Gender Parity in Peace Operations: Opportunities for U.S. Engagement

image WIISLuisa Ryan and Shannon Zimmerman are PhD researchers at the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, University of Queensland and 2017 WIIS Next Generation Fellows

On November 14–15, 2017, the government of Canada hosted the UN Peacekeeping Defense Ministerial Conference. 1 Over 500 delegates from 70 countries, the African Union, the United Nations, the European Union, and NATO met in Vancouver to discuss improvements to UN peacekeeping operations and secure new pledges from UN member states.

At the conference, Canada announced the launch of the Elsie Initiative on Women in Peace Operations.2 Named after the trailblazing feminist Elsie MacGill, this initiative will join Canada and the UN in partnership with other interested member states to address the obstacles to placing more uniformed women in peace operations. 3 While member states have committed to a target contribution of 15 percent female personnel, currently uniformed female peacekeepers make  up only around 3 percent of troops deployed. Often, this dearth of women peacekeepers reflects the lack of women in the national militaries of troop contributing countries. The Elise Initiative represents a practical, innovative measure by an active member of the peacekeeping community to address this fundamental deficit and advance gender inclusion.

The Elsie Initiative members will develop a systematic approach to deploying more women in peace operations. Through tailored technical support, the initiative aims to help troop contributing countries recruit and retain female soldiers. It is one of the first initiatives to directly address the lack of female personnel at the deploying country level. Canada contributed an initial $15 million to establish the initiative and pledged an additional $6 million to assist UN missions in supporting and leveraging women’s contributions within peace operations.4

As one of the co-hosts of the 2017 UN Peacekeeping ministerial, the United States is in a strong position to partner in the work of the Elsie Initiative. By so doing, it can entrench the concept of gender parity in its current UN peacekeeping training programs and deployments and better lead knowledge-sharing efforts with partner militaries. The Elsie Initiative also gives the United States an opportunity to reinforce partnerships that enhance global security while bolstering its leadership in gender parity and UN reform. There is bipartisan recognition of the fiscal and strategic value of UN peace operations in achieving US national security and foreign policy objectives.5

The Presidential Memo of September 28, 2015, noted that UN peace operations are one of the most meaningful mechanisms for international burden-sharing to address the threat of violent extremist groups, human trafficking, endemic diseases, and mass flows of refugees and displaced persons.6 The 2018 National Defense Strategy builds upon this memo, highlighting the value of international partnerships as the backbone of collective security, particularly the value of strengthening alliances and attracting new partners to share the burden of global security.7 Efforts such as the Elsie initiative to improve the effectiveness of peace operations will directly benefit US national interests by strengthening alliances and enabling recipient countries to take an increasing role in providing for collective and regional security.


UN peacekeeping operations play a vital role in maintaining international peace and security. Currently, over 100,000 UN personnel from 125 countries are deployed in 15 missions.8 This makes peace operations the largest deployed military force in the world. While the annual budget for peacekeeping is approximately US$6.8 billion, this amounts to less than 0.5 percent of global military spending. Thus peacekeeping operations are by far the most cost-effective method for intervening in conflict and postconflict countries.

The 2017 Defense Ministerial Conference focused on what it called the “3Ps”: pledges, planning, and performance. It was an effort to chart progress from the 2016 defense ministerial held in London, facilitate pledges from member states to fill key capacity gaps such as rapid deployment units and helicopters, and to increase the UN’s capacity to plan and undertake peace operations.9 Canada in particular focused on increasing women’s participation in security forces and peacekeeping operations.

To be most effective, peace operations—and armed forces in general—should strive for gender representation that reflects the composition of their country’s populations. Female peacekeepers provide different perspectives on protection, peacebuilding, intelligence gathering, and early warning. Having female peacekeepers allows the mission to connect with women in conflict-affected communities, who often bear the brunt of violence, including conflict-related sexual violence, and may also curb sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers.

