Third Committee Experts Warn against Flouting International Norms

CHRISTINE SCHRANER BURGENER, Special Envoy of the Secretary‑General for Myanmar, outlined highlights of the Secretary‑General’s report (document A/74/311) on the situation in the country ahead of the 2020 general elections.  Though the Government has committed to implementing the recommendations of the Advisory Commission headed by the late Kofi Annan and has a national strategy on the closure of camps for internally displaced persons, the civilian and military authorities must take “a resounding unified stance” against incitement and hatred.  She visited Myanmar after the publication of the report, and will visit for the ninth time in November, during which she will engage with State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders, and interact with violence‑affected communities in Rakhine and refugees in Bangladesh.  Access to Burmese curricula in refugee camps and improving educational opportunities in Rakhine State are also priorities, “in guarding against a generation lost”, she said.

Access of the United Nations and its partners to violence‑affected areas remains a problem, she observed.  Yet, there is some positive momentum, such as the memorandum of understanding Myanmar signed in June 2018 with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for the voluntary and safe return of refugees, as well as the memorandum for quick impact projects to facilitate recovery and resilience‑based development in Rakhine.  Regional support, through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is also crucial.  She underscored the importance of addressing underlying issues, including discrimination, persecution, the lack of legal status and a credible process for citizenship.  While acknowledging Myanmar’s positive move to expedite citizenship verification, she pointed out that it is still predicated on a 1982 citizenship law in need of reform, as it fails to meet international legal standards related to non-discrimination and prevention of statelessness.

Authorities must create conditions conducive to the safe, voluntary and dignified return of refugees, for which it must engage with them in sustained dialogue, she said, adding that her field visits to Rakhine evoked a “strong sense of communal tension on the ground”, which suggests the need for greater interfaith and intercommunal dialogue.  She expressed concern about the deteriorating security situation in Rakhine, due to clashes between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw.  People have been killed, houses have been burned, “sparking haunting recent memory”.  Fighting has also resumed in Kachin and Northern Shan, she said, noting, with regret, that in September the Unilateral Ceasefire Declaration in many affected areas could not be extended, due to mistrust between the military and ethnic armed organizations.

Turning to accountability, she noted that Myanmar has demonstrated its willingness to engage constructively with the United Nations, including by signing the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict.  However, credible investigations and prosecutions are crucial, from the point of view of victims, she stressed, adding that the transparent, effective outcome of Myanmar’s Independent Commission of Enquiry is vital towards this end.

The representative of Myanmar said his Government’s most urgent priority in Rakhine State is addressing the humanitarian situation and repatriating displaced people as soon as possible.  The Government is working closely with the High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to implement bilateral agreements between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the repatriation and resettlement of returnees.  The issue of displaced persons in Cox’s Bazar must be resolved bilaterally with Bangladesh.  Preconditions set by some countries — among them, attempts to bring the case of Myanmar to international judicial bodies for accountability, to set up a “safe zone” inside Myanmar and outright citizenship demands — are unwarranted and unworkable, he said.  Myanmar, Bangladesh and China have agreed to form an informal tripartite working group at the ambassadorial level in Dhaka to implement the repatriation process.  International support for bilateral efforts will also help accelerate the repatriation process.

He said citizenship will be granted in accordance with the 1982 Citizenship Law and verified returnees will receive a National Verification Card upon their arrival at the reception centre after biometric data is taken.  These cards are temporary identification cards used before gaining citizenship status.  Possession is proof of residency in Myanmar and the cards are used throughout the country.  Members of the Independent Commission of Enquiry visited Bangladesh in August and are waiting for Bangladesh to give the Commission’s Evidence Collection and Verification Team approval to visit Cox’s Bazar to interview alleged victims.  The Judge Advocate General is also beginning a military investigation into the Rakhine allegations.  It serves the best interests of everyone, including the affected persons, if the international community supports domestic efforts to address accountability.  Myanmar has made great strides in implementing most recommendations issued by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.  Some are short‑term recommendations for immediate implementation, while others require longer periods of time to carry out.  “Some results are visible and countable.  But some may not immediately bring about tangible results,” he said.

