UN Security Council cannot turn its back on the Rohingya
Lack of ‘magic solution’ does not exempt world body from ensuring justice is served for persecuted ethnic group
Porimol Palma, Dhaka, Bangladesh
May 22, 2018
A delegation from the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) made a rare visit to the world’s largest refugee camp at Kutupalong in southeastern Bangladesh in May. It also inspected Rohingya villages in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, from where this beleaguered Muslim community fled to escape brutal persecution by the military and hard-line local Buddhists.
The harrowing tales of violence that have forced more than 770,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh since 2016 visibly moved the visitors. In Myanmar, the UNSC team met with Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and military chief Min Aung Hlaing.
The delegates are supposed to report to U.N. headquarters in New York and take action, although some said there was “no magic solution” to the crisis. “It is not the Security Council’s fault that there is a crisis,” observed Karen Pierce, the U.K.’s permanent representative to the UN.
However, general expectations of the influential agency are higher. The world body responsible for global peace and security cannot wrap up its duty simply by visiting the world’s most persecuted ethnic minority. It must take appropriate action to protect their human rights and should refer the perpetrators of these atrocities in Rakhine to the International Criminal Court as necessary.
UNSC faces difficult dilemma
During the UNSC press conference in Kutupalong on April 29, one reporter asked how many of the delegates would call the refugees “Rohingya.” Everybody raised their hand except for one — the Chinese representative to the U.N. This highlights a potential sticking point in the Security Council where China has the power to veto and can block any decision.
The Security Council held two sittings to discuss the Rohingya crisis with Myanmar last year. In the September meeting, Myanmar promised to stem the exodus of refugees while in December it informed the council they were ready to welcome them back with open arms anytime. Myanmar has failed to deliver on both of these promises.
More than 100,000 more Rohingya crossed the border into Bangladesh after Myanmar signed a repatriation deal with its neighbor on Nov. 23. Yet not a single Rohingya has been repatriated since then.
Moreover, Myanmar has not allowed a U.N. fact-finding mission or U.N. Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee to visit Rakhine State either before or since the Rohingya crisis began to unfold in a major way. In addition to this, Myanmar authorities have not provided unfettered access to the aid agencies, independent journalists or rights activists.
And there has also been no convincing rebuttal of claims by rights groups that Rohingya villages have been razed in a bid to destroy any evidence of the atrocities that occurred there, despite the surfacing of photos showing troops setting up what look like military outposts on top of them.
Amid a barrage of global criticism, Myanmar rushed to sign a bilateral repatriation deal with Bangladesh in last November. The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) tried to negotiate a tripartite deal involving Bangladesh and Myanmar for the safe, voluntary and dignified repatriation of the Rohingya, but Myanmar refused to agree to it.
Bangladesh signed the deal reportedly under pressure from China and India, which is not surprising given the magnitude of political and economic influence the nation’s two biggest neighbors wield over it. Later, Bangladesh signed a deal with the UNHCR. Myanmar has yet to do the same.
All of this shows how Myanmar is playing tricks with the U.N. Due to objections from China and Russia, the Security Council has failed to take any concrete measures to stop the systematic human rights abuses against the Rohingya for decades.A silent spectator
Since 1982 ethnic Rohingya, who have been living in Rakhine for generations, have been denied citizenship, government jobs, and the right to higher education, healthcare, and freedom of movement in Myanmar. These discriminatory policies represent a grievous injustice against the Rohingya and ethnic Rakhines, and have caused eruptions of violence that continue to this day.
It is puzzling why a community born and brought up in Myanmar would be branded as illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Time and again, Myanmar has introduced national verification cards (NVCs) for the Rohingya, branding them as illegal migrants.
The Rohingya, for obvious reasons, did not accept those NVCs. Myanmar officials fired back by saying that this is a necessary preliminary step to them eventually becoming recognized as Myanmar citizens.
Wakar Uddin, director-general of U.S.-based Arakan Rohingya Union (ARU), said that in reality very few of those who received the NVCs ended up becoming citizens — still a de facto third-class category of citizenship — while the vast majority got nothing and remain a “stateless” people.
Meanwhile it’s very possible that some of this group, which has been discriminated against for decades, and who have long since abandoned hope of a peaceful solution, have become engaged in extremist activities. The emergence and operations of the so-called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) are a prime example of this.
The global community has so far been ineffective in addressing the plight of the Rohingya, which has forced them to stream over the border into Bangladesh since 1978.The latest exodus, however, is the largest attempted migration of its kind and has drawn the most global attention. If ever the time was ripe for the UNSC to act effectively, now would be it.
It is clear that the Myanmar authorities will continue to deny any accusations of ethnic cleansing. Even during the meeting of the UNSC in Nay Pyi Taw, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s military chief, said there has been no history of rape among the nation’s army. He said they have already conducted investigations into a few soldiers and punished them accordingly, and that no further investigation was needed.
Despite this, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said over 6,700 Rohingya were killed within a month of the crackdown in August. Its physicians have documented evidence of rapes and various forms of sexual violence. Rights bodies said that sexual violence was used as a calculated tool to drive the Rohingya out of Myanmar.
Myanmar authorities are, however, unwilling and unable to investigate these solid, sordid allegations. Therefore, the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has already sought the jurisdiction to investigate, must conduct probes of its own. The UNSC must refer the situation in Myanmar to the ICC. It should also impose a global arms embargo against Myanmar.
These actions would put the maximum amount of pressure on the country to accept the demands of the Rohingya, who want citizenship and equal rights. Just because they belong to a different faith, or do not physically resemble most other Myanmar nationals, in no way justifies a covert campaign of ethnic cleansing.
The UNSC must act now. It can’t just cave to China’s veto and opposition merely to serve its own economic interests in total ignorance of human rights. Any failure to do so would not just be a huge setback in the global community’s trust in the world body, but would be humiliating for humanity on a collective scale.
Porimol Palma is a Dhaka-based journalist and a senior correspondent with English daily The Daily Star.