Can the United Nations protect Human Rights and fulfill its Humanitarian Mandate?

A Rohingya woman looks on after being restricted by the members of Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) to enter into Bangladesh side, in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh . August 28, 2017. Reuters

On October 13, 2017 IRIN reported the UN’s resident coordinator in Myanmar will finish her assignment by the end of October 2017, before term. This announcement comes amid a refugee crisis where more than 536,000 Rohingya fled into Bangladesh from Myanmar’s Rakhine State since 25 August.

An earlier IRIN in-depth investigative article of July 2017 reports of an April 2017 Memo sent to the new UN secretary general Antonio Guterres . The Memo states “The United Nations’ in-country presence in Myanmar continues to be glaringly dysfunctional. Strong tensions exist within the UN country team, the humanitarian parts of the UN system find themselves having to confront the hostility of the development arm, while the human rights pillar is seen as complicating both”. The Memo adds, “The impact of this dysfunctionality is a growing irrelevance of the UN in guiding and defining the international community’s efforts to address the challenges confronting Myanmar,” and states donors were turning elsewhere.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein — who has described the government operations as, “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” — said in a statement the actions appeared to be “a cynical ploy to forcibly transfer large numbers of people without possibility of return”.

Over the past several months the role of the UN leadership in Myanmar has been controversial, with accusations it has overseen and contributed to a divided and dysfunctional mission. The primary accusation is the current Resident Coordinator prioritised a development-focused agenda over one requiring focus on human rights, within a context where the minority population of the Rohingya, facing a long history of marginalisation and persecution, have been forcibly displaced.

According to IRIN, in the more than 20 years the UN has been in the northern part of the state, conditions have never been worse. Thousands of Rohingya brought to the brink of starvation. The World Food Programme (WFP) expects about 80,500 children to need treatment for acute malnutrition in 2017 in Rohingya-majority areas where the government and military blocked access to aid groups.

Security forces began carrying out counter-insurgency operations in the Rakhine State since October 2016. Rights organisations compiled evidence of military abuses of Rohingya civilians — including mass rapes, killings, and torture, which the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said in the February 2017 reportthe very likely commission of crimes against humanity”.

The UN plans to convert the resident coordinator role into that of an assistant secretary-general, who would report to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Myanmar is stalling on accepting a plan by the UN to upgrade the UN Resident Coordinator to the more powerful rank of Assistant Secretary-General (ASG) when the current Resident Coordinator leaves.

Who will replace the UN Resident Coordinator and how will this change interaction with a Myanmar government that has pushed back against international condemnation over the Rohingya issue? What will be new?

Despite growing international condemnation of the crisis, the military campaign is popular in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where there is little sympathy for the Rohingya and for Muslims in general, and where Buddhist nationalism has surged.

This scenario is eerily reminiscent of the end of the secessionist civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009 and the role of the UN.

The narrative leading up to and the end of the fighting during May 2009 in northern Sri Lanka, and its aftermath is described by Gordon Weiss, the UN spokesman in Colombo at the time, in his book ‘The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers’. Weiss reported the decision to withhold casualty figures was a result of the difficulties of operating in the country.

A soldier watches civilians flee the ‘no fire zone’ to a refugee camp in the town of Putumatalan in northern Sri Lanka. Reuters: David Gray

The 26-year war left at least 100,000 people dead. There are still no confirmed figures for tens of thousands of civilian deaths in the last months of battle. A UN investigation said it was possible up to 40,000 people had been killed in the final five months alone. Others suggest the number of deaths even higher

In November 2012 the BBC reported of a leaked draft of a UN report which stated, ‘The United Nations failed in its mandate to protect civilians in the last months of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war’ and concludes, ‘“Events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN”.

The report , produced by an internal review panel headed by the former senior UN official Charles Petrie, who told BBC the “penultimate” draft the BBC has seen “very much reflects the findings of the panel”. The panel was critical of the decision to withdraw UN staff from the war zone in September 2008 after the Sri Lankan government warned it could no longer guarantee their safety. One of the members of the UN Team which withdrew from the north said he disagreed with the pull-out. “I believe we should have gone further north, not evacuate south, and basically abandon the civilian population with no protection or witness,” he told the BBC.

The BBC report asserts hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians remained in the war zone, exploited by both sides: forcibly recruited by Tamil Tigers or used as human shields; or under indiscriminate government fire. “We begged them [the UN], we pleaded with them not to leave the area. They did not listen to us,” said a Tamil school teacher. “If they had stayed there, and listened to us, many more people would be alive today,” the BBC reported.

Under intense pressure from the Sri Lankan government, the UN also did not make public “a large majority” of deaths were caused by government shelling. The government repeatedly denied having shelled civilian areas. During the bloody final months of Sri Lanka’s long civil war, as the army closed in on the rebel Tamil Tigers, there were 300,000 civilians trapped between the front lines, tens of thousands of them killed. But the UN declined to publish mounting casualty numbers and staff members who brought up threats to civilians punished.