The role of women in peacekeeping and peacebuilding was highlighted in UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on Women, Peace, and Security. Since then, seven other UN resolutions have addressed engaging women in conflict resolution.10 Despite this apparent support, the UN has struggled to implement these resolutions internally within the UN structure as well as externally in deployed operations. Key challenges include lack of funding, political will, and available uniformed female personnel.11 The 3 percent of UN peacekeepers that are women are largely employed in supporting roles.12 At the current rate of increase, it would take 37 years to reach the five-year target that the UN Security Council set in 2015: to double the number of uniformed women deployed in UN peacekeeping operations.13

Very few women serve in the police and militaries of the countries that contribute to peace operations. Several of the core troop and police contributing countries, such as Ethiopia, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, have an evolving but limited culture of women in the security services.14 When asked to deploy women troops or police, these countries fall far short of the target percentages, despite their best efforts. Recent Department of Peacekeeping Operations figures show that only eighteen of all the troop contributing countries reached the target of 15 percent deployment of women that was set at the 2016 defense ministerial. Fifty countries sent only female police officers, and forty sent no women at all. Western countries may have slightly higher percentages of women. For example, in October 2017 women made up roughly 16 percent of the US army. However, Western countries contribute far fewer soldiers to peace operations, some none at all.

Even when women police and soldiers are present, UN missions have struggled to leverage their participation effectively. Female peacekeepers may be given gender-specific jobs such as teaching women self-defense or conducting classes on sexual violence and HIV/AIDS. Additionally, women officers are often confined to more administrative roles or not given the same consideration as their male colleagues—despite having the same qualifications. This restriction limits both the strategic impact women can have in peacekeeping operations and the credibility of gender equality efforts within missions. Yet female peacekeepers have proven themselves to be just as effective as male peacekeepers, perhaps more so. For example, the Indian All-Female Formed Police Unit that was deployed to Liberia, from 2007 to 2016, was so effective and professional that then Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf specifically requested they provide her security detail.15 As the Indian contingent’s commander in Liberia, Colonel Madubala Bala also noted, “When the local women see the female peacekeepers, they get inspired by them—[They see] ladies can perform the same role as male counterparts.” In fact, when the all-female unit arrived, 6 percent of Liberia’s security sector was made up of women; that number has since jumped to 17 percent, surpassing many more developed nations.16

The Elsie Initiative has been criticized for perpetuating a pattern of developed countries leading policy and financing while troops from the global south serve in increasingly dangerous contexts. Monique Cuillerier, a Canadian representative with the Women, Peace, and Security Network, observed, “It’s hard to see how Canada can actually fulfill many of their recently announced ‘Women, Peace, and Security’ priorities if Canadian peacekeepers are sitting on the sidelines.”17

It is important to highlight the differing commitments and policy influence of the global north and south in UN peacekeeping. However, these critiques should not detract from the important goals of the Elsie Initiative. The initiative’s focus on inclusivity, sharing of peacekeeping best practice, and financial and training assistance between nations may help distribute the burdens of peacekeeping but these efforts should not serve as a substitute for contributing troops to peace operations.

Having done more than any other state to partner with and build the capacity of troop contributing countries, the United States should ally with Canada in its efforts to achieve gender parity in peace operations. Past US efforts included the Africa Contingency Operations Training & Assistance (ACOTA) program and the Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI), which focus on building recipient countries’ capacity to become active contributors to regional security and their own. Like these, the Elsie Initiative will enable countries to draw upon resources to make them more effective security providers.

Policy Recommendations for the United States18

The United States is in an ideal position to leverage its existing expertise to support efforts to integrate women into the military and into peace operations. Below are several ways it could support and augment its current initiatives:

Promote the Value of Female Peacekeepers. Female peacekeepers make a peace operation more effective. Peacekeepers likely understand the value of protecting women and listening to their concerns but may not yet understand the value of deploying female peacekeepers. Training could emphasize the utility of female peacekeepers conducting body searches on women, engaging with the female population, and investigating instances of sexual assault and supporting survivors. These benefits should be highlighted as an addition to the general benefit of having a well-trained, capable soldier regardless of gender. Such training should be interactive, providing space for male soldiers to ask questions and address concerns, and could decrease the likelihood that female soldiers are relegated to menial or administrative tasks. Men and women, boys and girls will experience conflict differently, necessitating a gender lens. Peacekeepers’ ability to identify and address these conflict factors enhance their effectiveness and the quality of the peace they are able to support.

Continue to Support Current US Training Efforts. US-supported peacekeeper training should be gender sensitive and include not just training on sexual exploitation and abuse but also the role gender plays in conflict. Additionally, peacekeeper training should continue to include skills such as conflict analysis (including gender analysis), mediation, and negotiation. Training could be jointly conducted with civilian staff to encourage understanding of perspectives across components. Such skills allow peacekeepers to avoid highly masculine military-based approaches and craft inclusive and therefore more sustainable approaches to resolving tensions on the ground.19

Add Value Directly to Troop Contributing Countries. The United States deploys specialized trainers and equipment, ensuring that forces receiving US support and training can become effective, professional, and contribute to the efficacy of peace operations. This expertise could be leveraged to support increased deployment of female soldiers from partner countries. Best practices may include design and logistical advice on dedicated facilities for ablutions and hygiene in austere conditions. It may also include policy advice on advancement and leave to ensure that women with families are able to deploy and will benefit from the experience as much as men do.

