh will require comprehensive and durable solutions. Outlining efforts by UNDP and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to create conditions suitable for voluntary returns, he said effective access and streamlined procedures are essential to accessing entire tracts of villages and undertaking area-based programmes that will help to build social cohesion.
Joining the briefers was Cate Blanchett, Goodwill Ambassador for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who recalled her encounter with one of the 720,000 stateless Rohingya refugees. Describing Laila’s flight from her burning village with her infant son, Yousef, she said that she had heard gut-wrenching stories of torture, women brutally violated, people whose loved ones were killed before their eyes, and children who saw their grandparents locked in houses that were then set alight. “I am a mother, and I saw my children in the eyes of every refugee child I met,” she continued. “I saw myself in every parent. How can any mother endure seeing her child thrown into a fire?” She urged Council members to support all efforts to make the return of refugees a reality.
In the ensuing debate, Tariq Mahmood Ahmad, Minister of State for the Commonwealth and United Nations at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom, and Council President for August, said that crimes against humanity, such as those detailed in the fact-finding mission’s report threaten international peace and security. It is incumbent upon the Council to consider its findings in depth after they are presented to the Human Rights Council in September, he added. The solution to the crisis lay in Burma, he pointed out, emphasizing that, while that country’s Government has taken a number of steps, the option of pursuing justice through international mechanisms must be kept open.
In similar vein, Sweden’s representative recalled that his delegation previously called upon the Council to consider referring the situation to the International Criminal Court. With “facts now established”, the international community must shoulder its responsibility, he stressed.
Myanmar’s representative said that his country’s Government does not accept the mandate of the fact-finding mission due to concerns about its impartiality. “I have serious doubt on the intention of the timing of the release of the report,” he added, pointing out that it was released on the eve of today’s Security Council meeting on his country. Addressing deep-rooted and complex issues in Rakhine State is a fundamental and crucial part of the Government’s efforts to build peace and national reconciliation, he stressed.
Representatives of China and the Russian Federation argued that the crisis requires a long-term, patient approach rather than pressure, and must be resolved through bilateral diplomatic efforts.
The representative of Bangladesh called upon the Council to further calibrate its response in light of prevailing circumstances on the ground and emerging evidence of atrocities against the Rohingya. Emphasizing that the return of refugees cannot begin unless the Rohingya themselves regain the trust and confidence to opt voluntarily for repatriation, he declared: “It would be entirely up to the Myanmar authorities to build trust among the Rohingya about their sustainable return and peaceful coexistence with other communities in Rakhine State.”
Also speaking today were representatives of the United States, Netherlands, Peru, Côte d’Ivoire, Poland, Kazakhstan, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Equatorial Guinea and Bolivia.
The meeting began at 3:07 p.m. and ended at 5:43 p.m.
ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said the massive refugee emergency that began one year ago in Myanmar’s Rakhine State has become one of the world’s worst humanitarian and human rights crises. While condemning attacks by extremists against the security forces, he nevertheless emphasized that nothing can ever justify the disproportionate use of force against civilian populations and the gross human rights violations committed by the Myanmar security forces and their allies.
He said that Christine Schraner Burgener, appointed in April as Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Myanmar, is undertaking a process of broad consultations, including with the Government of Myanmar, the military, civil society and women’s groups. In June, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Myanmar authorities finalized a memorandum of understanding establishing a framework on cooperation in creating conditions suitable for the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh. This requires a massive investment, not only in reconstruction and development for all communities in one of Myanmar’s poorest regions, but also in reconciliation and respect for human rights. He emphasized, however, that he does not yet see the commitment needed for that investment to take place.
Asking Council members to join him in urging the Myanmar authorities to cooperate with the United Nations, and to ensure immediate, unimpeded and effective access for the Organization’s agencies and partners, he pointed out that Rohingya remaining in Rakhine continue to face marginalization and discrimination, with some 130,000 of them confined to camps amid severe restrictions on their freedom of movement. They have extremely limited access to health, education and other essential services, and no way to make a living, he said, stressing that there can be no excuse for delaying the search for dignified solutions. While applauding the tremendous generosity of the authorities and host communities in Bangladesh, he underlined that the response to the crisis must be a global one. The international humanitarian appeal for the Rohingya crisis remains significantly underfunded at 33 per cent, and much more must be done to alleviate the very real risks to life posed by the current and impending monsoon seasons.