How did the UN failure happen? The report explores at length how senior staff in Colombo “had insufficient political expertise and experience in armed conflicts and in human rights… to deal with the challenge that Sri Lanka presented”, and not given “sufficient policy and political support” from headquarters. The report points out difficulties exacerbated by the Sri Lankan government’s “stratagem of intimidation”, including “control of visas to sanction staff critical of the state”. The result was a UN system dominated by “a culture of trade-offs” — UN staff chose not to speak out against the government to try to improve humanitarian access.

In the BBC report, Edward Mortimer, a former senior UN official said UN staff left when the population needed them more than ever. Of the UN report he said, “I fear this report will show the UN has not lived up to the standards we expect of it and has not behaved as the moral conscience of the world.

There were no UN peacekeepers in Sri Lanka but the report says the UN should have told the world what was happening, and done more to try to stop it. In New York, “engagement with member states regarding Sri Lanka was heavily influenced by what it perceived member states wanted to hear, rather than by what member states needed to know if they were to respond”.

Frances Harrison, a former BBC correspondent and author of ‘Still Counting the Dead’ said “The UN chose to remain silent about potential war crimes”.

An internal probe commissioned by Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General at the time, mentions a “continued reluctance” among UN staff “to stand up for the rights of people they were mandated to assist”.

Before the flight of the Rohingya across the borders into Bangladesh over the past month, IRIN quotes the Myanmar OHCHR report which draws parallels to Sri Lanka. It notes about 100,000 Rohingya living in camps are referred to as internally displaced people, or IDPs. But rather than IDP camps, the squalid clusters of monsoon-battered shelters “would more accurately be described as detention camps or internment camps, because the privations and restrictions of movement imposed on the Rohingya are so extreme.”

The situation bears a striking resemblance to the humanitarian community’s systematic failure in the final stages of the war in Sri Lanka, during which hundreds of thousands of Tamils were held against their will in internment camps that were fully paid for and serviced by international humanitarian institutions,” the report says. This reference is about ‘Menik Farm’ in the Vavuniya district in northern Sri Lanka where people fleeing south from the conflict were ‘housed’.

Menik Farm displaced persons camp in Vavuniya in Sri Lanka, May 23, 2009. AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth

Consequent to the failure of UN efforts in Sri Lanka and the tragedy of the aftermath of the fighting, Ban Ki-moon established an initiative called ‘Human Rights Up Front’. The purpose was to ensure the prevention of such a situation ever arising again. This initiative seems to have failed in Myanmar.

Where does this leave the Humanitarian System at large? The UN Resident Coordinator and the UN Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs (UN/OCHA) are the formal and recognized interlocuters who have been vested with the legitimacy to coordinate humanitarian action on behalf of the ‘humanitarian community’.

This humanitarian community, made up of other UN agencies, international and national non-profits and agencies, mandated by the humanitarian imperative, depend on the UN to coordinate and ensure humanitarian access, report on human rights abuses, help address the realisation of rights to life and security through humanitarian assistance and ensure the protection of women and girls in emergencies. The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) and implementation of the consequent ‘grand bargain’ and other humanitarian commitments sit squarely within the responsibility of the UN.

In situations such as Sri Lanka and Myanmar, what is the guarantee these basic commitments and pillars ‘to care for and aid your fellowman in times of distress and suffering’ will hold up, and not be eroded? How will the UN develop effective capabilities to stand up to repressive governments that cut off humanitarian and media access, while rights abuses and human distress are caused to minority and marginalized populations? How will these capabilities guarantee the provision of immediate and lifesaving assistance in times of conflict? What needs to happen for the UN “to stand up for the rights of people they are mandated to assist”. How will the humanitarian community be able to overtly and with fulfillment maintain the ‘Core Humanitarian Standard’.? These refer to the commitments that organisations and individuals involved in humanitarian response use to improve the quality and effectiveness of the assistance they provide.

IRIN concludes its July 2017 report. “In a 5 July speech, Guterres laid out plans for reform of the resident coordinator position throughout the UN. He said the “consultations and analysis” done by his office indicated the role should report directly to the secretary-general and not to UNDP. Myanmar may serve as the test case”.

Are we seeing the beginnings of a malaise representing the failure of the UN humanitarian system and its relevance with regard to people and vulnerable communities affected by rights violations and humanitarian crisis? With the failure of the ‘Human Rights Up Front’ initiative, are we seeing in Myanmar the ‘index case’ of such a malaise?

Disclaimer: The opinions, views and conclusions presented in this post are solely the author’s. They do not represent the views, positions or policies of any organisation, institution, agency or of other individuals.

Colombo, Sri Lanka

October 2017