Myanmar: Protecting Minority Rights Is Non-Negotiable
29 May 2013
On 29 of May 2013, Refugees International published a field report on the humanitarian situation in Rakhine and Kachin States. The report is written by Refugee International’s Melanie Teff, Senior Advocate and European Representative, and Sushetha Gopallawa, Southeast Asia Fellow. Both traveled to Myanmar to assess the situation in April 2013.
In its rush to normalize relations with Myanmar, the international community – particularly the United Nations – must not ignore the increase in abuses being committed against ethnic minorities in Rakhine and Kachin States, and it must take a stronger stance in defense of the human rights of affected populations. Ten months after violence forced them into displacement camps in central Rakhine State, Rohingyas are living in fear of multiple dangers: flooding and disease caused by the rainy season, indefinite periods of displacement and segregation and the consolidation of ethnic cleansing, arbitrary arrests, being forced by officials to sign away their rights to citizenship, and a lack of protection from further attacks. Meanwhile, in Kachin State, a peace agreement remains out of reach almost two years after conflict there resumed. Roughly 100,000 people are stuck in displacement camps, and international humanitarian agencies are being denied access to the tens of thousands living in non-government controlled areas.
UN Country Team Must Take a Stronger Rights-Based Stance
The UN Country Team must change its current, overly-cautious approach to its advocacy with the government. Since Myanmar’s reform project began in 2011, the UN Country Team has prioritized the preservation of its tenuous relationship with the government, despite the fact that so many agreements it has made with them have not been honored. As a result, it has not spoken out forcefully about the key issues that are affecting Rohingyas (such as segregation, discrimination, and statelessness), nor has it addressed the government’s broken promises of humanitarian access to parts of Kachin State held by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). For example, the Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator’s (RC/HC) office issued a press release this month which welcomed the government-ordered Rakhine Investigation Commisssion report without expressing any reservations about parts of the report that could worsen the situation. The UN leadership must learn from past situations where it has not spoken out and later regretted its inaction, as in Sri Lanka.
The UN Country Team is headed by an RC/HC who has to combine both development and humanitarian roles, which require very different approaches, and he has not been able to prioritize humanitarian concerns. The March Inter-Agency Standing Committee report on Myanmar expressed concerns about inadequate humanitarian needs analysis and coordination by the UN, as well as the lack of any overall communication and advocacy strategy. Often, the lack of information from the UN has hampered effective advocacy by UN officials, donor governments, and non governmental partners.
Only three clusters are in place in the country, and many of them lack senior leadership in Rakhine and Kachin States. Additionally, the overstretched UN Humanitarian Country Team is reported to spend more than 75 percent of its time focused on issues in Rakhine State. The fact that recent high-level UN delegations have routinely traveled to Rakhine, and not Kachin, reflects these priorities and has left Kachin communities feeling neglected.
The multiple humanitarian challenges facing Myanmar – including Rakhine and Kachin States, the southeast, and new sites of anti-Muslim violence – require a change in the UN leadership structure. Refugees International (RI) has received information that a new RC/HC will be appointed. However, even if this individual has exceptional humanitarian credentials, RI believes that a Deputy HC is necessary to ensure that humanitarian issues are not sidelined by competing priorities. (…)
Humanitarian Crisis Looming as Monsoons Approach
The current dire living conditions of the Rohingyas in central Rakhine State will greatly deteriorate during the monsoon season, which begins at the end of May. However, at the time of RI’s visit, there were no clear plans for relocating the 69,000 displaced people who could be underwater within weeks. UN agencies and local residents expect that it will take two or three months to construct the necessary temporary shelters, which would leave tens of thousands of people in flooded, inadequate shelters for several weeks and could lead to infectious disease epidemics. The government has partially activated an Emergency Coordination Center, but this is not fully operationalized. Clearly, the government has permitted the situation to drift into a looming humanitarian crisis, and the UN’s humanitarian leadership has also failed to avert this. (…)
Protracted Displacement and Segregation: Inadequate Responses Putting Lives at Risk
As of the end of April, the total displaced population in Rakhine State was estimated to be 140,000, with the vast majority being Rohingyas. Conditions in the officially-recognized displacement camps that were established after the June violence have marginally improved over the past few months, with some advances in shelter provision and water and sanitation. (…)
Citizenship Remains Central to Any Solution
Many displaced Rohingyas told RI that they would only enjoy meaningful protection once the Myanmar government restores their citizenship and recognizes their Rohingya identity. (…)
More broadly, communities in Rakhine State have received disturbingly little information about the process of determining citizenship, and about the rights conferred by different forms of citizenship under Myanmar law. The Rakhine Investigation Commission’s report states that the 1982 Citizenship Act should be applied to the Rohingya. Many in the UN and international donor community assume this means that Rohingyas who have lived in the country for at least three generations (which would include a large percentage of the Rohingya population) would be granted naturalized citizenship. However, it is not clear that these Rohingyas would have the documents necessary to prove their ancestry (such as birth and death certificates, or deeds to property), nor is it certain that the government will interpret the Act as permitting even naturalized citizenship for the Rohingya. (…)
Flexibility Needed for Assisting IDPs in Greatest Need
Within Kachin State, there is an unacceptable disparity in the delivery of humanitarian assistance to IDPs in the GCA and NGCA. The UN received $31 million of the $36 million it requested for the Kachin emergency in March 2012. The funds were largely spent in the GCA, where the UN has access and a smaller share of IDPs reside, but the larger number of IDPs who live in the NGCA (and the CBOs who operate there) have almost no access to this funding outside the HMSF. The UN’s 2013 Kachin Response Plan requests $50.9 million for over 120,000 individuals across Kachin (100,000 displaced and a further 20,000 people hosting IDPs) who will require humanitarian assistance until the end of the year at least. Indeed, the needs could be even greater, since a comprehensive humanitarian needs assessment has not been conducted in both the GCA and NGCA.
The UN must hold the Myanmar government to its promises of access to the NGCA. Its failure to do so not only neglects a community in crisis, but also hinders others’ ability to assist. On the eve of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Rangoon, the Myanmar government promised to “expedite its negotiations with the ICRC and other international humanitarian organizations for broader access to conflict affected areas.” Again, in February 2013, both government and KIA forces pledged to give UN convoys access to camps in the NGCA, but the government has not honored those pledges to date. The UN and the international donor community should recognize that giving one ICRC relief convoy access to Laiza does not fulfill the government’s pledges or meet the humanitarian needs of IDPs in the NGCA. Moreover, the prospect of UN convoys bringing much needed supplies to the NGCA has led local organizations to shift their limited funds from immediate priorities like food assistance to other needs. When the convoys do not arrive, this creates a gap in basic assistance for the IDPs, and also disrupts the CBOs’ ability to effectively fundraise. Donors must support those CBOs who have found ways of getting assistance to the IDPs in NGCA. Without the remarkable work being carried out by these CBOs, Kachin State truly would be witnessing a humanitarian emergency right now.