Lead by Example. The United States should commit to deploying an increased number of female US military and police personnel to UN peace operations. This can be accomplished most simply by ensuring that the current limited number of staff officers deployed to force headquarters have adequate female representation. Such deployments provide US women unique skills development opportunity while setting an example for other countries.

Share Lessons and Expertise. The United States has a diverse array of programs already in operation domestically as well as in partnership with other nations that could inform the effective, efficient inclusion of women in peace operations. Collecting these best practices and lessons learned and sharing them with troop contributing countries would be an easy, effective way of increasing their capacity to integrate women. Particularly valuable would be information to help military leadership begin integration without enforcing stereotypes. For example, the US military can provide best practices for the recruitment and retention of females, help with reform of  personnel sections to accommodate common life milestones such as marriage and childbirth, and revising gendered standards for physical capabilities to ensure that what is being measured is what really counts in peace operations.

Troop contributing countries may have limited experience in deploying women to austere living conditions in potentially very remote communities. Female troops may require separate considerations. More conservative nations may have further cultural needs that may affect the appropriate deployment of female officers. Mobile and temporary operating bases—which are becoming more common, especially in the more robust missions—may also need to be altered to accommodate women. The US has mission design and planning expertise in deploying female troops that it can share for the benefit of all countries.

Play the Long Game. Integrating women into the militaries of troop contributing countries and then into peacekeeping forces is vitally important for ensuring the best possible mission results. These efforts will take time. Rather than rushing to promote women to positions of authority or into new roles without proper training, there should be a gradual increase over a five- to ten-year period, addressing all levels from recruit to field grade officers and senior noncommissioned officers. These soldiers need career management and mentorship to ensure that male colleagues do not elbow them out.

The United States has a strong interest in collective security and regional capacity. US support to peacekeeper training has improved the effectiveness of peacekeepers from dozens of countries in conflicts around the world. Deepening this support to ensure that troop contributing countries are able to recruit and retain female soldiers—thereby making peacekeeping forces more inclusive and effective—is a logical next step in improving allies’ abilities to contribute to global security.


  1. Initiated at the 2015 Leadership Summit on Peacekeeping hosted in Washington, D.C., the first UN Peacekeeping Defense Ministerial took place in London in 2016. The 2017 conference in Vancouver is the second such conference.
  2. Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau, “The Elsie Initiative on Women in Peace Operations,” November 15, 2017.
  3. Gender has long been a focus of Canadian foreign policy and an opportunity for Canada to leverage its expertise and act as a policy entrepreneur. By undertaking the Elsie Initiative, Canada is enacting several recommendations on gender-responsive peacekeeping from the 2015 Global Study on Women, Peace and Security, the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, and Security Council Resolution 2242.
  4. Government of Canada, “UN Peacekeeping Defense Ministerial,” website, 2017.
  5. Christopher Holshek, “America Needs Peacekeeping Missions More Than Ever,” Foreign Policy (November 10, 2015).
  6. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “United States Support to United Nations Peace Operations,” Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies, September 28, 2015.
  7. U.S. Department of Defense, “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge,” 2018.
  8. UN Peacekeeping, “Data,” web page, 2017.
  9. UN News Centre, “Largest Gathering of Defence Ministers Dedicated to UN Peacekeeping to Kick Off in Vancouver,” November 13, 2017.
  10. The following UN Security Council Resolutions are considered part of the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda: 1325 (2000); 1820 (2009); 1888 (2009); 1889 (2010); 1960 (2011); 2106 (2013); 2122 (2013), and 2242 (2015).
  11. For more on this, see Kathleen Kuehnast and Shannon Zimmerman, “No Will; No Way: Women, Peace, and Security in Peacekeeping Operations,” Peace & Stability Operations Journal Online 3, no. 1 (2012).
  12. UN Women, “Keeping the Peace in an Increasingly Militarized World,” In: A Global Study on the Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (New York: United Nations, 2015).
  13. Joint Statement by Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka and Pramila Patten on the launch of the Elsie Initiative, November 16, 2017, accessed February 2, 2018,
  14. Bangladesh only allowed women to join the military after 2003 and only began recruiting women in 2013. India has had some success with women in peacekeeping, deploying the UN’s first all-female peacekeeping force of 105 Indian policewomen, who deployed to Liberia. Currently, the number one contributor to UN peace operations, Ethiopia, is an exception in this regard, with roughly 16 of the soldiers it has deployed being women.
  15. Lesley J. Pruitt, The Women in Blue Helmets: Gender, Policing and the UN’s First All-Female Peacekeeping Unit (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016).
  16. UN News Centre, “Hailed as ‘Role Models,’ All-Female Indian Police Unit Departs UN Mission in Liberia,” February 12, 2016.
  17. Tonda Maccharles and Bruce Campion-Smith, “Canada to Spread its Peacekeeping Efforts Around,” Toronto Star (November 15, 2017).
  18. In some cases, these recommendations reiterate and build upon those provided by a 2011 AFRICOM study, “Study on Women in African Militaries.”
  19. Alison Milofsky, Joseph Sany, Illana Lancaster, and Jeff Krentel, “Conflict Management Training for Peacekeepers: Assessment and Recommendations,” Special Report 411 (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, August 2017).

