As Myanmar atrocities unfolded, UN was blinded by a fascination with Aung San Suu Kyi
Report says officials dithered on Rohingya in a systematic failure borne of 'quiet diplomacy'
A systematic failure of the United Nations in Myanmar was in part borne of the organisation allowing itself to be swept up in ill-founded hopes around the release from house arrest and political re-emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s now fallen democracy figurehead.
In responding to criticism over its handling of the Rohingya crisis, a UN report refused to blame specific people but said staff in Myanmar had not grasped the dire consequences of a military campaign against the Muslim minority, which later resulted in ethnic cleansing.
Their reticence followed the rapid transition of Myanmar from a military junta to civilian-led government, capped by Ms Suu Kyi’s local and parliamentary triumphs in 2012 and 2015, according to the internal review released on Monday.
Rather than becoming the beacon of democracy and human rights that she had been perceived as in western circles, Ms Suu Kyi stayed silent as the Rohingya issue and other ethnic tensions in the north of the country played out, culminating in atrocities in August 2017.
“These events have seriously undermined the political and peace processes and are at the very centre of the dysfunctional presence of the United Nations in Myanmar,” said the report’s author, Gert Rosenthal, a veteran Guatemalan diplomat.
Although the review – commissioned by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres – covered the period of 2010 to 2018 it was the Rohingya crisis that forced it. The UN and foreign governments were criticised for not anticipating a mass exodus of Rohingya to Bangladesh. Some 740,000 are living there in camps after fleeing Rakhine state because of the Myanmar military's campaign against them.
The UN’s failure was particularly stark because it repeated mistakes made in Sri Lanka over human rights abuses, despite the adoption of initiatives designed to avoid those errors, Mr Rosenthal said.
“While the brunt of the responsibility rests squarely on the government of Myanmar, the question persists whether the United Nations could not have done more to avoid or mitigate the horrific events that progressively occurred between 2012 and 2017, and are still ongoing, in Rakhine state,” he said.
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At the centre of the UN breakdown was the reputation of Ms Suu Kyi, whose standing only increased after her National League for Democracy obtained a majority in 2015, allowing her to become State Counsellor, the country's de-facto leader.
Yet the authoritarian culture of the nation's army remained, including discrimination against Rohingya with episodic spikes in violence between 2012 and 2016. UN officials, Mr Rosenthal said, were faced with the competing choices of privately pushing Myanmar's government to respect human rights, or opting for outspoken advocacy.
Warning signs included the majority Buddhist country’s bad treatment of Muslim minorities, including the massacre of 40 Rohingya by the army after the death of a policeman in Rakhine in 2014. Worse was to follow and a series of incidents led to the August 2017 crackdown by the military and government officials simultaneously exploited the UN’s lack of a consistent approach.
Despite the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and other advisers calling out Myanmar for abuses after mid-2014 “other parts of the UN system did not back them up”.
“The officials of these bodies ... favoured trying to expand the organisation’s political space through quiet diplomacy,” Mr Rosenthal said, noting that UN staff were polarised by “horrific events taking place”.
“It truly can be characterised as a systemic failure of the United Nations,” he said, “magnified by some bureaucratic and unseemly infighting.”
A UN spokesman said Mr Guterres would carry out Mr Rosenthal’s planned reforms to “reinforce a broader system-wide strategy”.
But Louis Charbonneau, the UN director at Human Rights Watch, said: “If the UN wants to change internal culture, it needs to hold UN officials most responsible for ignoring Myanmar ethnic cleansing accountable.”
Updated: June 19, 2019 03:18 PM