|Antonio Guterres — UN Photo
I join you today with a heavy heart. The massive refugee emergency that began one year ago in Rakhine State, Myanmar, has become one of the world’s worst humanitarian and human rights crises.
Last month, I visited Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh and heard stories of horrendous persecution and suffering. One father broke down as he told me how his son was shot dead in front of him. His mother was brutally murdered and his house burned to the ground. He took refuge in a mosque only to be discovered by soldiers who abused him and burned the Quran.
I know members of the Council heard similar harrowing accounts on your own visit to the region. You highlighted in your press statement of 9 May the degree to which you “were struck by the scale of the humanitarian crisis” and how you “remain gravely concerned by the current situation.” You also reaffirmed the Security Council presidential statement of 6 November 2017 which “strongly condemns the widespread violence that has taken place in Rakhine State”. You expressed your “grave concern over reports of human rights violations and abuses in Rakhine State, including by the Myanmar security forces, in particular against persons belonging to the Rohingya community”.
One year ago, I condemned, immediately, the attacks by extremists against the security forces. But these attacks could never justify the disproportionate use of force against civilian populations and the gross human rights violations committed by the Myanmar security forces and their allies. Last September, I sent an official letter to this Council urging concerted efforts to prevent further escalation of the crisis in northern Rakhine state.
Following my direct engagement with the Myanmar authorities and several initiatives on the ground by the United Nations system, I expressed my concerns regarding the dramatic humanitarian and human rights situations. And I emphasized the risks to regional peace and security of further degeneration.
As you know, I have also been working to advance a policy of engagement and unified action to encourage positive actions by the Government, help defuse tensions between communities and build confidence and trust. In April, I appointed Christine Schraner Burgener as my Special Envoy on Myanmar. She is undertaking a process of broad consultations, including with the Government and the military, and with civil society and women’s groups. I appreciate this Council’s strong support and welcome Myanmar’s positive cooperation with her so far.
In June, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Myanmar authorities finalized a memorandum of understanding (MoU) that establishes a framework for cooperation to create conditions for the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh. The MoU is also aimed at helping to create improved and resilient livelihoods for all communities living in Rakhine State.
But of course, all of this requires a massive investment — not only in reconstruction and development for all communities in one of Myanmar’s poorest regions, but also in reconciliation and respect for human rights. I do not yet see the needed commitment for that investment to take place. It is clear that conditions are not yet met for the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees to their places of origin or choice.
I ask members of the Security Council to join me in urging the Myanmar authorities to cooperate with the United Nations, and to ensure immediate, unimpeded and effective access for its agencies and partners. We must also continue to press for the release of journalists who have been arrested for reporting on this human tragedy.
Access is critical to meet the enormous needs, and to allay the fears of refugees who would like to return home. For people who remain in Rakhine, it would allow for consultations on quick impact projects, based on their assessed needs. Those Rohingya who remain in Rakhine continue to face marginalization and discrimination.
Many have been cut off from life-saving humanitarian assistance. Some 130,000 Rohingya remain confined in camps with severe restrictions on their freedom of movement. They have extremely limited access to health, education and other essential services, and to ways of making a living.
There can be no excuse for delaying the search for dignified solutions that will allow people to return to their areas of origin in safety and dignity, in line with international standards and human rights. The United Nations remains ready to help develop such a plan. Voluntary relocation along with freedom of movement, an end to segregation and discrimination, inclusive development, the re-establishment of the rule of law and public safety are essential.
It is ultimately the responsibility of Myanmar’s leaders to demonstrate greater resolve in upholding the principles of equality and non-discrimination, countering incitement to racial hatred and violence.
I want to once again applaud the tremendous generosity of the Bangladeshi authorities and host communities. But the response to the crisis must be a global one. The international humanitarian appeal for the Rohingya crisis remains significantly underfunded at 33 per cent. Much more must be done to alleviate the very real risks to life from current and impending monsoons.
I am grateful to the World Bank and President Jim Yong Kim for mobilizing almost half a billion dollars in grant-based support for Rohingya refugees and host communities. The grant-based assistance approved by the Asian Development Bank is also crucial in meeting medium-term needs and providing assistance towards life-saving priorities.
Yet, refugees need more access to education and livelihoods to avoid further vulnerability to the risks of trafficking, sexual exploitation and radicalization.
I cannot forget the stories I heard in Cox’s Bazar. One distraught woman gestured to a mother cradling her young baby who was conceived as a result of rape, and told me: “We need security in Myanmar and citizenship. And we want justice for what our sisters, our daughters, our mothers have suffered.”
Accountability is essential for genuine reconciliation between all ethnic groups and is a prerequisite for regional security and stability. Regrettably, Myanmar has refused to cooperate with United Nations human rights entities and mechanisms, despite repeated calls to do so, including by members of this Council. We have called for different accountability options to be considered.
Most recently, very strong concerns have been expressed by the United Nations Independent Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar appointed by the Human Rights Council. Its report, issued yesterday, found “patterns of gross human rights violations and abuses” committed by the security forces, which it said “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law.” I believe this report’s findings and recommendations deserve serious consideration by all relevant United Nations bodies.
Effective international cooperation will be critical to ensuring that accountability mechanisms are credible, transparent, impartial, independent and comply with Myanmar’s obligations under international law. This Council has issued a strong presidential statement. We also have the clear recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State as a guiding framework — a framework that takes into account the needs of the victims and address root causes, including discrimination, persecution and lack of legal status.
I would like to take this opportunity to commend once again the statesmanship of the late former Secretary-General in Myanmar and elsewhere.
But there is much still to be done to provide the necessary conditions for peace and justice in Rakhine. So long as a climate of fear and persecution prevails in Rakhine, voluntary returns will not take place. All communities in Rakhine are poor and need sustainable and inclusive development. This is also essential for reconciliation and peace. I would add that patterns of violations against ethnic and religious minorities beyond Rakhine must also end, for genuine democracy to take root.
A year has passed. This crisis cannot continue indefinitely. This Council has shown unity in adopting its presidential statement. That unity remains essential if we are to answer clear appeals with action.