When Tomás Ojea Quintana made his last visit to Myanmar as UN human rights envoy in 2014, the head of the UN country mission picked him up at the airport. In the car, Quintana mentioned travelling to Rakhine State, where tensions still simmered after hundreds of people were killed in violence between Buddhists and Muslims two years earlier.
To his surprise, UN resident coordinator Renata Lok-Dessallien advised against it.
“She suggested to me not to visit Rakhine State, offering no reasons why I shouldn’t go there,” Quintana told IRIN in a recent interview. “And then she tried not to be associated with any human rights approach to the situation.”
Lok-Dessallien’s advice at the time sums up a schism that has plagued the UN in Myanmar throughout her tenure, and has contributed to a divided and “glaringly dysfunctional” mission, according to internal UN documents provided to IRIN.
While Lok-Dessallien leads the camp that advocates working with the government and focusing on development as a solution to Myanmar’s problems, others argue that the government has done little to address many human rights issues – most significantly those affecting minority ethnic Rohingya Muslims – and they say the UN needs to stand up to the government.
The UN recently said that Lok-Dessallien will be rotated out of Myanmar, even though she is only three and a half years into a term that usually runs for five years or more. But the UN denied reports she was being fired due to her performance, announcing instead the “elevation” of her position to that of an assistant secretary-general.
Interviews with former and current UN staff, as well as reviews of two internal documents, indicate that the new UN secretary general Antonio Guterres has decided to change the leadership structure to allow the Myanmar mission to put forward a more united front – a position that would take into account both development and human rights concerns.
A spokesperson for the office of resident coordinator Lok-Dessallien said she had “provided full support” to Quintana’s visit and added: “We have prioritised human rights as well as the other pillars of the United Nations, namely peace and security, development and humanitarian assistance.”
Former and current UN staff members disputed that, and internal reports documented dissension within the UN mission over its failure to stand up for human rights.
“It’s no secret that Renata was prioritising the development side, to the frustration of individuals within agencies whose mandate is humanitarian protection,” said one former UN staffer who requested anonymity.
Development vs human rights
In recent years, friction and antipathy within the UN team have been something of an open secret in Myanmar. Humanitarians, who see rights abuses at the root of crises that involve displacement, hunger, violence, and statelessness want to raise the alarm, according to several insider sources. They voice resentment about development people who keep quiet for the sake of relationships with the government, which they have to work with to improve people’s lives. Each thinks the other is morally bankrupt, naive, or both.
At the heart of much of the infighting has been the plight of the Rohingya in Rakhine, a state on the western border with Bangladesh. They are denied citizenship, live under virtual apartheid, and have been interned in displacement camps in their tens of thousands since 2012. Rohingya accounted for the vast majority of those who were killed or were chased from their homes during violence that year involving majority ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
During the more than three years that Lok-Dessallien has been at the helm of the Myanmar team, she has favoured a passive approach. Others – especially as the situation for the Rohingya drastically worsened – have urged action and accountability.
Tensions between UN agencies that focus on development, and those that focus on human rights and humanitarian crises – such as the human rights agency, OHCHR, and the emergency aid coordination body, OCHA – have grown so bitter that the UN mission was condemned to “irrelevance” in a memo sent to Guterres.
Under the former secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, these divisions went unresolved, insiders say. Lok-Dessallien, until early this year, had a strong ally in her boss Helen Clark, the former head of the United Nations Development Programme.
Senior officials have now opted for a radical restructuring of the Myanmar country team that would remove Lok-Dessallien and replace her with someone with more political clout. Whoever fills the new position of assistant secretary-general will report directly to Guterres.
The leaked documents and interviews with current and former UN staffers describe a country team that became so internally fractured, specifically but not exclusively over the crisis in Rakhine State, that a major shake-up was deemed necessary.
“The United Nations in-country presence in Myanmar continues to be glaringly dysfunctional,” stated an April 2017 memo sent to Guterres. “Strong tensions exist within the UN country team, the humanitarian parts of the UN system find itself having to confront the hostility of the development arm, while the human rights pillar is seen as complicating both.
“The impact of this dysfunctionality is a growing irrelevance of the UN in guiding and defining the international community’s efforts to address the challenges confronting Myanmar,” it continued, adding that donors were turning elsewhere.
