Did the UN ignore warnings of ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Myanmar?

Eleven-year-old Hedayatullah witnessed the killing of his two brothers. His mother said his nightmares started soon after, but they have actually been decades in the making.

Long before the violence that left Hedayatullah deeply traumatized and sheltering in a Bangladesh refugee camp, he and his family lived an unspeakable life in Myanmar’s Northern Rakhine state. The discrimination and abuse they and other Muslim Rohingya endured has been well-documented by advocates and UN human rights officials, many of whom have warned that their treatment could amount to crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

But according to internal documents and multiple sources consulted by CBC News, there are signs several UN figures and other international actors — including a key Canadian official — have long been reticent to pressure Myanmar on the rights of the Rohingya.

There are also allegations that some officials within the system ignored the warnings of ethnic cleansing altogether.

“The conditions were ripe for more mass atrocity crimes against the Rohingya population … The writing was on the wall and unfortunately, there was no action,” said Matthew Smith, a human rights advocate who has long watched Myanmar.

The UN categorically rejects these allegations, in one case calling them “baseless and unsubstantiated” and part of a “media smear campaign.”

But the lapses in this “never again” era have invited uneasy comparisons to UN failures in Sri Lanka and Rwanda, which carried great human costs. They also appear to have pushed the UN to try to make changes to the way it operates in Myanmar.

But not soon enough, say critics.

“I don’t want the UN to get away with it yet again,” said one source who spoke to CBC News and did not wish to be identified.

‘Active denial’

Partly to blame, insiders say, is that UN leadership in both Myanmar and New York favoured a soft approach on the treatment of Rohingya in dealings with the Myanmar government, to avoid antagonizing it on a matter of high sensitivity in that complex country.

United Nations General Assembly Sex Abuse

According to one source, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres ‘over-estimated his relationship” with Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi. (Khalil Senosi/Associated Press)

These sources contend that the UN leadership in Myanmar continued to favour pushing economic development over human rights advocacy as the best means to improving the treatment of Rohingya — even after a 2012 spike in violence that ended with thousands of Rohingya sequestered in internal camps that relied entirely on foreign aid.

This was also after repeated warnings from within the UN system itself that all signs pointed to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.   

“It was active denial,” said Michael Shaikh, a former UN human rights officer based in Myanmar in 2013-2014, who visited the troubled Rakhine state regularly. “[UN] leadership needed such a good news story in Myanmar it prioritized its relationship with the Myanmar government over the people it was in the business of protecting.”

It is an approach that seemed to persist right up until the latest crisis erupted. One internal report written for the UN in Myanmar this past spring took that tiptoe approach to task, recommending as a “matter of urgency” a more unified and blunt UN strategy and a reset of the relationship with the Myanmar government.

‘There can be no silence’

Analyst Richard Horsey counselled the UN to be “frank and not to shy away from difficult topics” in dealing with the Myanmar government.

“There can be no silence on human rights and protection concerns,” Horsey wrote.  “Credibility also requires that silent diplomacy be combined with clear public messaging.”

Horsey warned an escalation was highly likely “in the next six months,” including an attack by Rohingya militants and a “heavy-handed and indiscriminate” response from the Myanmar authorities. He was right. Rohingya militants attacked security forces in late August, and the Myanmar army’s response was ruthless.

Since then, nearly 600,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, following attacks, killings and rapes. Among the exiles were Hedayatullah and his family, who took a dangerous boat journey to reach the relative safety of a giant refugee camp.

Now, there are growing signs that massacres did in fact take place, and that recent arrivals in Bangladesh had been starved into leaving Myanmar. The UN human rights office — which labeled the recent violence a textbook example of ethnic cleansing — now says the Myanmar military campaign predates the Aug. 25 Rohingya militant attack, and that the destruction of villages is a deliberate effort to drive Rohingya out for good.

Hedayatullah

Eleven-year-old Hedayatullah is a Rohingya boy who witnessed the killing of his two brothers, and is now sheltering in a Bangladesh refugee camp after he and his family fled Myanmar’s Northern Rakhine state. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

“I don’t know why they wanted us out,” said Hasina Begum, Hedayatullah’s mother, in September, while sitting inside a stifling tent on the side of a narrow Bangladeshi highway. Despite it all, she had hoped they could all still return some day.

Passing a ‘red line’

In 2015, a consulting firm wrote an assessment for the UN entitled A Slippery Slope: Helping victims or supporting systems of abuse? Obtained by CBC, the report gives a glimpse into the consequences of the prevailing approach: the international community was “sustaining internment camps” and the “near imprisonment of the Rohingya population” inside Myanmar “without seeing any positive change for the population.”

“Any conceivable red line was already passed,” it added. “And all the institutions were still there, implicitly accepting whatever conditions the government imposed.”

Some sources put much of the blame on the UN’s top official in Myanmar, outgoing resident co-ordinator Renata Lok-Dessallien, a Canadian.