Underscoring the essential need for accountability to ensure genuine reconciliation among all ethnic groups, and as a prerequisite for regional security and stability, he said Myanmar has regrettably refused to cooperate with United Nations human rights entities and mechanisms, despite repeated calls, including by Council members, to do so. The United Nations independent fact‑finding mission on Myanmar appointed by the Human Rights Council has found “patterns of gross human rights violations and abuses” committed by the security forces, he noted, citing its report as stating that those patterns “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law”. Emphasizing that patterns of violations against ethnic and religious minorities beyond Rakhine must also end for genuine democracy to take root, he declared: “A year has passed. This crisis cannot continue indefinitely.” Recalling the Council’s unity in adopting a strong presidential statement, he emphasized: “That unity remains essential if we are to answer clear appeals with action.”
TEGEGNEWORK GETTU, Associate Administrator, United Nations Development Programme, said the agency shares international concerns about the situation in Rakhine and the plight of the Rohingya. Creating sustainable conditions for the voluntary return of refugees from Bangladesh will require comprehensive and durable solutions, he said, emphasizing the need to address Rakhine’s significant development challenges and to lift restrictions on free movement and access to services. Every refugee must also be free to decide when to return, he said, emphasizing that dealing with such issues might go far towards building trust among the people of Rakhine State.
Outlining efforts by UNDP and UNHCR to create conditions suitable for voluntary returns, he said effective access and streamlined procedures are essential to accessing entire village tracts and undertaking area-based programmes that will help to build social cohesion. In addition to implementing the tripartite memorandum of understanding, UNDP, UNHCR and other United Nations agencies have been working in Rakhine to put a wide-ranging development and humanitarian assistance initiative in place with support from major donors, he said. He also acknowledged the support from the Government of Bangladesh to Rohingya refugees. Creating the conditions for voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable returns to Myanmar will require at least medium-term planning, he said, adding that addressing the needs of the refugees in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, is also of primary importance.
CATE BLANCHETT, Goodwill Ambassador for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, recalled her encounter with one of the 720,000 stateless Rohingya refugees who have fled violence and abuse in Rakhine State since last August. Describing Laila’s flight from her burning village with her infant son, Yousef, she said that she had heard gut-wrenching stories of grave torture, women brutally violated, people whose loved ones were killed before their eyes, and children who saw their grandparents locked in houses that were then set alight. “I am a mother, and I saw my children in the eyes of every refugee child I met,” she continued. “I saw myself in every parent. How can any mother endure seeing her child thrown into a fire?”
Stressing the importance of remembering that this is not the first massive, forced displacement of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar into Bangladesh in the past 40 years, she recalled that 200,000 Rohingya streamed into the neighbouring country in 1978, fleeing brutality and widespread abuse. And 14 years later, in 1992, another wave of violence forced 250,000 stateless Rohingya to seek safety in Bangladesh. Today, there are 900,000 stateless refugees in that country who need more than just food and water, informal schools and temporary shelters, she said, stressing: “They need a future.”
She went on to point out that in the refugee settlements of Bangladesh today, women raped in Myanmar are now giving birth to children. Already burdened by statelessness, such children are likely to carry the stigma for the rest of their lives. Noting the large number of women remaining vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, she underlined that the Rohingya cannot return to the very conditions they were forced to flee, she said. She urged Council members not to forget this imperative, while supporting all efforts to make the return of refugees a reality.
Ms. Blanchett said her mind often returns to Laila and her neighbours, wondering whether Laila ever found out what happened to her husband, whether her shared temporary shelter survived the monsoons, and whether her young son will be able to return to his home in Myanmar and go to school one day. “Together, we need to change the future of Laila, Yousef”, and all Rohingya living in Myanmar, Bangladesh and elsewhere, she said, emphasizing: “There are no short cuts. There are no alternatives. We have failed the Rohingya before. Please let us not fail them again.”
TARIQ MAHMOOD AHMAD, Minister of State for the Commonwealth and United Nations at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom and Council President for August, speaking in his national capacity, said that, one year on, the Council has a duty to ensure that Rakhine State’s Rohingya population receive justice and the prospect of a peaceful future. Crimes against humanity, such as those detailed by the fact-finding mission threaten international peace and security, he said, adding that it is incumbent on the Council to consider its findings in depth after they are presented to the Human Rights Council in September. However, the solution to the crisis lay in Burma, he pointed out, emphasizing that, while that country’s Government has taken a number of steps, the option of pursuing justice through international mechanisms must be kept open. The Council’s role should be to continue providing support to Bangladesh and United Nations agencies involved in helping the refugees, he said, adding that concerted actions must be taken to push for justice and a peaceful future for the Rohingya, alongside support for those inside Burma pushing for progress. The Council must be prepared to use the full range of tools at its disposable to exert pressure on relevant parties, including the Burmese military. The crisis will not be solved overnight or without clear action from the Council, he emphasized. “We need to be acting,” he said, appealing to Council members to set their differences aside and act in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter and for the sake of humanity.
