Nothing but an impasse and lip service left for the plight of the Rohingya

Published on November 21, 2017

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

Channel NewsAsia – November 21, 2017

Regional leaders had plenty of opportunities to demand for firm and concrete action from Myanmar to resolve the Rohingya crisis during the APEC and ASEAN summits but did not, says one expert from the OP Jindal Global University

On Thursday (Nov 16), the UN General Assembly’s human rights committee adopted a resolution urging Myanmar authorities to end its military campaign against the Rohingya.

The draft resolution, which will be placed before the General Assembly in December, also requested UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to appoint a special envoy. The resolution also called upon Myanmar to grant a UN fact-finding team unhindered access to Rakhine state. It also asked Myanmar to grant full citizenship rights to the Rohingya.

Despite mounting pressure, the UN faces major challenges ahead in making any concrete form of progress on the Rohingya crisis. While countries and regional organisations have continued to express concern in public statements, these exercises in lip service will do little to change the situation in Rakhine.

LACK OF UNANIMITY WITHIN THE UN

While the Nov 16 draft resolution was supported by 135 nations, it was opposed by 10 countries and another 26 countries abstained from voting. The countries which opposed the resolution were the Philippines, Russia, China, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Syria, Zimbabwe and Belarus. The abstained 26 countries include India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Japan.

There is little reason to oppose the resolution. For more than a decade, the UN human rights committee have adopted annual resolutions condemning Myanmar’s human rights record but the move was dropped last year, with the European Union citing progress under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership.

But in the last three months, more than 600,000 Muslim Rohingya have fled the country, prompting the UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein in September to describe the violence as a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.

Last week, Pramila Patten, the UN special envoy on sexual violence in conflict, said in Dhaka that sexual violence against the Rohingya was “commanded, orchestrated and perpetrated by the Armed Forces of Myanmar”.

Along similar lines, Angelina Jolie, Hollywood actress and Special Envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, strongly criticised the sexual violence perpetrated against Rohingya victims at the UN conclave in Vancouver last week.

Despite criticism by UN officials, China and Russia, permanent members of the Security Council, have come out against any form of UN intervention backed or directed by the West.

China and Russia argue that any UN intervention would be tantamount to the violation of Myanmar’s national sovereignty and want Myanmar and Bangladesh to settle the Rohingya refugee crisis, working together bilaterally rather than internationalising the situation.

Earlier this month, the UN Security Council agreed on a statement calling on Myanmar to “ensure no further use of excessive force by the security forces in Rakhine state”. Britain and France had initially proposed for the Council to adopt a formal resolution, which was opposed by China.

Given the lack of unanimity among UN members, particularly UN Security Council members, any resolution passed at the General Assembly next month may only be symbolic.

Effective UN intervention will only come by if UN Security Council members unanimously support a resolution calling for concrete action, a move that is unlikely given China and Russia’s veto powers.

ASEAN’S LUKEWARM ATTITUDE

A second challenge the UN faces is the lukewarm attitude of ASEAN, evident during the recently concluded 31st ASEAN Summit in the Philippines. Last week’s packed schedule of meetings involving regional leaders was a missed opportunity to make firm and concrete progress on the situation.

The chairman’s statement, drafted by the Philippines, made a cursory mention of the importance of ensuring the safety of civilians and Myanmar’s commitment to end the violence, restore socio-economic normalcy, address the refugee problem and bring peace, stability, and development to Rakhine state.

But it framed the issue as a situation requiring humanitarian assistance and made no mention of the Rohingya.

The ASEAN Summit also avoided passing a formal resolution to call upon Aung San Suu Kyi, who attended the summit, and her government to resolve the Rohingya crisis. In fact, few countries spoke about the Rohingya issue at the summit.

Most ASEAN countries did not put pressure on the Myanmar government to take back the Rohingya refugees and ASEAN did not come up with any specific proposals for addressing the crisis.

It seems ASEAN has decided to treat the issue as a domestic issue internal to Myanmar – an embarrassing situation that should not be aired in a public forum involving other countries.

The only calls in the past week were from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who both expressed concerns and warned ASEAN countries that the Rohingya crisis could lead to regional instability and greater radicalisation.

While ASEAN will likely continue to make passing mention of the situation in order to preserve its public credibility, and reiterate support for Myanmar, it seems ASEAN will not play any substantive role in resolving the Rohingya crisis.

Aware that the Rohingya issue is one about statehood and identity, which has been stewing for centuries and will not see any lasting resolution for a long time to come, ASEAN countries do not want to be tainted with the situation.

MYANMAR’S DENIAL

The Myanmar government has consistently denied accusations that it is trying to drive the Rohingya out of Rakhine and opposed any international intervention apart from humanitarian assistance from non-government organisations like the Red Cross.

Instead, the country has lambasted the international media for what it says are fake news about the situation.

It has also refused to allow a UN fact-finding team in to investigate allegations of human rights abuses, ever since the Myanmar military launched clearance operations more than a year ago. The UN team instead have been left stranded in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, where testimonies of rape and murder committed by the Myanmar Armed Forces are coming to light.

Another important UN demand is for Myanmar to repatriate the refugees from Bangladesh at the earliest possible time and grant them citizenship rights. But the majority of the Myanmar population and its leadership are opposed to such a move.

Even if the Myanmar government agrees to take back the Rohingya refugees, many of them will not be able to produce the necessary documents to qualify for citizenship. Many documents would have been destroyed during the recent violence in which thousands of houses and villages were burnt down.

ISLAMOPHOBIA

Another challenge the UN faces is the effects of Islamophobia. Although several countries have expressed sympathy for the Rohingya refugees, none are willing to welcome the refugees to their own countries in large numbers.

Partly because of the rising apprehension or fear of extremist Islamic terrorism across the globe, many countries are reluctant or hesitant to call for the resettlement of these refugees. To be fair, even the UN is not encouraging such measures as a solution to the Rohingya issue at this time, preferring for this to be resolved by Myanmar.

TIME NOT ON THE ROHINGYA’S SIDE

So apart from Myanmar and Bangladesh, few countries have a vested interest in finding a concrete solution.

Despite the need for some form of a permanent solution to the Rohingya conundrum, the complex issues above suggest that the UN faces several uphill challenges in its mission.

Unfortunately, time is not on their side or on that of the Rohingya, whose plight will be quickly forgotten with the impasse and as international media attention on the situation wanes.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is assistant professor and executive director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the O P Jindal Global University. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including Democratisation of Myanmar.

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