UN human rights protection: What will the General Assembly do for the refugee flow of Rohingyas from Myanmar?

By Rene Wadlow

The United Nations General Assembly now in session may try to deal with the issue of the refugee flow from Rakhine stare in Myanmar (Burma) bordering Bangladesh.  An independent commission chaired by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has urged “concerted action” by governments and all sectors of the society or as he said “We risk the return of another cycle of violence and radicalization which will further deepen the chronic poverty of Rakhine state.”

The current U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guteres who has much experience with refugee issues from his 10-years of service as U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said that the current Myanmar government’s policy toward the Rohingya was a classic case of “ethnic cleansing”.

I had become concerned with the situation of the Rohingya in 1991 when there had been a  flow of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh. In December 1991, as a result of the refugee flow, there were clashes between Burmese and Bangladeshi forces on the frontier followed by an incursion of Burmese troops into Bangladesh.  Some 75,000 Burmese troops dug into the border zone, and the Burmese started refurbishing World War II airfields.

I had already been working in Geneva with representatives of other Burmese minorities – those on the frontier with Thailand and China – Shan, Chin, Kachen etc – on a possible federal government structure for Burma which would be acceptable to all ethnic groups.  The balance between central authority and the autonomy of the regions is a crucial aspect of federalist theory.

Currently Bangladesh has been less than welcoming to the Rohingya refugees, but India and Pakistan have not been much better.  There are always sad ironies of history.  Hungary today refuses refugees from Syria and Iraq while many countries had made a special effort to house Hungarian refugees in 1956-1957. So too I recall my efforts in the U.N. human rights bodies in 1971 to deal with the massive flow of refugees from what was still East Pakistan.

The effectiveness of United Nations action to promote human rights and prevent massive violations grows by small steps.  However, the steps, once taken, serve as precedents and can be cited in future cases.  Once the steps taken, it is difficult to refuse such action later.   I had followed as closely as possible from Geneva, the events in East Pakistan, having at one stage helped a representative of the Bangladesh opposition to speak to relevant diplomats in Geneva. Later, he became the Ambassador of Bangladesh to the UN in Geneva, and for a year was president of the Commission on Human Rights.

In December, 1970, the Awami League led by Sheik Mujib Rahman won a majority of seats in the national assembly. The government of Pakistan refused to convene the national assembly, since it would result in shifting political power from West to East Pakistan.  For three months, the government and the Awami League tried to negotiate a political settlement. On 25 March 1971, the government discontinued negotiations and unleashed the Pakistan army against the civilian population of East Pakistan.  Hindus, members and sympathizers of the Awami League, students and faculty of the universities and women were especially singled out.

These atrocities continued until the Indian army which had been drawn into the conflict, in part by the large number of refugees that had fled to India, took control of Dacca on 1 December 1971.

The UN Security Council was unwilling or unable to deal with the human rights situations in East Pakistan. The US government strongly supported the Pakistan army while the Soviet Union supported India.  For NGO representatives our hopes rested on the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities which was to meet in Geneva from 2 to 20 August 1971.  At the time, the Commission on Human Rights and the bulk of the human rights secretariat was still in New York. However, the Sub-Commission  would meet in Geneva once a year, usually in July or August.  The Sub-Commission members were not diplomatic representatives of governments as was the Commission on Human Rights.  Rather they were “independent experts”.  The saying among NGOs was that some were more independent than others, and some were more expert than others. Most were professors of law in their countries − thus the August dates when universities were on vacation.  It was easier to have informal relations with Sub-Commission members than with diplomats, and NGO representatives could get advice on the best avenues of action.

NGOs had two formal avenues of action. We could present written statements that were distributed as official documents, and we could make oral statements, usually 10 minutes in which to develop ideas and to call attention to additional elements in the written statement.  Written statements could be that of a single NGO or, often to give more weight, there could be a “joint statement”. On the East Pakistan situation, with the violence being covered by the world media, it  was decided to have a joint statement.  The statement called upon the Sub-Commission “to examine all available information regarding allegations of the violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms in East Pakistan and to recommend measures which might be taken to protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of East Pakistan”.  Twenty-two NGOs with representatives in Geneva signed the joint statement, and John Salzberg, a representative of the International Commission of Jurists, made an oral statement presenting the written joint statement.

Government representatives were always present in the room and had the right to make statements (and also to try to influence the independent experts behind the scene). Najmul Saguib Khan, the independent expert from Pakistan contended that the Sub-Commission could not consider East Pakistan since the UN role in human rights “did not extend to questions arising out of situations affecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Member States and that attention to such situations would encourage those seeking the dismemberment of Member States.”  The Indian diplomat, N.P. Jain, replied highlighting the influx of eight million refugees into India.

The Sub-Commission members took the “diplomatic way out” and said nothing.  In drafting the report of the session, one member, Adamu Mohammed from Nigeria proposed deleting any reference to the discussion on East Pakistan.  He held that the Sub-Commission had listened to, but had not considered the  statements made by the representative of the International Commission of Jurists.  The Sub-Commission members from Pakistan and the  government observer of India agreed with the Nigerian expert.

We NGO representatives were saddened by the lack of action but not totally surprised.  No other UN human rights body took action, and the massacres stopped only after the ‘lightning war’ of India defeated the Pakistan army and occupied the country until a Bagladeshi government could be set up.

Slowly, after “ethnic cleansing” has become a widely understood term, silence is no longer an acceptable procedure. It is still too early to know what actions will be taken. The fate of the Rohingya is used by some as a political weapon.  We must hope that a sense of our common humanity will help to find common ground. A situation which merits watching closely.

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Rene Wadlow

Rene Wadlow is the President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation on and problem-solving in economic and social issues.

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