Tag Archives: ‘ignore

How to talk to family and friends who ignore social distancing appeals

You’ve likely seen footage of young people partying it up on beaches last week or families gathering en masse in public parks last weekend. Perhaps you’ve argued with seniors in your life about needing to curtail their social lives for the time being.

“We’ve all seen the pictures online of people who seem to think they’re invincible,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted on Monday during his daily briefing.

“Well, you’re not,” he said, directly addressing Canadians who are flouting public health appeals for social and physical distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

What’s behind this behaviour, and how can you persuade those around you to reconsider?

Outside of COVID-19 hotspots like China or Italy (or in their immediate neighbours), changes in public behaviour have initially been “slow to materialize, with many continuing to engage in previous social behaviours,” according to Darrell Bricker, global chief executive of public opinion research firm Ipsos.

‘It’s over there’

“Coronavirus is being seen to be more of an economic threat than a health crisis, which explains partially why people aren’t as absolutely engaged in the social distancing behaviours that we’re being asked to engaged in,” Bricker noted Friday during an online Q&A.  

For many in North America, the reaction continues to be: “It’s over there. It’s not over here,” he said.

“There is strong public consensus for closing borders and self-quarantining,” but rather than taking the advice themselves, many believe these measures are meant to stop other people “from doing things they shouldn’t be doing.”

Many people, he said, think: “I’m not the source of the problem. Those other people are the source of the problem.”

And contrary to stories and videos being shared, the data doesn’t indicate that just one generation group — gen Z or boomers or millennials — is engaging in riskier behaviour than the others. 


People walk and cycle Sunday on the seawall in Vancouver, between English Bay and Sunset Beach. Officials have asked people to maintain a distance of two metres between one another. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

While there’s no doubt that “within the boomers, there are some populations that are fairly risky,” it’s not something common to the entire demographic, said Doug Norris, senior vice president and chief demographer of data, analytics and marketing services firm Environics Analytics. 

By the same token, younger people might tend to be more risky, but we can’t paint all of gen Z nor millennials with the same brush, Norris said from Ottawa.

“There is a lot of diversity within [each generational demographic].”

Strategies for discussion

There could be many reasons why friends and family members are ignoring directives against gathering and socializing in groups, whether it’s believing the rules don’t apply to them or feeling invulnerable to the notion “nobody is gonna tell me what to do,” said Mary Pipher, clinical psychologist and author of Reviving Ophelia and Women Rowing North.

Accordingly, there are a variety of approaches you can try to persuade them otherwise, she said.

  • One starting point is to get into the person’s headspace with questions like “how do you see your situation?” and “how do you see it as different from other people?” 

  • Another strategy the Nebraska-based Pipher favours is appealing to a sense of heroism and community. “It’s a chance to be a hero. It’s a call to sacrifice, and it’s an opportunity to grow into even more profound people,” she said. “This is a chance when every person in the world can do their part by following the rules.”

  • When talking to older rebels taking an “I do what I want” attitude, a shift in perspective could help. You might suggest that they risk “putting a family that cares for them in deep mourning” if they fell ill or died from coronavirus. “Think about who would miss you,” Pipher explained. “You owe it to those people to stay alive.”

  • For younger folks feeling invulnerable, try discussing the fact that they could spread the virus to a friend who may not have divulged an underlying condition that puts them at higher risk, she said. “You never know, even if you’re out with a peer, what else that peer might be dealing with.”

  • A good tactic is to share your own experiences, feelings and worries. “Use yourself as someone who is struggling with the same issues. The other person can choose to listen and accept your story — or not.”

Pipher stressed the importance of acknowledging that, for some, social distancing and staying at home can be a true struggle. For example:

  • Extroverts.
  • Those living on their own.
  • People residing in tiny spaces.
  • Those grappling with having lost (or being in danger of losing) their livelihood amid the pandemic. 

Finally, she advises: “If you start an argument with somebody, you’ve already lost. The whole trick with persuasion is defusing resistance before you’re in an argument.”

If the person is looking irritated and your voices are being raised, “you might as well not go any further, because anything further is only going to make the person more resistant.” 

Pipher sees this unprecedented moment in history as an extraordinary teachable moment about our role in the wider world. “We’re all interconnected, and if we don’t take care of each other, we won’t be OK. Each of our fates is tied to the fate of the whole.”

‘We are social animals’

Framing your discussion around communal versus individual goals is also the approach advocated by Igor Grossmann, associate professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo and director of the school’s Wisdom and Culture lab. 

“It’s not about what benefits you. It’s what benefits your parents, your friends, your partner,” he said.

Grossmann suggests calling on people to be reasonable — “to consider the context, to consider the norms of caring for others” — instead of urging them to be rational, since that person might be an individualist who considers it rational to buck convention or “to maximize their fun” by going outside.


Spring break revellers party together in Pompano Beach, Fla., last week. Florida officials ordered all bars shut for 30 days and many state beaches are turning away crowds due to refusal to engage in social distancing. (Julio Cortez/Associated Press)

“We are social animals. It’s really hard for us to be bound to our little apartments,” he said.

And what if the person you’re dealing with simply isn’t moved by a consideration of others?

Grossmann proposes appealing to his or her immediate personal benefit. “If you don’t maintain social distancing and partial physical distancing now, the country will impose a total lockdown and you will not be able to go out at all.

“It will really suck for you … and you will have no freedom whatsoever.”