Originally published in Women in International Security Policy Brief March 2018



Bringing the Internally Displaced into the Global Refugee Compact

Global compact migrationThis week, the Trump Administration signaled that the United States would withdraw from the negotiations around the United Nations’ Global Compact on Migration. This compact, one of two, is an outcome of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants which was passed by the UN’s General Assembly in September 2016. The decision was timed to coincide with a major international global conference on migration which has occurred this week in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

 Perhaps marking how little this compact process is understood, this decision was not widely covered, and a number of media outlets that did report it incorrectly stated that the United States was both withdrawing from the Global Compact on Migration and a second, parallel Compact on Refugees.

 This confusion stems in part from the US announcement, which argued that “New York Declaration contains numerous provisions that are inconsistent with U.S. immigration and refugee policies and the Trump Administration’s immigration principles” and with US United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley’s statement that the “global approach in the New York Declaration is simply not compatible with U.S. sovereignty.” A State Department spokesperson has since clarified that the US has only decided to end participation in the Compact on Migration, and that “the Global Compact on Refugees is a separate process with separate intended outcomes.”

 The compacts, it is important to note, will in no way affect individual state’s policies without their consent. As the UN Spokesperson noted following the withdraw, this decision “should not disrupt the clear, unanimous outcome of the New York Declaration for such a global compact – which will be non-legally binding, grounded in international cooperation and respectful of national interests.” Instead, the two compacts represent an opportunity for the international community to strength governance around the issues of migration and refugees.

 While the Puerto Vallarta meeting is seen as a critical step in advancing the migration compact, the refugee compact negotiations have been advancing swiftly, supported by the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). UNHCR is basing those negotiations around a new Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) with four clear aims:

 Ease pressure on countries that welcome and host refugees

  1. Build self-reliance of refugees
  2. Expand access to resettlement in third countries and other complementary pathways
  3. Foster conditions that enable refugees voluntarily to return to their home countries.

 Within that fourth aim, UNHCR has identified the need for specific attention to rebuilding, within countries of origin, conditions conducive to voluntary and sustainable return, including by providing technical, financial and other support to countries of origin to help improve functioning of state institutions and the rule of law and to build institutional readiness, and to include returnees and reintegration in national development plans and in the UN Country Team frameworks.

 However, this fourth aim has also been critiqued because, while it is focused on refugees, it ignores another, even larger, group of forced migrants: the internally displaced. The New York Declaration had recognized the “very large number of people who are displaced within national borders and the possibility that such persons might seek protection and assistance in other countries as refugees or migrants” and noted “the need for reflection on effective strategies to ensure adequate protection and assistance for internally displaced persons and to prevent and reduce such displacement.” But the Declaration took no further steps to incorporate them. Ambassador David Donoghue, the Former Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations and the chair of the negotiation process for the Declaration, noted in a keynote address at the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law that this was because the United States did not take the opportunity to raise the issue during early negotiations and, as such, they were blocked by other states including Russia and China, from bringing IDP issues into the Resolution.

 And yet, the IDP-refugee relationship is a dynamic one in three senses. The first is that there is a strong correlation between IDP and refugee movements- the countries that produce the most refugees also tend to produce the most IDPs such as Syria, South Sudan, and Afghanistan.

