On Tuesday (13 February), the Council will be briefed by High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi (via VTC) and Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Miroslav Jenča. This will be followed by consultations where, in addition to Grandi and Jenča, representatives from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and OCHA will be present to answer questions. The meeting is being held at the request of eight members of the Council (Equatorial Guinea, France, Kazakhstan, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, UK and US).
The main focus of the briefing is expected to be the repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar. Since August 2017, over 650,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh following extensive military operations by the Myanmar army following an attack on security posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on 25 August 2017.
Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a bilateral “arrangement” or memorandum of understanding on 23 November 2017 that recognised the need for a “comprehensive and durable solution” of the situation and for the voluntary return of the refugees according to international law. In mid-January, Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed that they would complete the return of the refugees within two years. Although the repatriation was expected to start by the end of January, it has not commenced. The delay has been attributed to difficulties in compiling and verifying the list of people to be repatriated.
Grandi is expected to stress the need for the return of refugees to be safe, voluntary and sustainable. While Bangladesh has said that it would like the assistance of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in the voluntary return of refugees, Myanmar has not shown the same commitment to working with the UN agency. Grandi is likely to underscore that UNHCR needs unhindered access to Rakhine State in order to assess the situation and provide assistance to those that need it.
Access restrictions for aid agencies in Rakhine state is one of the main concerns of a number of Council members. Some of them may recall the Council’s 6 November 2017 presidential statement—which stressed the importance of full humanitarian access and the voluntary return of all internally displaced persons to their homes—and calls on the Myanmar government to allow unhindered humanitarian access in Rakhine state, in particular for UNHCR. Members may also stress the need for UNHCR access to assess the conditions and long-term viability of returns and to address the safety concerns of refugees. There may also be concerns raised about possible forcible repatriation.
Another area of concern that is expected to come up during the meeting is the conditions in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. The humanitarian needs, as well as the political and security challenges, faced by the Bangladesh government related to the refugee situation may be referred to by both Grandi and Jenča during the consultations. Members may want to know how serious the potential for the situation to deteriorate into a major humanitarian and security crisis is. A representative from Bangladesh is likely to participate in the meeting and provide the Bangladeshi government’s perspective on the situation.
Jenča is expected to provide an update on the overall situation in Myanmar, including the peace and national reconciliation process. On 24 January, two more ethnic armed groups announced that they would join the Nationwide Ceasefire Accord. So far, eight armed groups have signed the Accord. He may stress the need to implement the Rakhine Advisory Commission recommendations in the context of ensuring the sustainable return of refugees. He is expected to reiterate the UN’s willingness to provide assistance in the repatriation process. Members may be interested in any information Jenča may be able to share on the appointment of a Special Envoy.
Questions about the human rights situation in Rakhine state are likely to be raised, especially during the closed consultations. In this context, a recent media report about the killing of 10 Rohingya men, who were buried in a shallow grave in Inn Din (a mixed ethnic area in Rakhine state), and the arrest in December 2017 of Reuters journalists who were working on a story on the killings, may be referred to.
The US has called for an independent, credible investigation into the allegations of atrocities in Rakhine state. Other Council members are also interested in a focus on accountability for behaviour that UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein last September said “seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, a characterisation with which UN Secretary-General António Guterres has agreed. Members may also have questions about the work of the advisory board for the implementation of recommendations on Rakhine State, led by Surakiart Sathirathai, former deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs of Thailand, which was set up to oversee implementation of recommendations made by the Rakhine Advisory Commission. There has been media attention to the resignation of one of its members, former US ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson, who has said that he left because the board would “whitewash” the causes behind the Rohingya leaving Myanmar. The regional aspect of the crisis and the potential for it to endanger peace and security in the region may also be raised by some members.
While there are some differences among Council members, there appears to be agreement that there is a humanitarian crisis that cannot be ignored. China, which has strong ties with the Myanmar government and is involved in infrastructure projects there, has been actively involved in trying to mediate between Bangladesh and Myanmar. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited both Dhaka and Naypyidaw ahead of the 23 November agreement. It has proposed a three-stage approach to addressing the crisis: cease hostilities on the ground and restore stability; encourage communication between the two countries; and address the root causes of the problem. It is likely to highlight any steps taken in implementing the November agreement as progress and stress the need for the situation to be solved by the two countries rather than the Council.
The US continues to take a strong position on the situation and imposed sanctions in December 2017 on 13 “serious human rights abusers and corrupt actors”, including Myanmar general Maung Maung Soe, who was the head of Myanmar’s western military command and oversaw the crackdown against the Rohingya following the August incident. Some US senators have introduced a senate resolution condemning the violence against the Rohingya and calling on State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to play an active role in ending the humanitarian crisis.
France and the UK, the penholder on Myanmar in the Council, have continued to take an active interest in the situation in Rakhine state since August 2017. The P3, together with a number of elected members, are keen to ensure that the situation in Myanmar continues to be discussed by the Council.
While members have not ruled out adopting another presidential statement or even a resolution at some point, there is a sense on the part of some members that any new outcome should be carefully timed.