The notion of more strictly enforced movement-restriction measures also seemed to be what Trudeau was getting at during his briefing Monday.

“Go home. And stay home,” Trudeau said. 

“This is what we all need to be doing, and we’re going to make sure this happens, whether by educating people more on the risks, or by enforcing the rules, if that’s needed.”

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CBC | Health News

Ukrainians ignore impeachment drama to focus on Russia

Ukraine may be at the epicentre of the Donald Trump impeachment drama, but on the streets of the capital, Kyiv, Ukrainians made it clear Monday they’re preoccupied with a different great power crisis — a potential peace deal involving Russia.

“It seems to me, and an increasing number of people, the solution being proposed is capitulation,” said Bohdan Chomiak, a Canadian who moved to Ukraine 21 years ago and now works as an investor in the agri-food industry.

Chomiak marched through Kyiv on Saturday with up to 20,000 flag-waving Ukrainians from a mix of nationalist groups in what was dubbed as a “no to capitulation” protest.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has agreed to participate in a process that could bring the five-year-long conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine to an end.


Ukrainian nationalists march in Kyiv carrying a banner that says ‘no special status for Donbass.’ (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

But many Ukrainians believe that Zelensky is rushing too fast into a complicated arrangement that he is sure to lose control over.

“It will legitimize the Russian forces in Donbass,” said Chomiak, echoing a widely held view in Kyiv that Russia’s intention is not to allow Ukraine to regain workable control over the region’s two territories, Donetsk and Luhansk.

Russian terms

The process is the first step in adopting what’s become known as the “Steinmeier Formula,” a Russian-supported plan that calls for both sides to withdraw troops, hold local elections and then allow Ukraine to regain control of the international border with Russia,  which is currently under the control of the separatists.

The disagreement has been focused on the timing of each event and whether Russian will maintain military control over Donbass during any future elections in the separatist-held territories.


A woman plays accordion during Monday’s protest in Kyiv. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Ukrainian critics also fear the institutions and political structures that have been set up in the breakaway republics over the past five years will remain even after elections,  giving Russia tremendous influence in the region.

Volodymyr Yermolenko, a political scientist and editor-in-chief of Ukraine World.org, says the arrangement could effectively give the Russian-backed administration a veto on future Ukrainian decisions, such as joining NATO or the European Union.

“Of course Ukraine wants peace, but not on Russian terms, meaning that Russia will create a semi-state inside Ukraine that will influence Ukrainian politics,” said Yermolenko.

Popular president

“I think what is true is that no Ukrainian president can control society. And Zelensky was extremely popular with over 70 per cent (in the March election), but he even he cannot impose something on Ukrainian society that it doesn’t like,” said Yermolenko.


Andreii Sheyam served in special operations for Ukraine’s army fighting separatists in Donbass. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

‘Never betray’ Ukraine

In a marathon 14-hour news conference last week, Zelensky tried to assuage some of those fears by suggesting no elections would happen unless independent observers verify them and that he “would never betray” Ukraine. He also tried to downplay his role in the ongoing impeachment drama, by suggesting he wasn’t blackmailed by the U.S. president into agreeing to look for political dirt on his likely opponent in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

At Monday’s protest, which coincided with Defenders Day,  a holiday celebrating Ukraine’s military, speaker after speaker voiced concern about the terms of the peace deal that Zelensky appears to be signing on to.

“Don’t try to BS our citizens with unclear formulas,”  said Andreii Sheyam, a burly 23-year-old special forces veteran of the Donbass conflict.


Drummers attended Monday’s march in Kyiv. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

“Pulling our troops (away from the conflict line) is not an option for us. Why do we have to pull out from our own land?”

The first part of the peace process involves troops from both sides pulling back from the so-called conflict line, to create a sort of demilitarized zone.

Vulnerable towns

By Ukrainian estimates, 145 towns or villages would be left without protection and many people at Monday’s gatherings expressed their vulnerability.

Natalia Zhurbanko, 66, lives in Stanitsa Luganskaya, which is the first — and so far only — front-line community where both sides have withdrawn.   


Natalia Zhurbanko of Stanitsa Luganskaya was part of a ceremony of concern for more than 140 Ukrainian towns that could be part of a new demilitarized zone. Each brick placed in the wall represented a community. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

She told CBC News that she doesn’t trust Russia’s president to follow any agreement with Ukraine in good faith.

“I have never believed Putin … the words (of Russia’s president) mean nothing.”

‘Last hope’

Ukraine’s foreign minister told Reuters earlier in the day that the “last hope” for a four-way summit involving Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany to agree on the implementation of a peace plan was likely mid-November.

Zelensky has only acknowledged that the “communication” on signing the Steinmeier Formula was poorly handled by his government, but Yermolenko, the political analyst, says the distrust is far more widespread.

“They (the two breakaway republics) will be Russian puppets. So the risk is there — and intuitively many Ukrainians understand it.”

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CBC | World News

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

Eleven-year-old Hedayet Ullah 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 Hedayet Ullah 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’s nowhere to go’: One family’s struggle inside a Rohingya refugee camp3:14

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 Hedayet Ullah 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 Hedayat Ullah 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, Hedayet Ullah’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.”

Drone video shows thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar1:27

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.”

0127 bangladesh woman walking two kids

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 lay 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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CBC | World News

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.”

0127 bangladesh woman walking two kids

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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