The second anniversary of the genocidal wave of violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar, which forced more than 700,000 people into neighboring Bangladesh, was marked last week. This sudden exodus took the total number of refugees being housed in Cox’s Bazar to more than 1.18 million, making it the largest refugee camp in the world.
Needless to say, Bangladesh is very keen on repatriating these refugees back to their homeland and has been working with Myanmar and the UN to start what was supposed to be the long-awaited return, with a list of 3,000 Rohingya “approved for return” announced last week. Unfortunately, it seems no one informed the Rohingya themselves, as they have been omitted from any discussions on their fate. Despite not a single Rohingya volunteering to be returned to Myanmar, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said the process was ongoing.
Unfortunately, this is par for the course for the UN and is tragically consistent with their previous policies and initiatives on the Rohingya. In 1993, the UN was agreeing the repatriation of about a quarter of a million Rohingya from Bangladesh to Myanmar following a mass exodus from Rakhine State between 1991 and 1992. As in the current crisis, where more than 1 million Rohingya have fled over the border to Bangladesh, having an oppressed people able to return to their homes seemed like the ideal outcome. The UN was, therefore, happy to pursue that superficially attractive outcome, regardless of the fact the refugees were returning to conditions that were just as bad as before, and worse — as proven by the subsequent crises faced by the Rohingya in Rakhine.
This is not simple ignorance on the part of the UN. There has been a consistent pattern of behavior among at least some UN officials dealing with Myanmar and Bangladesh to prioritize economic and political considerations over the humanitarian needs of the Rohingya and other refugee populations. The most infamous example of this, of course, is the tenure of Renata Lok-Dessallien as head of the UN Country Team in Myanmar between 2013 and 2015, during which time the UN mission effectively helped shield the government of Myanmar against any censure on humanitarian grounds while they were setting in place the conditions for the genocidal 2017 “clearing operations” against the Rohingya in Rakhine State.
“The perplexing behavior of the UN in the Rohingya case study is depressingly easy to unpack.” – Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
The perplexing behavior of the UN in the Rohingya case study, but also in humanitarian situations more widely, is depressingly easy to unpack. On the one hand, the UN humanitarian agencies, and the people who work in them, are consummate professionals and dedicated human rights advocates. They are often the first to ring the alarm bells when humanitarian concerns arise. The analyses they produce are robust and thorough.
The problems come from the fact that the policy response to emerging and ongoing humanitarian crises at the UN is then formulated by political actors; typically the political representatives of the member states of the UN, each acting not as agents of the international community or of international law, but rather as ambassadors of their own national interests. And, from their point of view, humanitarian crises are regrettable, but they still need to do business with the states that perpetrate them.
So the humanitarian agencies in the UN are watching the Rohingya crisis closely, and continue to recommend actually useful and productive policy approaches: That Myanmar should give equal citizenship rights and protections to Rohingya residents, that Bangladesh must allow the Rohingya to become a functional, sustainable community within its borders as long as Myanmar refuses to guarantee their safety and their property if they return, and so on.
But the political agents who actually get to formulate the UN’s policy on the matter reliably opt for the facile, superficial political compromise that allows them to look like they are doing something — even if that requires throwing some money down the drain of wrong-headed projects. That way, they can wash their hands of their humanitarian responsibilities, and can happily keep business rolling as usual.
This article originally appeared in Arab News on August 24, 2019.