 The second is that the IDP-refugee relationship is dynamic at the individual level, with the decisions forced migrants make, while bound up in macro-level factors, directly influencing their decisions to flee within their own country, to seek asylum in another country, but also the decision whether to return.

Finally, and as the New York Declaration acknowledged, IDPs can become refugees. But returning refugees, too, can easily become IDPs following their return. Globally, however, due to a lack of data we have no clear picture of how often either IDPs becoming refugees, or returning refugees becoming IDPs, occurs. As the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) noted in their annual report this year, “there is currently not enough research or data to understand the exact relationship between internal displacement, cross-border movement and return.” It is clear that the risk of returning refugees becoming IDPs significantly increases following unprepared, involuntary, or premature returns.

 To give one example, of Afghanistan, alongside approximately 372,000 refugees whose returns were supported by UNHCR with a $400 cash grant, a study by Belquis Ahmadi and Sadaf Lakhani for the US Institute of Peace found that there were an additional 682,000 who engaged in spontaneous returns from Pakistan and Iran, driven primarily by increasingly strict restrictions being placed on refugees by Pakistani authorities. As they note, “returnees are entering a country wracked by violence, economic instability, and lack of basic services in most part of the country,” all dynamics likely to trigger internal displacement.

 These problems have been acknowledged. Thanks to the work of IDMC, two weeks ago at the UNHCR-hosted thematic discussion on solutions as part of the wider refugee compact, a recommendation was endorsed that countries of origin for returning refugees needed to integrated the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement into their national law and policy, and that members states, UN agencies, and their partners needed to expand the collection of data on the entire displacement continuum. At this stage, this simply represents an endorsement of these ideas and a recommendation for these two issues to be retained within the Global Compact’s program of action.

 This is a positive step forward. The Guiding Principles, while soft law, provide a clear framework for the return, resettlement, and reintegration of IDPs, and note explicitly that competent authorities have the primary duty to establish conditions which allow IDPs to return home voluntarily or to resettle or reintegrate elsewhere in the country. We have seen significant moves forward on these issues at the regional level, including the African Union’s 2009 Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (the Kampala Convention), which entered into force in 2012, adopts wholesale the IDP definition in the Principles and the rights established within them. At the domestic level, 40 countries with present or past IDP situations have adopted domestic legislation or policies specifically on IDPs issues.

 But simply introducing such policies is not enough. I have recently completed a review of the 69 legislative instruments and policies which have been passed by these 40 states up to the middle of this year. While there is clear acceptance that IDPs require some form of international protection, these laws and policies are less clearly linked to the Guiding Principles. Only 30 explicitly mention the guiding principles, and only 19 explicitly endorse its IDP definition. In fact, most of these law and policies either do not provide a definition or introduce a more restrictive definition than that of the principles.

 Further, less than a third of the policies have been clearly implemented without significant problems. More often, ad hoc or limited implementation means that IDPs are not adequately covered and that even when problems are correctly identified, there are no steps taken to fix them, or that good faith efforts to introduce laws and policies are stymied by domestic opposition. In eleven cases, the laws or policies have never been implemented, either remaining in draft form for years or simply reflecting aspirational claims which the government was unable or unwilling to follow.

International support for governments to adopt IDP policies and laws as part of the Global Compact on Refugees is an important first step. But international actors also need to seek to support and create clear accountability mechanisms at the national and international levels to assist governments where necessary, and to hold them to account when progress is not made.

Phil Orchard is the Research Director of the APR2P and a Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland. He tweets @p_orchard. This is a modified version of a talk he gave at the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law’s Annual Conference on 24 November 2017, a recording of which is available here:

Positive News on Forced Migration

Phil Orchard

In June, For World Refugee Day UNHCR released its new global trends report, which reviews forced migration trends in 2016. The full report is available at:

For once, there was some positive news here. Their report echoes the Global Report on Internal Displacement 2017, released by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre last month. While UNHCR points to a slight increase in overall displacement, both reports point to slowing rates of forced migration. Total forcibly displaced persons in the world has climbed by only 300,000 to 65.3 million. Excluding asylum seekers, this is what global forced migrants numbers have looked like from 1970 to 2016:

Total Forced Migrants 1970-2014Table 11


Source: Adapted from Phil Orchard, A Right to Flee: Refugees, States and the Construction of International Cooperation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Refugee numbers, however, have still climbed by about 1.2 million, while IDP numbers have shrunk by 500,000 and they estimate asylum seekers have fallen by 400,000. And these also reflect the overall stock of forced migrants. We are still seeing very high rates of new displacement. Some 10.3 million forced migrants were displaced in 2016. While this does reflect a decline from 12.4 million the year before, it still means 20 people were displaced per minute last year.

