UN Special Rapporteur to Myanmar Yanghee Lee will visit Bangladesh on January 19 to assess the conditions of the more than 920,000 Rohingya who have sought refuge there following widespread and systematic violence in Myanmar. Lee is tasked with assessing the human rights situation in Myanmar but has been blocked on several occasions by the Myanmar government. Last month it announced it was denying her access to the country, including to Rakhine state, where deadly attacks against Rohingya in August 2017 drew international condemnation, and it withdrew all cooperation with Lee’s investigations. In 2017, the Myanmar government placed restrictions on an official fact-finding missions led by Lee that she described as an “affront to the independence of my mandate as Special Rapporteur.” Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) calls on Lee to urge the government of Bangladesh to ensure that the Rohingya who have fled there are not subjected to any forcible return to Myanmar and to reiterate her call for accountability for what UN-appointed investigators concluded in August 2018 were the “gravest”crimes against civilians under international law, including genocide.
“UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee should extract an unambiguous commitment from the government of Bangladesh that Rohingya refugees won’t face any pressure to return to Myanmar without iron-clad assurances of their safety and that any return is completely voluntary,” said Phelim Kine, PHR’s director of research and investigations. “Lee’s visit to Bangladesh is also an opportune moment to remind the world that the Myanmar government has adamantly refused to cooperate with any international efforts toward accountability for the systematic and widespread violence by Myanmar security forces and their agents that resulted in the murder, rape, and torture of Rohingya, including women and children.”
The governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar reached an agreement in November 2018 for the repatriation of thousands of Rohingya refugees who are concentrated in the Bangladeshi border district of Cox’s Bazar. That agreement prompted protest from both the UN, which declared that conditions in Myanmar “are not yet conducive for [Rohingya] returns,” and from a coalition of international human rights and aid organizations, including PHR, which sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calling for urgent action. PHR and others warned that forcible repatriation of Rohingya from Bangladesh back to Myanmar would constitute a “violation of the fundamental principle of non-refoulement,” which prohibits returning refugees to countries where they face probable persecution.
Bangladesh has responded to that criticism by halting the planned repatriation of Rohingya. However, the government of Bangladesh is pursuing plans to relocate up to 100,000 Rohingya currently in Cox’s Bazar to the nearby uninhabited island of Bhashan Char. Lee has announced plans to visit that island, which Amnesty International has described as “uninhabitable” and prone to serious flooding during the monsoon season.
“UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee needs to take a firm and explicit stand on the obligation of all states to protect the Rohingya from the potentially deadly peril of repatriation or deportation back to Myanmar,” Kine said. “Lee should make clear that until there are substantive moves toward meaningful accountability in Myanmar for the crimes against the Rohingya, neighboring states and the international community must provide all necessary protections and support to that vulnerable minority and not allow them to be re-victimized by their tormentors back in Myanmar,” Kine added.
PHR calls on Special Rapporteur Lee to use her trip as an opportunity to reiterate the need for accountability in Myanmar and respect for the human rights and dignity of Rohingya refugees in the following ways:
- Reiterate the Myanmar government’s obligation to cooperate with the international accountability mechanism created by the UN Human Rights Council in September 2018 through resolution A/HRC/39/L.22.
- Call on all UN member states to provide financial and political support for that mechanism.
- Ensure that Rohingya survivors have a right to redress in relation to violations they have suffered.
- Ensure that the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, India, or any other states that host them are not subjected to forced repatriation or deportation back to Myanmar and that the Rohingya have substantive guarantees for safe and voluntary return.
- Ensure that any agreements to repatriate Rohingya back to Myanmar be explicitly premised on safe, dignified, and voluntary return.
- Call for UN member state support for Bangladesh to enable its authorities to ensure the safety and livelihood of its Rohingya refugee population.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.