ANNE GUEGUEN (France) recalled that her country’s President described the situation in Rakhine as “ethnic cleansing” when he addressed the General Assembly in 2017. Expressing concern at the findings of the fact-finding mission, she urged the international community to gather evidence to ensure that those responsible for crimes against the Rohingya are brought to justice. France called upon the Myanmar authorities to cooperate with the fact-finding mission and the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, she said, adding that the international community must continue to support Bangladesh and humanitarian organizations as they assist nearly 1 million refugees. Emphasizing the need to combat impunity and address the root causes of the Rohingya crisis, she said that if there is no tangible progress on the ground over the coming weeks, careful consideration must be given to new actions that the Council can take.
CARL ORRENIUS SKAU (Sweden) said that several initiatives by the Myanmar Government to meet repeated demands for accountability have been announced, but have regrettably all fallen short of expectations. Recalling that his delegation previously called for the Council to consider referring the situation to the International Criminal Court, he stressed that, with facts now established, the international community must shoulder its responsibility. In light of the fact‑finding report, it is time for Council members to consult on a resolution to that end. There is also an urgent need to respond to the humanitarian requirements of the refugees in Cox’s Bazar. Commending the efforts by Bangladesh, he emphasized the need for increased financial support for humanitarian efforts, adding that the dire situation in Rakhine must also be addressed. There was need to ensure the existence of suitable conditions for the voluntary, safe and dignified return of the refugees, he said, while stressing also the urgent importance of ensuring security, reconstruction and livelihood programmes.
VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation) stressed the importance of a consistent and balanced non-confrontational approach to normalizing the humanitarian siltation, including the refugee issue in Myanmar and Bangladesh, noting that 81 of the 88 recommendations proposed by the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission have been implemented or are under implementation. The step-by-step return of refugees is crucial, he said, emphasizing that the key to resolving the crisis is bilateral cooperation between the two nations. International assistance is also essential, he said, adding that his country helped both countries equally through the World Food Programme (WFP). He noted that the Special Envoy’s office will be located in Myanmar’s capital city, while stressing that all parties must avoid re-escalating the crisis.
WU HAITAO (China), citing some positive developments, mentioned the United Nations Special Envoy’s establishment of a telephone “hotline” between Myanmar and Bangladesh and the Special Envoy’s visit to both countries. Noting Myanmar’s hosting of the Special Envoy’s office in its capital, he emphasized that both countries are friendly neighbours of China, whose Foreign Minister visited both in June. His mediation efforts included a three-phased proposal, with cessation of hostilities as the first step, to be followed by repatriation of refugees and other measures. The crisis must be resolved bilaterally, he emphasized, adding that China stands ready to support Myanmar and Bangladesh equally, provide emergency supplies and improve infrastructure. Stressing that the crisis requires a long-term patient approach, rather than pressure, he pointed out that the citizenship issue should be resolved, not as a precondition, but during the process of repatriation.
NIKKI R. HALEY (United States) called attention to a State Department report based on interviews with 1,024 randomly selected Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar, saying its results were consistent with the work of the fact-finding mission. First-hand accounts revealed that most the refugees had experienced violence to their homes and families, with the Burmese military and the security forces being the main perpetrators. Behind the numbers were stories of almost unbelievable brutality, with multiple witnesses describing soldiers throwing infants and small children into fires and village wells, and of women and girls raped in public. One in five of those interviewed said they had witnessed a mass casualty event, she said, recalling that her delegation, among other Council members, has been working to keep the Council focused on the atrocities in Burma, and to hold the military and security forces responsible. More must be done, however, including full and unimpeded access to Burma for the delivery of humanitarian and development assistance, as well as the acquittal of two Reuters journalists due to appear in court next week. Burma’s difficult passage to democracy must continue, she said, emphasizing that a responsible democratic Government that respects the rights of minorities will not emerge until the current one demonstrates its commitment to accountability. If it falls short, the Council must act, she added, noting that the whole world is watching whether the Council will take action.