Why, then, are we seeing a slowdown in the overall numbers of forced migrants? This is for two reasons. First, rates of return are starting to go up. Voluntary repatriation is one of three ‘durable solutions’ which can end refugee status. Refugee return rates have climbed from 200,000 in 2015 to 500,000 in 2016. But this is still a small amount compared to the early 2000s when a million or more refugees were able to voluntarily repatriate each year.

table 2


Source: UNHCR Global Trends in 2016, 26.

At the same time, IDP returns have climbed significantly, with 7 million returning in 2016. This is another positive sign as only 2.3 million IDPs returned the year before.

The report also notes that resettlement of refugees to third countries – mainly in the developed world – had continued to climb in 2016, with 189,300 refugees resettled. 63,000 of them with from Syria, followed by 22,100 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 14,700 from Iraq, and 12,200 from Somalia.

table 3

Source: UNHCR, Global Trends in 2016, p.27.

However, UNHCR has already reported a significant decline of resettlement spaces this year– down to 93,200, 43 per cent fewer than in 2016, even while UNHCR has submitted even more cases of refugees who need resettlement.

Overall, therefore, there is certainly some positive news from this report, with declining numbers of forced migrants on a year to year basis and a slow increase of refugee returns, coupled with a much more dramatic increase in IDP returns. At the same time, though, it is unclear if this pattern of returns will continue, and we can also expect that resettlement spaces will be significantly fewer without new political commitments.

Phil Orchard is the Research Director of the APR2P and a Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland. He tweets @p_orchard. 




Is ASEAN the Solution to the Rohingya Crisis?

Rohingya-refugeesWith the international community searching for solutions to the humanitarian crisis as Rohingya Muslims flee persecution in Myanmar, many are looking to ASEAN for leadership.

On 25 August, a militant group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked and killed Myanmar border guards in Rakhine state, Myanmar. The action resulted in another humanitarian crisis in the region affecting more than 400,000 self-identifying Rohingyas (who have fled to Bangladesh) as well as Hindu and Buddhist communities in Rakhine State in the west of Myanmar.

Clearing operations conducted by the Myanmar military forces against the ARSA have led to at least 1,000 deaths, including 400-500 militants, according to government and international media sources. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, estimated that the number of deaths could be even higher as Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh claim that civilians, including women and children, have also been targeted.

Within Rakhine, some 4,000 non-Muslim villagers were evacuated by Myanmar forces following clashes with ARSA militants. Both the Myanmar government and Rohingya advocates have accused the other side of killing civilians, while international human rights organisations have reported the burning of Rohingya villages by Myanmar security forces and Buddhist vigilantes. They allege that the military has also committed acts of sexual violence against Rohingya women as well as firing on fleeing civilians including children.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the Rakhine crisis and the plight of the Rohingyas “catastrophic” as he expressed frustration with the government in Myanmar. For his part, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has called the plight of the Rohingyas “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has been severely criticised by various UN member states and international human rights advocates for her silence and for not condemning the military’s alleged atrocities. However, some sympathetic analysts and diplomats (such as former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and US Ambassador Scot Marciel) defended Suu Kyi’s calculated silence given her domestic political constraints, including her government’s lack of power under the 2008 constitution to control Myanmar’s military.

Indeed, they argued that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s commander-in-chief, is the one ultimately responsible for how the military deals with the crisis in Rakhine and in ensuring the protection of civilians while his soldiers conduct clearing operations against ARSA militants.

In her diplomatic briefing in Naypyidaw on 19 September, Suu Kyi stressed that her government is “not afraid of international scrutiny” even though it earlier refused to issue visas to allow the three-member fact-finding UN Human Rights Committee to enter the country. She also condemned all human rights violations in Rakhine since the 25 August attacks and assured the international community that her government will take actions against all those who violated the law in accordance with international norms.

She also reiterated her government’s commitment to implement the recommendations made by the Rakhine Advisory Commission headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. However, it remains uncertain whether Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government would be able to fully implement these recommendations without the cooperation of the military. General Min Aung Hlaing has questioned the commission’s impartiality and claimed that there were “factual inaccuracies” in its final report.

