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A Brief and Independent Inquiry into the Involvement of the United Nations in Myanmar from 2010 to 2018

May 29th, 2019  •  Author: Gert Rosenthal  •  5 minute read


When examining Myanmar for the first time, the novice is moved to recall Winston Churchill’s emblematic metaphor, applied to Russia in 1939, as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Indeed, even veteran observers of Myanmar (formerly Burma, and since 2008 the Republic of the Union of Myanmar) attest to the multiple layers of complexity that characterize it.

And the consultant is, indeed, a novice on Myanmar; his still superficial understanding is derived from readings and secondary sources, rather than from any first-hand experience. But when asked to “conduct a comprehensive, independent inquiry into the involvement of the United Nations in Myanmar since 2011…” he was advised that his lack of specific knowledge or presence in the country might be construed as an asset, given the importance that was assigned by the Secretary-General to an impartial and independent review on the other side of the equation: the performance of the United Nations in a specific instance which had given rise to conflicting demands upon the UN in carrying out its own responsibilities while at the same time supporting a host member state, leading to some major policy controversies – between the host country and the UN, and, more importantly for this review, within theUN System. He was informed that understanding the nature of those controversies, and the dynamics behind them might contribute to avoiding similar circumstances in the future.

It should be noted at the outset that this exercise is being compared by many knowledgeable people in the United Nations and the Human Rights community to the iconic internal review carried out in 2012 on the United Nations’ actions in Sri Lanka by a panel under the leadership of Charles Petrie. In fact, there are many commonalities to events that triggered the Organization’s actions in Sri Lanka from 2007 to 2009 with those observed in Myanmar from 2010 to 2018, as well as to the manner in which different parts of the UN System responded to those events. However, the terms of reference for the present review, undertaken by a single independent outside consultant rather than a panel, and based solely on a desktop assessment, necessarily involve a narrower and less ambitious scope than the aforementioned undertaking, which focused on matters of accountability, especially during the final stages of the war in Sri Lanka, as well as on the lessons to be learned from what the panel described as “systemic failures” on the part of the United Nations in its foundational mandate to protect human rights.

The present review also explores the structural and systemic factors that, notwithstanding the lessons learned in previous cases – notably, in Sri Lanka – appear to have been repeated in Myanmar, despite the adoption in 2014 of the “Human Rights Up Front” initiative, designed precisely to avoid the repetition of the Sri Lankan experience. 3 These factors include the overriding issue of accountability, in terms of the United Nations actions – or inactions – regarding the nature and scope of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law that occurred (and continue to occur) in Myanmar. While the brunt of the responsibility rests squarely on the Government of Myanmar, the question persists whether the United Nations could not have done more to avoid or mitigate the horrific events that progressively occurred between 2012 and 2017 (and are still ongoing), especially in Rakhine State. On the other hand, the consultant was not asked to evaluate the conduct of entities or individuals in the mode of personal or institutional accountability, a matter best left to the internal mechanisms of theSecretariat.

More broadly, while this review perhaps does not entirely do justice to the “comprehensive” part of the recommendation contained in the Report of the independent international fact-finding mission on Myanmar, it is intended to shed additional light on why the solemn collective commitment ofthe United Nations to “never again” tolerate mass atrocities after the last one took place, sadly is followed sooner or later by a new mass atrocity somewhere else in the world. The short answer (the real world is more nuanced, of course) is that in addition to the limits that the Charter imposes on the Organization in its relation with individual sovereign member states, those failures do indeed stem from systemic and structural obstacles to greater coherence on the part of the UN System in carrying out its very broad and multifaceted mandates, and those systemic and structural obstacles are precisely the ones that need to be overcome or at least mitigated. In that respect, the case of Myanmar brings out more starkly than many others the nature and scope of those obstacles, as well as the dynamics behind them. The analysis suggests, once more, how such obstacles should be addressed in the future.

This review is organized in six sections. These are: first, this introduction; second, some basic characteristics of Myanmar to offer some context; third, the key characteristics of the United Nationspresence in the country; fourth, the dynamics of the systemic and structural tensions observed; fifth,the main elements of those systemic and structural shortcoming that came into play in Myanmar; and, sixth, some conclusions and recommendations on how to deal with this type of situation in the future.

Finally, the consultant wishes to thank the numerous interlocutors who generously shared their insights, which, together with the briefings, writings and documents provided by specialists on Myanmar, constituted the foundations of this review (see the attached Annex to the report).

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