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Myanmar: Briefing by the Special Envoy

July 1st, 2019  •  Author:   UN Security Council  •  7 minute read
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Tomorrow (2 July), Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener will brief Council members on Myanmar during “any other business”.  Council members last heard from Burgener on 28 February, following her visits to Bangladesh and Myanmar (S/PV.8477).

At an informal meeting of the General Assembly today, Burgener briefed members on the complexities of Myanmar’s political situation and its democratic transition. She noted that various tensions and divisive rhetoric are likely to be exacerbated in the country in the run-up to the general elections in 2020. She highlighted the situation affecting the Rohingya and other communities in Rakhine State, and signalled that working to end discrimination and violence there was her highest priority. Burgener addressed the continued clashes between the Arakan Army and Myanmar government forces (Tatmadaw) and its effects on the communities in Rakhine State. She also discussed the activities of the UN in Myanmar and the recently extended Tripartite Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with UNDP and UNHCR.

The session with Council members is expected to cover many of these issues, and will allow for greater interaction with the Special Envoy. Members are likely to be particularly interested in the impact of the continued tensions between the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw and how this could affect the return of refugees to Rakhine State. Some members are expected to highlight the importance of protection of civilians in this context, and the need to adhere to international humanitarian and human rights law.

Members may ask for more information on the MoU, which was extended on 24 June for one year. The MoU, which was signed a year ago, focuses on UN support for the creation of conditions for the return of the refugees from Bangladesh. It seems that the MoU gives the Myanmar government another year to establish a framework for the voluntary return of Rohingya to Myanmar. The repatriation of refugees was expected to start in November 2018, but the refugees—who are looking for protection of rights to property, freedom of movement and citizenship—were reluctant to return to what they believed were unsafe conditions. Members will be interested in any progress that has been made towards creating the conditions for a safe, voluntary return of the refugees. In this context, they may ask about the access being given to the UN agencies. It seems that the UN has only been given very limited access, making it difficult to assess if local conditions are suitable for the return of refugees.  Unimpeded access would also allow for quick impact projects that would benefit all the communities in Rakhine State.

On 24 June, following their summit in Bangkok, leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) issued a Chair’s Statement reaffirming their commitment to a “more visible and enhanced role” for ASEAN to support Myanmar in providing humanitarian assistance, facilitating the Rohingya repatriation process, and promoting sustainable development in Rakhine State. The communiqué also stressed the need to find a comprehensive and durable solution to address the root causes of the conflict and to create a conducive environment for the affected communities to rebuild their lives.

In May, ASEAN sent an assessment team from the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA) to Rakhine State to conduct a preliminary needs assessment. At the recent summit, ASEAN leaders agreed that the ASEAN Secretary-General could take up recommendations in the preliminary needs assessment, which has not been made public.  Members may be particularly interested in more details of how the Special Envoy might support ASEAN’s efforts, particularly with regard to the repatriation process. They may also want her assessment of what sort of assistance from the UN would be useful, given that this would be a new role for ASEAN.

Although Burgener is unlikely to cover the report by former Guatemalan Foreign Minister Gert Rosenthal on the UN’s involvement in Myanmar from 2010 to 2018, it may be raised by some members, who are interested in having a discussion on the report’s conclusions.  Among the key conclusions is that there were “systemic and structural failures” that prevented a unified strategy on Myanmar from being implemented. The report said that the UN system overall had been “relatively impotent to effectively work with the authorities of Myanmar, to reverse the negative trends in the areas of human rights, and consolidate the positive trends in other areas.” In addition, it said that actions at the level of the UN Country Team were dysfunctional, and that the Secretariat had received conflicting analysis and mixed signals from the field. The report attributes specific responsibility to the Council for not having provided enough support to the Secretariat when such backing could have been essential. It seems that there was some interest in having a member of the Secretariat brief tomorrow on this report, but the Secretariat was unable to provide a briefer.

Accountability issues may be raised during the meeting, including regarding the announcement on 26 June that ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda will request that the court’s judges open an investigation into crimes relating to the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. (The ICC pre-trial chamber last year decided that the ICC may exercise jurisdiction over the alleged deportation of the Rohingya people from Myanmar to Bangladesh, as well as over the alleged crimes against humanity.) Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) members Indonesia and Kuwait may note that the OIC Summit Conference held in Makkah on 26 June called for the OIC’s  ad-hoc ministerial committee, led by The Gambia, to take measures to launch a case regarding Myanmar’s violations against the Rohingya at the International Court of Justice. Burgener may update members on her engagement with the Independent Commission of Enquiry, Myanmar’s nationally-led mechanism, and the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, which was established by the Human Rights Council on 27 September 2018 and welcomed by the General Assembly on 22 December 2018.

Some members may also be interested in how Myanmar is addressing issues such as women’s participation in conflict prevention and resolution and sexual violence in armed conflict. Burgener met with the Informal Expert Group on Women, Peace and Security on 4 June, where she stressed the need for national authorities to ensure women’s participation in decision-making roles related to repatriation and the peace process. The Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict is also in the middle of negotiating its conclusions on the report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict in Myanmar. In the Secretary-General’s 2018 annual Children and Armed Conflict report, eight parties, including the Tatmadaw, are listed for recruitment and use of child soldiers; additionally, the Tatmadaw is listed for killing and maiming, and for rape and other forms of sexual violence against children. There may be interest in any updates Burgener has on the progress in ending these violations by the Tatmadaw and other parties.  It seems that Germany may organise an Arria-formula meeting this month on Myanmar and accountability, which would allow for a more in-depth discussion on this aspect of the situation.

Council members’ positions on Myanmar have not fundamentally changed. China continues to be reluctant for the Council to get too involved in this issue. It has instead promoted a bilateral approach and has appeared willing to try to help mediate between Bangladesh and Myanmar. China’s assistance in repatriating refugees is an issue likely to be discussed during Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Beijing this week. Indonesia, a member of ASEAN, appears have played a relatively low-key role on this issue in the Council. The UK, as penholder on the issue, late last year introduced a draft resolution on Myanmar which it eventually withdrew, following signs that China and Russia were unlikely to give their support; it does not appear inclined to pursue a Council outcome at this stage. Keeping in mind the delicate political balance that needs to be maintained ahead of the elections in 2020, many members are aware that barring a significant deterioration of the situation, it is unlikely that the Council will take any action on this issue in the foreseeable future.

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