The memo put the dysfunctionality down, in part, to structural problems. The role of resident-coordinator is inherently flawed, it argued: he or she does not report directly to the UN secretary-general’s office but to the UNDP, and is therefore more focused on development than politics.
“Unfortunately, the position of coordinator of the UN’s development efforts lacks the mandate, the capacity, the expertise and thus the credibility to be taken seriously as a political player,” it said.
Lok-Dessallien’s defenders stress that any resident-coordinator has a complex job, tasked with overseeing the work of numerous agencies, each with different mandates. But she was also widely described as unapologetic in the exclusion of politics from her work.
A confidential 2015 report commissioned for OHCHR described a culture of secrecy where agencies refused to share crucial information with each other, let alone make it available to the public. The report accused Myanmar’s UN team of excessive subservience to the government, and recommended the team take a stronger public stance on rights.
“Myanmar as a state has plenty of capacity to resolve the situation in Rakhine, but it is not choosing to do so,” said the internal report. “Addressing this problem of political will requires a combination of private and public advocacy.”
Human Rights Up Front
Within the UN’s recent history lies a cautionary tale about dealing with these kinds of tensions.
During the bloody final months of Sri Lanka’s long civil war, as the army closed in on the rebel Tamil Tigers, there were 300,000 civilians trapped between the front lines. Tens of thousands of them were killed. But the UN declined to publish mounting casualty numbers and staff members who brought up threats to civilians were punished.
An internal probe commissioned afterwards by Ban, then UN secretary-general, found a “continued reluctance” among UN staff “to stand up for the rights of people they were mandated to assist”.
The report for OHCHR on Myanmar drew parallels to Sri Lanka. It noted that the approximately 100,000 Rohingya now living in camps are referred to as internally displaced people, or IDPs. But rather than IDP camps, the squalid clusters of monsoon-battered shelters “would more accurately be described as detention camps or internment camps, because the privations and restrictions of movement imposed on the Rohingya are so extreme.”
“The situation bears a striking resemblance to the humanitarian community’s systematic failure in the final stages of the war in Sri Lanka, during which hundreds of thousands of Tamils were held against their will in internment camps that were fully paid for and serviced by international humanitarian institutions,” said the report.
After the tragedy in Sri Lanka, Ban created an initiative intended to prevent such a situation from arising again, called Human Rights Up Front.
The author of that initiative, former UN assistant secretary-general Charles Petrie, who led the Sri Lanka internal probe, told IRIN the way the policy has been implemented in Myanmar has been “very confused” and demonstrates “a poor understanding of what Rights Up Front is all about”.
“Right now what you have is one group of human rights [advocates] and humanitarians who believe the UN should play a much more forceful role, and you have the development advocates who consider it a pain,” he said. “In actual fact you need to find something that’s a bit more common ground.”
The spokesperson for Lok-Dessallien’s office said the Human Rights Up Front policy has been rolled out across all UN agencies in Myanmar and “its implementation by the resident coordinator and the UN country team has been praised by the UN headquarters in New York.”
Whatever its approach, the UN has little to show for its efforts in Rakhine.
In the more than 20 years the organisation has been in the northern part of the state, conditions have never been worse. Thousands of Rohingya have been brought to the brink of starvation. The World Food Programme said this month that it expects about 80,500 children to need treatment for acute malnutrition this year in Rohingya-majority areas where the government and military have blocked access to aid groups.
Security forces began carrying out counter-insurgency operations in those areas last October, following deadly attacks on border police posts by a new group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Rights organisations have compiled evidence of military abuses of Rohingya civilians – including mass rapes, killings, and torture – which OHCHR said in a February report were “the very likely commission of crimes against humanity”.
The dramatic escalation of violence in Rakhine State likely caught Lok-Dessallien offguard, said Quintana, the former human rights envoy to Myanmar. While she continued to favour a development-led approach, her colleagues at OHCHR were issuing strongly-worded statements and reports critical of the government and the military.
“It seems that, in the country, what is required is at least a common strategy,” he said.
Recent statements from UN headquarters in New York indicate that change is afoot.
In a 5 July speech, Guterres laid out plans for reform of the resident coordinator position throughout the UN. He said the “consultations and analysis” done by his office indicated the role should report directly to the secretary-general and not to UNDP.
Myanmar may serve as the test case.
(TOP PHOTO: A camp in Pawktaw, Myanmar, for Rohingya displaced by violence in 2012. CREDIT: Sara Perria/IRIN)
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises.