As the United Nations General Assembly kicked off in New York this week, Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi—notably absent from the multilateral forum’s high-level session—finally spoke at length about the current crisis involving her country’s Rohingya ethnic minority. Suu Kyi’s national address on September 19, although condemning “all human rights violations and unlawful violence,” has done little to calm the critics who believe Myanmar’s leader is not doing nearly enough to acknowledge the dire humanitarian situation and help ensure that current challenges are overcome.
Three weeks into the current wave of violence that erupted in Rakhine State, reports continue to filter out, despite curbs on media access. These detail the Burmese army and Buddhist gangs directly targeting civilians, including perpetrating rapes and burning whole villages to the ground.
Over 412,000 Rohingya, a majority of whom are children, have been driven into neighboring Bangladesh, in what the UN has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The Rohingya have long suffered widespread persecution and discrimination in Myanmar, and the recent accusation of ethnic cleansing is only the latest in a series of similar claims by the UN and other organizations; Human Rights Watch used such language as far back as 2013. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has described the current situation as “catastrophic.”
Despite the pronounced outrage of the international community and the very clear needs of the Rohingya over a prolonged period of time, an effective humanitarian response in Myanmar and across its border faces major obstacles.
Those still remaining in the country are facing extreme levels of brutality, and tens of thousands are reportedly lacking adequate food, water, and shelter. Those who have made it to Bangladesh are facing life in overcrowded, often makeshift, refugee camps.
Reflecting an unfortunate trend in contemporary conflict, very little space is being given to humanitarian actors to access populations in need in Rakhine State. Under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), the relevant state must allow for relief action to be taken when civilian populations are without adequate supplies, if the assistance is humanitarian in nature, impartial, and non-discriminatory. This is subject to the right of the state to control delivery in terms of technical arrangements, carrying out inspection, and so on.
In several recent contexts, parties to the conflict have denied access or imposed constraints on the delivery of humanitarian aid as part of a military strategy to deprive the adversary of supplies, and/or apply pressure by cutting off the civilian population. Such as was the case with sieges in Syria and Iraq.
The growing politicization of aid, whether by states, or the wider international community–such as through the creation of integrated, largely UN-led operations that combine political, military, and humanitarian operations—casts doubts as to the real objectives of humanitarian actors and erodes public confidence in them.
These, among other factors, can and have had a very real impact on the ability to access populations in need. Earlier this year, recommendations toward solving this problem were put forward by the International Commission on Multilateralism in its policy paper on humanitarian engagements. These include the need for UN member states to enhance compliance with their obligations under IHL. They also call on member states, the UN system, and humanitarian actors to facilitate principled humanitarian action—that which relies on humanity, impartiality, and neutrality, as set out in UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182—to ensure a comprehensive and impartial response to the actual needs of affected communities.
In Myanmar, the current aid blockade on all UN agencies, and the ban on international staff that humanitarian organizations have been facing since mid-August, is being justified by the government as necessary for “security reasons.” Yet these were not elaborated upon, and would not, in any case, relieve the state of its obligation to ensure its population receives adequate and much-needed aid under IHL.
International aid organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières are calling for international humanitarian access to reach those in desperate need. Only the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement remain on the ground in the country. Although they are currently working to scale up their relief efforts, they may simply not have the capacity to respond to the enormous needs of the estimated one million who have not fled Myanmar and are stuck in Northern Rakhine.
Meanwhile, the Burmese government has said that it is taking over aid operations in Rakhine State, sparking fears that it is moving towards a troubling and permanent new method of providing aid in the country, exclusively under its control. The response may lead to even more access constraints and may ultimately even influence governments in other parts of the world, who could follow suit in responding to their own crises.
In Bangladesh, meanwhile, aid groups are similarly struggling to respond to the serious humanitarian situation. The issue at the border is not access, but the sheer quantity of those in need. The influx of arrivals is straining the capacities and resources of the overcrowded refugee camps. An estimated 172,000 people are reportedly not covered by any primary health services, thousands of pregnant and lactating women are in need of maternal healthcare, and medical facilities are ill-equipped to deal with the influx of violent injuries such as gunshot wounds, blunt force trauma, and stab wounds. The humanitarian response needs to be rapidly scaled up. As witnessed in the examples of other countries facing a sudden and massive influx of refugees—such as Jordan and Lebanon from the Syrian crisis—Bangladesh will need the international community to step up funding and support.
Suu Kyi has stated that those who fled to Bangladesh would be allowed to return, provided that they pass a “verification process,” proving that they had previously lived in Myanmar. However, it seems unlikely that a return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya will be organized any time soon. Although the flow of people crossing over to Bangladesh has decreased, thousands are still arriving by boat each day. Reports from those on the ground also indicate that the situation is likely to get much worse.
A UN fact-finding mission continues to gather information from refugees on human rights abuses committed by the Burmese military and security forces, having been blocked from accessing Myanmar itself. Civil society members are also calling for UN sanctions on the government in Naypyidaw. For now, it seems there will be little relief for the Rohingya, highlighting, once again, the great challenges facing the global humanitarian sector.
Alice Debarre is a Policy Analyst in the Humanitarian Affairs program of the International Peace Institute.