LISE GREGOIRE VAN HAAREN (Netherlands) stressed the urgent need for accountability, for the Rohingya to return to Myanmar and for the Council’s continued engagement. Recalling stories from the ground, she said that sexual violence was perpetrated against women and girls to instil fear in the Rohingya people and force them to flee. The report of the fact-finding mission underscores the need for prosecutions on the grounds of crimes against humanity and war crimes, she emphasized. While Myanmar’s steps towards justice are encouraging, its intentions will only be meaningful when followed by concrete steps towards full accountability, she said, adding that it is up to the Myanmar Government to demonstrate that it meets those standards. However, without progress at the national level, the international community must take responsibility and provide alternatives, she said, stressing that, if Myanmar is serious about its willingness to let refugees return safely, the best way to show that is to allow the United Nations unfettered access to north Rakhine and to address the issue of severely restricted freedom of movement for the Rohingya people. “The international community cannot rely on the generous hospitality of Bangladesh forever,” she added, stressing the need for concreted and united international engagement.
GUSTAVO MEZA CUADRA (Peru) recalled that his delegation, alongside those of the United Kingdom and Kuwait, headed the Council’s visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar four months ago. Despite progress on the voluntary and safe return of Rohingya refugees to their homeland, challenges remain, including the need to redouble repatriation efforts. The signing of a bilateral agreement on returns and the establishment of a hotline between the two countries’ Foreign Ministers are steps in the right direction, and they must yield results on the ground, he said, emphasizing the need to tackle the root causes of the crisis, including the issue of citizenship for the Rohingya. Accountability for human rights violations is also essential, he added.
DESIRE WULFRAN G. IPO (Côte d’Ivoire) said progress has been made since the Council’s visit to both countries, but enormous challenges remain. A sustainable, viable solution is needed to end the tragedy, but no long-term solution is possible without the commitment of the Myanmar Government, he said, adding that the authorities must give United Nations entities access to the population in need. While welcoming the signing of the bilateral agreement and the establishment of the hotline between the Foreign Ministers of Myanmar and Bangladesh, he emphasized the decisive role of civil society, including religious leaders. Action must be taken to ensure inclusive economic development — one of the key recommendations of the Advisory Commission — while making the fight against impunity the cornerstone of a solution. Recalling the fact-finding mission’s findings, including violations by security forces, he said Myanmar must take diligent measures to bring the perpetrators to justice.
JOANNA WRONECKA (Poland) emphasized that, since the outbreak of violence in 2017 that forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh, “every day lost to bureaucratic deliberations means that we are collectively responsible for human lives that are perishing”. Urging the Government of Myanmar to cooperate fully with the United Nations agencies that signed on to its memorandum of understanding, she also called upon it to ensure accountability for crimes; to step up efforts to create sustainable conditions conducive to the refugees’ safe, voluntary and dignified return; and to cooperate with the Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission. Expressing hope that Naypyidaw will also launch a transparent and unbiased investigation of all human rights violations, she called attention to Myanmar’s status as an economically fragile developing country prone to natural disasters, emphasizing that a comprehensive approach focused on building its resilience and supporting the State’s internal capabilities should be developed further.
KAIRAT UMAROV (Kazakhstan) emphasized that the Rohingya will only start to return home to Myanmar when they have some security and see tangible progress on citizenship and freedom of movement, among other things. Restoring intercommunal trust will be a long-running and challenging process, he said, encouraging the Government of Myanmar to make every effort to eliminate root causes of the crisis with help from the international community. He appealed to all Member States, international organizations and others to keep providing support to Bangladesh, and proposed that the Council continue to pay attention to the situation of the Rohingya until it is satisfactorily resolved.
MAHLET HAILU (Ethiopia) said it is evident that, following the Council’s visit, the Government of Myanmar is undertaking efforts to address the situation in Rakhine State. However, more must be done in the humanitarian area, as well as in implementing accountability measures for alleged human rights violations. Describing the June memorandum of understanding signed by the Government, UNHCR and UNDP as a “step in the right direction”, she expressed hope that it will help to create the conditions needed for the safe, voluntary, sustainable and dignified return of refugees. Underlining the worsening humanitarian situation in the Bangladesh camps currently housing refugees, she welcomed that country’s efforts to provide safety and humanitarian assistance, as well as those of other partners involved. The situation in Rakhine requires a political solution and a comprehensive strategy aimed at addressing the root causes of the crisis, she said, emphasizing that the rapid and effective implementation of the Advisory Commission’s recommendations remains vital. Ethiopia underlined the need for a transparent and independent investigative mechanism to ensure accountability, she added.
