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UN Myanmar Special Envoy post should be withdrawn – UN Secretary General must take lead

August 18th, 2022  •  Author:   Burma Campaign UK  •  6 minute read
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Burma Campaign UK today called on the UN Secretary General to personally take the lead in diplomatic initiatives to address the crisis in Burma and abandon the decades long failed approach of appointing UN Special Envoys.

UN Myanmar Special Envoy Noeleen Heyzer has concluded her controversial visit to the Burmese military unable to cite a single tangible outcome. This should come as no surprise as this has been the outcome of the vast majority of UN Special Envoy visits to Burma for decades.

Ignoring warnings that the visit would give an appearance of legitimacy to the military, Noeleen Heyzer proceeded with the trip, and posed for photographs with military leader Min Aung Hlaing. These pictures are now displayed across military-controlled state media, handing him a propaganda coup.

Prior to 2010, previous UN Envoys held out for meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi and others. Noeleen Heyzer chose not to do so. Officials may cite as an excuse the fact that the focus of the visit was humanitarian, but this compromise will be seen by the military as a sign of weakness. A senior UN official accepting the sidelining of key political actors in the country will only encourage the military to believe it can continue to jail, torture and execute them with impunity.

On the face of it, a focus on the humanitarian issues would be hard to argue against given the dire situation in the country, but it comes in a context of the military consistently using humanitarian access as leverage to gain international legitimacy. In the past, UN agencies and many international donors have been willing to go along with that. There is clear opposition to this approach within the country.

Many millions of people in Burma who are in desperate need of international aid could be reached using cross border mechanisms, local civil society, some of the ethnic armed organisations, and the National Unity Government. However, most UN agencies and international donors provide little or no aid in this way. This leaves millions of people without the humanitarian aid they desperately need.

Arguing that compromises have to be made negotiating with the military for humanitarian access while at the same time refusing to provide significant funding via Burmese civil society and the democracy movement where lives can be saved right now is an incoherent approach and requires explanation.

In addition to questionable decisions regarding this most recent trip, there are broader concerns about the UN Special Envoy position.

The Burmese military have long seen UN Special Envoys as a valuable diplomatic tool, playing games with visa access in order to push the bar so low that just being able to visit the country was judged as a success, despite there being no tangible outcome. For the Burmese military, UN Special Envoys are used to try to avoid or delay international action against them. Before 2010 they were frequently successful in this.

The military know that a visit by a UN Special Envoy will be seized on by allies like China and Russia to claim there is a UN process and argue against further international action to promote human rights and democracy. In Asia and the West, the Special Envoy position was also often used as a fig leaf for inaction, also arguing that there is a process, and we must ‘wait and see’.

With this visit and previous comments about power sharing, the current UN Special Envoy has lost the trust of many people in Burma. Previous UN Special Envoys have also been controversial, with Christine Schraner Burgener backing the racist National Verification Cards, which are part of the genocidal policies against the Rohingya. One previous Special Envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, was nicknamed ‘Gullible Gambari’ because of his apparent belief in everything the military told him.

Regardless of the controversial positions or missteps of various Special Envoys, the position itself is a poisoned chalice doomed to failure. UN Envoys are mandated to engage in dialogue with stakeholders and the military but if they speak out publicly and honestly about the situation, they will be denied access to Burma. From the outset the military have veto power over what they can and cannot say.

The Burmese military are well aware that they can safely ignore requests from UN Envoys without facing any consequences. UN Special Envoys on Burma have not been able to count on powerful UN members, and in particular on influential members like Russia and China, to provide critical support and reinforcement of their diplomatic efforts.

The Burmese military lie to UN Special Envoys, attempt to manipulate them and break commitments. Eventually UN Envoys either finally realise they are being played or realise the military will never keep to commitments and start speaking out, and they are then denied visas. Then their term ends, a new UN Special Envoy is appointed, and the farce begins all over again.

A day after the attempted coup began, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Washington Post: “We will do everything we can to mobilize all the key actors and international community to put enough pressure on Myanmar to make sure that this coup fails.”

Now his Special Envoy poses for pictures with the leader of that coup. The Secretary-General appears to have abandoned the goal of ensuring the coup fails.

For decades the Burmese military have held Burma back from economic development and democracy. The Burmese military are a violent extremist armed group which have committed genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. They are causing conflict, are linked to drug production, drug trafficking and money laundering. They are destabilising Burma. They should be treated as an illegal armed group.

The goal of the United Nations should be the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of the Burmese military. This is the approach the United Nations is taking towards armed groups in more than 20 countries around the world. This should happen in tandem with ensuring justice and accountability for members of the Burmese military who have committed violations of international law and other crimes.

“Decades of diplomatic efforts by UN Special Envoys to Burma have not only failed to produce positive results, but have in fact been used by the military to their benefit,” said Mark Farmaner, Director of Burma Campaign UK. “The goal of the United Nations should be disarm and dismantle the Burmese military, while also ensuring justice and accountability for members of the military who have committed crimes and violated international law. This effort should be led by the UN Secretary General himself. It is time that the UN Secretary General and governments stopped hiding behind UN Special Envoys, whose efforts they know are doomed to fail.”

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