The Humanitarian Significance of Michelle Bachelet’s Visit to Bangladesh

On a four-day visit, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet is conducting an official visit to Bangladesh from Sunday to Wednesday, upon the invitation of the government of Bangladesh. This is the first ever visit to Bangladesh by any UN High Commissioner for Human Rights since the establishment of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights back in 1993. The visit comes ahead of the fifth anniversary this month of the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar to Bangladesh. The recent/massive exodus of Rohingya was sparked by the “Clearance Operation”, a military crackdown by Myanmar, which the UN called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and other rights groups dubbed as “genocide”.

Although Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Bangladesh didn’t apply the Non-Refoulement principle and violated the Humanitarian Assistance principle. Since then, Bangladesh has been hosting over 1.2 million forcefully displaced Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar district despite emerging security problems. 

However, acknowledging Bangladesh’s great difficulty in dealing with the Rohingya crisis, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet assured the UN’s continued efforts to realise the safe and voluntary return of the Rohingyas to Myanmar. She made the assurance when Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen said that the protracted stay of the displaced Rohingyas in Bangladesh bears the risk of the spread of radicalism and transnational crimes and thus may hamper regional stability.

During her trip to Cox’s Bazar, the high commissioner visited camps housing Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and met with the forcibly displaced Rohingya people, officials and non-governmental organizations. High Commissioner Bachelet appreciated Bangladesh’s humanitarian gesture towards the Rohingyas and recalled that the government took good care of the displaced Rohingyas during the pandemic by providing vaccines.

Bangladesh hopes that the UN Human Rights body chief‘s visit to Rohingya camps is expected to refocus attention on the repatriation of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar, discussions of which have been stalled or delayed due to a lack of cooperation from the Myanmar government.

It is important to have a conducive environment for repatriation as the last two attempts have fallen through due to a trust deficit among the Rohingyas about their safety and security in Rakhine state. The UN’s top rights official can cooperate with other UN bodies, including UNDP and UNHCR, to undertake projects in Rakhine to create a conducive environment for the return of the Rohingyas. It is clear now that, without a sustainable and conducive repatriation environment, in which citizenship, safety, and the right to work in Myanmar are guaranteed, any attempt to do so will also fail.

Bangladesh expects that the visit of the rights chief will play an active role in the quick and safe repatriation of the Rohingyas staying in Bangladesh. A number of countries and organisations have influence on Myanmar, especially India, China, Japan, the European Union, and Singapore. The UN Security Council and the regional bloc of ASEAN have not done enough to convince the coup leaders to facilitate the repatriation process meaningfully. The UN human rights body may play a vital role here in bringing all the stakeholders to the table as soon as possible.

The human rights violations committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar amount to the worst atrocities, including crimes against humanity and possibly even genocide. The UN’s highest court ruled last month that a landmark case accusing military-ruled Myanmar of genocide against the Rohingya could go ahead. Analysts and rights activists believe that the verdict has created a new scope for the world to mount pressure on Myanmar’s military to ensure justice for the Rohingya. “It is time for an urgent, renewed effort to restore human rights and democracy in Myanmar and ensure that perpetrators of systemic human rights violations and abuses are held to account.”

The ICJ’s decision to proceed on the merits to examine the Gambia’s genocide allegations against Myanmar also gives an opportunity for a diplomatic push on repatriation. It is expected that the legal course will gather new strength. With the legal proceedings moving forward, it is high time to pile up political pressure on the Myanmar military junta, too. The United Nations human rights chief can take practical measures to convince the world leaders to ramp up the pressure on Myanmar’s military rulers to cease violence against the country’s own people and quickly repatriate them.

Crimes against humanity are still happening in Rakhine state. The human rights office continues to receive reports of ongoing violations of the rights of Rohingya remaining in northern Rakhine, which include allegations of killings, disappearances, and arbitrary arrests, as well as widespread restrictions on the rights to freedom of movement, health, and education. Hundreds of thousands of people in several parts of Rakhine also remain deprived of their rights to freedom of movement, to basic services and livelihoods, as well as their right to a nationality. Over the last 40 years, it is evident that the Rohingyas have been subjected to a slow genocide by Myanmar. So, the rights group needs to show its seriousness in addressing the root causes of violations and abuses of civil rights in Rakhine state, in particular the systematic discrimination against and persecution of Rohingya.

Ms. Bachelet last year said that Myanmar’s military forces are committing human rights violations with the impunity that they perpetrated four years ago during the violent persecution of Rohingya and against other ethnic minorities in previous decades. Rights activists believe that the top executive of the UN Human Rights body can focus on the humanitarian issue in all international sessions to take concrete measures to hold Myanmar accountable.

For the last five years, Bangladesh has been bearing the substantial socio-economic burden of supporting the persecuted Rohingyas, which has now become next to impossible as there has been a significant slashing of external donations for supporting the Rohingyas. Humanitarian agencies need more than US$881 million this year to support approximately 1.4 million people, including 920,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar and Bhasan Char, and around 540,000 Bangladeshis in neighbouring communities. As of May 2022, the Joint Response Plan is only 13 per cent funded. The world must remember the refugees’ lives depend on how the international community responds to caring for them, as Bangladesh, with a population of 160 million, alone cannot afford to support this huge Rohingya population because of its limited financial resources and capabilities. So, along with the repatriation talks, the visiting UN High Commissioner should underscore and urge international donars to continue providing emergency humanitarian funds needed for the Rohingyas.

To ease pressure on the overcrowded border camps, the Bangladesh government has developed Bhashan Char with all modern amenities to provide temporary shelter for more than one lakh Rohingyas at a cost of around Tk 3,95,000 crore Bangladeshi Taka. Without the relocation of the refugees to a new location, it will not be possible to provide safety and security in the overcrowded camps. So, all international organizations must underscore the importance of starting the work in Bhasan Char following the signing of a MoU between the Government of Bangladesh and UNHCR in October, 2021.

Bangladesh hoped that the High Commissioner would realize the Rohingya’s needs and security challenges and would use her good office to effectively engage with Myanmar and repatriate the forcibly displaced Rohingyas to Myanmar. She can take “extra initiative” and “pro-active” actions to expedite Rohingya repatriation. This would be a real achievement if the displaced Rohingya people were able to return to their homes in Myanmar in a just, safe, and sustainable manner.

[Credit: UN Photo]

*Kamal Uddin Mazumder is a Political economy Analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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