Mansour Ayyad Sh. A. Alotaibi (Kuwait), describing the events in Rakhine State a year ago as ethnic cleansing, said the world expected the Council to rise above political considerations in addressing the situation. While noting initial Government steps, he emphasized that the voluntary return of refugees cannot begin without confidence-building measures, including an independent investigation into crimes committed against the Rohingya minority and the elimination of all root causes of discrimination against that community. He went on to underline the emphasis placed by the United Nations Charter on the importance of international cooperation to ensure respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
AMPARO MELE COLIFA (Equatorial Guinea) appealed to the Government of Myanmar to redouble efforts to create conditions for the safe, dignified and voluntary return of Rohingya refugees to Rakhine. Welcoming that Government’s public commitment to implementing the Advisory Commission’s recommendations, she encouraged Council members and the international community to continue to play a constructive role in facilitating dialogue and helping the Government find a solution to the crisis.
Verónica Cordova SorIa (Bolivia) said acts of violence must, without a doubt, not go unpunished. Rather, they must be duly investigated and those responsible brought to justice. Impunity is unacceptable, she emphasized, expressing hope that the commission of inquiry established by the Government of Myanmar will conduct its work independently and transparently. That Government must also look into the root causes of the situation in Rakhine and comply fully with the recommendations of the Advisory Commission, she said, adding that the United Nations and the broader international community must do all in their power to support Bangladesh as that country hosted Rohingya refugees.
HAU DO SUAN (Myanmar) said that addressing the deep-rooted and complex issues in Rakhine State is a fundamental and crucial part of the Myanmar Government’s efforts to build peace and national reconciliation. Within two months, from November 2017 to January 2018, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed three documents to facilitate the repatriation of verified persons who crossed over to Bangladesh following the terrorist attacks conducted by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in October 2016 and August 2017, he recalled.
“We have been ready to receive the first batch of verified returnees since 23 January,” he continued, while suggesting the high possibility that the displaced persons along the border had turned the area into an Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army terrorist foothold. In that regard, the Government requested that Bangladesh not provide them with any assistance from its side of the border, he said, adding that assistance is being arranged from the Myanmar side.
Noting that the Government has so far implemented 81 of the Advisory Commission’s 88 recommendations, he said it has made its position very clear — it will not condone any human rights abuses and will take action against anyone if there is sufficient evidence. The Government has established an independent commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of human rights violations and related issues following the terrorist attacks of 9 October 2016 and 25 August 2017 by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in Rakhine State, he added.
Regarding allegations of atrocity crimes committed by Myanmar security forces, as contained in the report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, he reiterated that “we did not accept the mandate of the mission because we have our concern about the mission’s impartiality”. Besides, “I have serious doubt on the intention of the timing of the release of the report, which came out on the eve of this particular Security Council meeting,” he added.
MASUD BIN MOMEN (Bangladesh) said that, with the release of the fact-finding mission report, the Council’s custodianship of the Rohingya issue remains all the more relevant and pressing. He called on the Council to calibrate its response given prevailing circumstances on the ground and emerging evidence of atrocities against the Rohingya. Pending their voluntary repatriation, Rohingya camped in Bangladesh need better shelter, health care, livelihood and education options in the short- and medium-term. He emphasized that the return of refugees cannot begin unless the Rohingya themselves regain trust and confidence to voluntarily opt for repatriation. “It would be entirely up to the Myanmar authorities to build trust among the Rohingya about their sustainable return and peaceful coexistence with other communities in the Rakhine state,” he said.
He set out a number of measures that Myanmar should consider to build confidence. They included unimpeded access by UNDP and UNHCR to Rakhine state; the safe and sustainable return of Rohingya stranded along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border; the dismantling of camps for internally displaced persons in Rakhine State; and curbing the malicious spread of hate speech and incitement to violence. Most importantly, the question of accountability must be addressed in earnest, with the culture of impunity brought to an end. The commission of inquiry recently established by Myanmar should carry out is work independently, factoring in the observations made by the fact-finding mission, while the international community — including the Council — should consider the options set out in the fact-finding mission report. Further, the Council can sustain momentum by adopting a resolution that would place the issue on its regular agenda. At the same time, the General Assembly should update the resolution on Myanmar that it adopted last year, he said.