To further complicate matters, it appears the ARSA militant attacks were planned on the very day that the final report of the Rakhine Advisory Commission was submitted. The group’s action not only undermined the efforts of the NLD government to address the roots of the communal conflict but also contributed to further deepening the prejudice against the Rohingya community in Myanmar.

The militant attacks provided a good reason for the military to enhance its presence in Rakhine to contain the threat from ARSA and other violent extremists emanating from the border with Bangladesh. Certainly, any future attacks from ARSA against Myanmar border police and the military could only exacerbate the suffering of all affected communities.

Is there a way forward?

While the international community has the moral obligation to call out the NLD government and the military to uphold their responsibility to protect vulnerable populations in Rakhine, it is also important to enable the Myanmar government to meet the recommendations made by the Rakhine Advisory Commission. In the short to medium term, this means providing humanitarian assistance to affected communities in both Myanmar and Bangladesh to ensure their safety from violence by both militants and security forces.

In this regard, ASEAN should take the lead in shaping a regional response to the crisis in Rakhine. Specifically, its experience in engaging Myanmar during Cyclone Nargis in 2008 serves as a good template, mainly for the use of backdoor diplomacy, in encouraging both the civilian government and the military to abide by the ASEAN Charter’s principles on human protection. There are already ASEAN mechanisms, such as the Emergency Rapid Assessment Team (ERAT) set up in 2008, which can be used to coordinate with the UN in managing the Rakhine crisis.

Donor countries should also begin to seriously consider convening multilateral meetings to help Myanmar and Bangladesh build their capacities to prevent future atrocities, deter violent extremism and enable both countries to cooperate in managing their border security. In this regard, Australia and Japan could take the lead in convening such donor meetings given their experience in post-conflict peace building in Cambodia and Timor Leste.

Within Myanmar, the government should follow through with its commitment to uphold international human rights norms and cooperate with ASEAN and the international community in ensuring that an independent and impartial investigation in Rakhine takes place sooner rather than later. It should also demonstrate its commitment to uphold the rule of law by containing the spread of hate speech through social media and prosecuting those who continue to engage in violent action against Muslim groups, not only in Rakhine, but also elsewhere in the country.

These actions may be a tall order for the NLD government given the domestic sentiments about the militant attacks in Rakhine. In any event, moderate groups within Myanmar society have a significant role to play in containing the spread of violence against the Muslim community. Specifically, civil society groups and moderate religious leaders, especially those working in community-based interfaith dialogue, should be encouraged to continue their peace-building efforts and to contribute to humanitarian assistance.

Overall, the way forward in responding to the crisis in Rakhine should take into account the difficult challenges ahead for the fragile democratic transition in Myanmar. The international community needs to recognise the dilemmas faced by the NLD government: in managing civil-military relations, ending decades-old ethnic conflicts involving 17 armed rebel groups and addressing poverty and other human security issues in the country. At the same time, failure on the part of the Myanmar government in implementing the Rakhine Advisory Commission’s report will only exacerbate the communal conflict and increase the threat posed by violent extremism and radicalisation of the marginalised Muslim community. Certainly, this is not in the long-term interest of either Myanmar or its ASEAN neighbours.

Dr Noel Morada is director for regional diplomacy and capacity building at the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland.

This article was  published by the Australian Institute of Internal Affairs under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.

Donald Trump’s ban will have lasting and damaging effects on the world’s refugees

US President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration fundamentally alters decades of bipartisan US practice. It blocks immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, and stops all refugee resettlement for at least 120 days.

Trump’s justification for the order is:

… the US must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles.

The first element includes blocking any immigration from seven countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – for at least 30 days.

The first day after the order was approved dual citizens and US permanent residents – usually called green card holders – were prevented from boarding flights to the US and even detained on arrival. A temporary injunction has provided at least some protections, though it is being applied patchily and only to those people who have already entered the US.

The order also suspends all refugee admissions for a minimum of 120 days. After that the US will still admit only nationals of countries where the government has “procedures [that] are adequate to ensure the security and welfare of the US”.

In a continuation of current congressional practice, the US will also prioritise refugee claims based on religious-based persecution, where the person is a member of a minority religion in their own country. And no Syrian refugees will be admitted until the US refugee admissions program aligns with the national interest.

Finally, the US will limit the number of refugees it admits in 2017 to 50,000. So, what does this all mean for refugees?

What does it mean for refugee acceptance?

