Friday, August 31, 2018

Sanctions, scrutiny and UN special envoy seen as vital for resolving northern Rakhine crisis: think-tank

Thompson Chau,

Christine Schraner Burgener is UN's special envoy for Myanmar. Photo: EPA
Image from article, with caption: Christine Schraner Burgener is UN's special envoy for Myanmar.

Targetet sanctions, continued international scrutiny and robust diplomatic engagement are crucial to resolving the impasse in northern Rakhine State, a Brussels-based think-tank says in a new report.

Northern Rakhine, which witnessed a mass exodus of Muslims across the border to Bangladesh last year, is “of most immediate concern” among the range of key issues facing the Myanmar government, from the economy to the peace process, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG).

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) launched attacks on security posts in northern Rakhine on August 25, 2017, prompting a brutal military crackdown that resulted in an estimated 700,000 Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh, amid reports of serious human rights violations carried out by security forces, Rakhine vigilante groups and ARSA.

It is more than a year since the humanitarian nightmare began to unfold, but there is still “no resolution in sight,” the 16-page report, “Myanmar’s Stalled Transition,” warns. The government led, by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, faces “enormous international opprobrium” over the crisis as well as domestic opposition to the concessions needed to address the concerns of the international community. The military’s “brutal maltreatment” of Muslims in northern Rakhine – involving crimes against humanity, which a UN report released this week said merit investigation for genocide – as well as the civilian government’s acquiescence, became a “defining new crisis.”

Yet, even were Nay Pyi Taw to develop the political will to respond constructively to the humanitarian crisis or other problems, progress is likely to be limited. “This means that, in addition to the external pressure that continues to build, principled diplomatic engagement is also vital to translate that pressure into at least some meaningful steps forward,” the report said.

The policy challenge is to secure “tangible progress” while maintaining a principled stand on crimes against humanity, the ICG said. External pressure can be important but is unlikely by itself to yield results.

“In considering what progress may be possible, it is important to be aware that the Rakhine crisis is occurring in a wider context of lack of vision and ineffectiveness of government, something that is unlikely to change in the near future. Public sentiment in Myanmar also remains firmly behind the government.” Hence, robust diplomatic engagement will be necessary to translate such pressure into meaningful change.

In particular, the UN special envoy for Myanmar plays a key role in this effort.

Christine Schraner Burgener was appointed by the UN secretary-general as special envoy for Myanmar in April. The ICG noted that she has had initial positive engagement with key stakeholders in the crisis, including the state counsellor and the commander-in-chief. The diplomatic corps within the country is also welcoming, and the Security Council has expressed its support.

“While expectations should be moderated, Burgener can play an important role in raising difficult issues with the government, helping to choreograph international responses, and acting as an interface with the UN and the international community.”

Ms Burgener has made clear that she is a bridge-builder but will discuss all the difficult issues with Nay Pyi Taw behind closed doors, rather than via public diplomacy [JB emphasis] . However, coordination between her and the UN bodies is vital.

“In particular, the special envoy provides a mechanism by which scrutiny and pressure from these bodies can be translated into meaningful action on the ground, even if that is likely to be limited. Without this, pressure alone will likely achieve little other than pushing Myanmar back into isolation and reliance on its regional allies,” the report said.

Three sets of tools

For international actors, the ICG advocated three sets of tools: targeted sanctions, continued international scrutiny, and high-level engagement.

Targeted sanctions serve as a means of sending an international signal that actions such as the campaign against Muslims in northern Rakhine are unacceptable and have consequences. Given the country’s history and domestic attitudes, these are unlikely to change the thinking of the military or political leadership, but they would send a broader message to others who might be considering similar actions.

Continued international scrutiny, notably from the UN Security Council, as well as moves toward international accountability, would probably get the authorities’ attention and thus could have an effect. Examples include setting up an independent mechanism by the UN General Assembly.

However, the report warned that these two options alone are insufficient to produce meaningful change, since the problem is not merely one of political will, but also government capacity and the inherent intractability of the issues.

Therefore, high-level bilateral and multilateral engagement, including through UN channels, is a “critical third component of the policy mix.”

“Beyond conveying concerns, the goal should be to help identify, and offer support for, practical steps the government could take to achieve progress on accountability for crimes against humanity and the substantial improvement of conditions in Rakhine State.” Ultimately these must be conducive to the sustainable return of the refugees.

On the question of accountability for international crimes, the ICG said that any Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court is improbable, and an independent mechanism under UN auspices seems to be “the most feasible approach.”

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