They say she favoured economic development over pressure to advance human rights, accusing her of “undermining” the work of more vocal, rights-focused officials tasked to work on the Myanmar file, even advising some not to travel to Rakhine.

According to two sources who worked in Myanmar, Lok-Dessallien also banned the word “Rohingya” from UN documents in apparent deference to the Myanmar authorities, who despise it. A media representative of her office denied that claim, calling it “a false statement.”

Renata Lok-Dessallien

Renata Lok-Dessallien, who is Canadian, is the outgoing UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar. Sources accuse her of ‘undermining’ the work of more vocal, rights-focused officials tasked to work on the Myanmar file. (Wa Lone/Reuters)

Lok-Dessallien’s office turned down a CBC request for an interview, but her media representative responded to questions by email. He said her critics have launched “a media smear campaign against her that is baseless and unsubstantiated.”

Supporters, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, also called the allegations unfair.

Lok-Dessallien’s media representative said her work “should be viewed in the broader context of the entire UN system,” which has a “full array of tools” to respond to the crisis in Rakhine state, “including quiet diplomacy, public messaging, the Human Rights Council and other bodies.”

Information ‘ignored’

As the Rohingya crisis escalated last month, the UN had to address the allegations. It stood behind Lok-Dessallien.

She “has advocated for human rights and development in a very strong way,” said Stephane Dujarric, a spokesperson for the UN Secretary General.

Some of the allegations against her date back several years. In an exit report distributed at high levels at the UN, a departing senior UN staffer said Lok-Dessallien cut short internal discussions warning about the fate of Rohingya and “discarded or simply ignored information that underscored the seriousness of the situation.”

The often-quoted report, also obtained by CBC News, warned the UN system was at “high risk of failure to prevent large scale violence” and that there were early signs of the “high potential for such violence.”

When contacted by CBC News, the author, Caroline Vandenabeele, wrote in an email, “I had hoped to be proven wrong … but the current situation shows both the large scale of violence as predicted as well as the systemic shortcomings within the UN to prevent it.”

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Approximately 60 per cent of the Rohingya who have arrived in Bangladesh are children. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

A 2017 report written for the secretary-general, and obtained by CBC, indicated that at best, the UN’s presence in Myanmar is “glaringly dysfunctional.” The report said there are “strong tensions” between the humanitarian and development arms, “while the human rights pillar is seen as complicating both.”

This problem, it said, is compounded by “the lack of accountability at the highest levels of the UN system to ensure the overall coherence of the UN response.”

The author of the report, Charles Petrie, once held the job of resident coordinator in Myanmar, and said the problem is less personal and more structural: the top UN job in Myanmar isn’t political, and it should be.

He said it’s the same problem that hampered the UN during crises in Rwanda and Sri Lanka.

“If the [top] person on the ground does not have oversight over all aspects of the UN’s response in-country, it’s always going to be a dysfunctional UN.”

The Suu Kyi factor

Myanmar authorities have a well-established history of not taking kindly to foreign criticism.

Prior to the elections that brought Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to power, the threat of expulsion and attacks on foreign aid organizations left “the international community excessively apprehensive,” said the Slippery Slope report.

There was also a “consistent failure to recognize and take advantage of the potential political influence of the UN and humanitarian community.”

Tomas Quintana, who was special rapporteur for Myanmar for six years — and, as such, the target of protests — said it was hard to translate his warnings on Rohingya into concrete international action “because the government was smartly reacting, and establishing Rakhine commissions, developing plans.

“So the international community was relying on that while it was clear that the government itself was involved in this worsening of the situation.”

In response to warnings earlier this year, even Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told his senior staff “we have to stay low” on Myanmar, according to a knowledgeable diplomatic source.

MYANMAR-ROHINGYA/SUU KYI

Some observers believe the international response to the Rohingya crisis has been complicated by the promise of a democratic Myanmar, as embodied by leader Aung San Suu Kyi. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

The official, who spoke to CBC News on condition of anonymity, said Guterres’s strategy seemed to be to reach out directly to the Burmese leader. But Guterres “over-estimated his relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi,” said the source, and possibly her authority.

The international response as a whole has been further complicated by the Suu Kyi factor and the promise of a democratic Myanmar.

“I think what the West was not ready to accept is [that] an opening up of … political space does not necessarily only bring out the positive of a society,” said Petrie.

Now, at the height of the crisis, the UN seems to be fast-tracking changes in Myanmar. Lok-Dessallien’s previously announced departure is effective at the end of the month, and there is no replacement in sight. The job may also be overhauled.

Most observers agree that blame for the crisis lies with the Myanmar authorities. But the international community had a duty to speak up, said human rights advocate Matthew Smith.

“I think it’s very fair at this point to say that the international community is complicit in what’s happening in Rakhine state,” said Smith.

“We understand it’s a very difficult environment to work in in Myanmar. But when we’re talking about mass atrocities, when we’re talking about the most serious crimes that can be perpetrated on a population, there has to be pressure, there has to be truth-telling, otherwise these things just continue.”

With files from Melissa Kent 

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