Since 1992, Myanmar has faced intense human rights scrutiny through the Human Rights Council’s appointment of five Special Rapporteurs, he said.  From 1995 to 2006, three Special Envoys were appointed by the Secretary‑General to help Myanmar shift to democracy.  “We have never failed to cooperate with the UN mandates in good faith through these long years,” he said.  “Today, Myanmar is in the critical juncture of its transition to democracy.  The transition is yet incomplete.”  The United Nations and international community have ample opportunity to help the people of Myanmar fulfil their aspirations through constructive engagement, good will and sincerity.

In the ensuing discussion, the representative of the European Union expressed concern about the new documented violations, which suggest the root cause of the crisis has not been addressed.  He asked the Special Envoy to elaborate on how the recommendations of the “Rosenthal report” — formally titled, “A Brief and Independent Inquiry into the Involvement of the United Nations in Myanmar from 2010 to 2018” — are being implemented, and whether refugees are being meaningfully included in making decisions about their future.

The representative of Switzerland asked what specific actions Myanmar should undertake to improve trust on both sides, in order to allow the safe, voluntary and dignified return of refugees.  On similar lines, the representative of Canada asked about measures the Government is taking to implement the report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, headed by former United Nations Secretary‑General Kofi Annan, to enable the safe and dignified return of refugees.

The representative of Liechtenstein asked the Special Envoy about developments regarding the closure of camps for internally displaced persons, as well as about how lack of action on corruption impacts progress towards peace and the rule of law.  The representative of Indonesia underscored the commitment of ASEAN to facilitating dialogue between the Government and refugees, and said that a durable solution to the crisis requires a gradual process, and the support of all stakeholders.

The representative of Germany, associating with the European Union, expressed concern over reported curbs on freedom of expression and assembly, as well as the lack of humanitarian access to parts of the country, including Northern Rakhine.  He asked about how accountability is factored into the dialogue, and about the Special Envoy’s views on Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law and the National Verification Card.  The representative of the United States, echoing concerns about shrinking civil space and hostility towards journalists, asked what the international community could do to facilitate more civilian control of the military in economic and other domains.

Offering a view from the frontlines, the representative of Bangladesh underlined the importance of accountability to enable the safe return of Rohingya refugees, as well as a unified strategy among all United Nations agencies — about which “serious concerns” had been raised in the “Rosenthal report”.  He asked the Special Envoy to elaborate on her experience in trying to facilitate intercultural dialogue when countering hate speech and intolerance.

The representatives of Thailand, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom also spoke.

Ms. SCHRANER BURGENER responded to queries on the “Rosenthal report”, that close cooperation between all entities is important, including the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and UNDP.  The Secretary‑General will follow up on the report.  On the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, she said Myanmar must engage with them in dialogue and learn what they want, in order to ensure their dignified and voluntary return.  She welcomed the Government’s visit to Cox’s Bazar in July to distribute a factsheet; such engagement must continue.

Responding to questions about the education of refugees, she said UNICEF is helping to implement the Myanmar curriculum, “which both sides agreed to”, and is searching for school books and teachers.  Finding teachers remains a challenge in Rakhine and Kachin states, where armed conflict continues.  However, this must be implemented so that there is no gap in their education if they return, she said.

Turning to measures Myanmar must take to foster conducive conditions for refugees’ return in Rakhine State, she said it must speed up the implementation of the 88 recommendations set out by Mr. Annan’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.  The Government must also implement its strategy to close the camps for internally displaced persons, and assure freedom of movement, access to livelihood, health and education.  Communities are still divided, and there is a continuing lack of trust.  Security must be assured, so people can safely return to their place of origin and choice, she said.  In addition, she said corruption must be combated, as it is “much involved” in the process of acquiring a citizenship card.  She urged an acceleration of the citizenship verification process, and equitable treatment and access to all services.  “It is clear that we want to see the 1982 [Citizenship] Law amended,” she added.

To the representative of Germany’s question on accountability, she said that Myanmar’s ownership of the process is crucial to ensure a sustainable solution, so that “nothing terrible happens like it did in August 2017”.  Calling the Internal Commission of Enquiry is “a good first step”, she said it has interviewed people and expected to present their report in January, adding that “we will then judge if they worked credibly and independently.”  She reiterated the need for a Constitutional amendment, adding that while a committee for this has been formed in Parliament, it is not easy to make change happen when there are demonstrations in the streets.

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