The UN Refugee Convention provides refugees with a strong set of rights. However, it applies only when a refugee is within a signatory country’s territory or jurisdiction. The convention does not oblige any signatory to accept other refugees.

However, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) considers resettlement to be one of three “durable solutions” for refugees, alongside voluntary repatriation and integration in a host community. These solutions enable refugees to live their lives in dignity and peace.

The UNHCR has determined, in most cases, that the people awaiting resettlement are refugees. Resettlement is used especially in cases where a refugee’s:

… life, liberty, safety, health, or fundamental human rights are at risk in their country of refuge.

Thus resettlement can be critical to provide refugees with protection.

Resettlement also has important geostrategic implications. It helps, as several former US government officials have noted, support the stability of allies that are struggling to host large numbers of refugees.

Similarly, in a call with Trump on Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly argued that:

… the necessary, decisive battle against terrorism does not justify a general suspicion against people of a certain origin or a certain religion.

The US resettlement program has long had strong bipartisan support. But it is also critical to global refugee resettlement. The US takes in by far the most resettled refugees of any country. Canada and Australia are a distant second and third.

Top ten countries for refugee resettlement in 2015. IRIN News refer to image above

The justification for the shutdown is to improve the US’s own security measures by introducing, as Trump has previously argued, “extreme vetting”.

But this already exists for resettled refugees. As part of the Refugee Admissions Program, individual refugee cases are screened through a seven-step process, including security and background checks, personal interviews with agents from the US Department of Homeland Security, and other measures. This process can take up to two years.

This system has worked; virtually no terrorist attacks on US soil have been caused by refugees. As a September 2016 report by the Cato Institute, a right-leaning think-tank, noted:

The chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is one in 3.64 billion per year.

Similarly, in 2015, a State Department spokesperson said of the nearly 785,000 refugees admitted to the US since 2001:

Only about a dozen – a tiny fraction of 1% of admitted refugees – have been arrested or removed from the US due to terrorism concerns that existed prior to their resettlement in the US. None of them were Syrian.

The wider effects

Trump’s ban will also have two wider effects.

It appears not to be affecting the November agreement between Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, to resettle refugees from Nauru and Manus Island in the US in exchange for Australia accepting a group of Central American refugees. Many of those on Nauru and Manus Island come from Iran, Iraq and Somalia.

The Australian government remains keen for the deal to go ahead. But US Republican politicians have previously been critical of the deal. Republican congressman Brian Babin said earlier this month he was confident that Trump:

… will do everything in his power to put an immediate stop to this secret Australian-US refugee deal that should have simply never happened in the first place.

But in a phone call between Trump and Turnbull on Sunday, Trump appears to have given assurances the deal would still go ahead. The order gives the power to the secretary of homeland security to continue to admit refugees for resettlement on a case-by-case basis, irrespective of the wider shutdown.

Globally, the shutdown will have lasting and detrimental effects for refugees. In the Middle East, it may prove to be a boon to the Islamic State. The terrorist group has long sought to disrupt refugee movements.

The ban will also put more pressure on refugee-hosting countries. About 90% of the world’s refugees are in the developing world. The international refugee system works through burden-sharing: host countries know that at least some refugees will be resettled and that they will receive financial assistance for the refugees from the UNHCR and other organisations and governments.

Trump’s move challenges this directly, and will likely lead to further restrictions on the ability of refugees to receive basic protections.

This is reprinted from The Conversation

Phil Orchard is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland, and the Research Director of the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. His research focuses on international efforts to provide legal and institutional protections to forced migrants and war-affected civilians. He is the author of A Right to Flee: Refugees, States, and the Construction of International Cooperation (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which won the 2016 International Studies Association Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Migration Studies Section Distinguished Book Award, and the forthcoming book Protecting the Internally Displaced: Rhetoric and Reality (Routledge, 2017). He is also the co-editor, with Alexander Betts, of Implementation and World Politics: How International Norms Change Practice (Oxford University Press, 2014). He tweets @p_orchard.

The Future of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon


I bounce cheerful nine month old Hasan on my lap briefly before he starts to cry.  His mother informs me he takes time to get to know strangers and then she tells me that he is unregistered.  Legally the little person that I hold in my arms does not exist; and this is just one of the difficulties Syrian refugees in Lebanon are facing.

The situation of the Syrian refugees is steadily deteriorating.  A joint report on the vulnerability of Syrian refugees in Lebanon issued on 16 December by the WFP, UNICEF, UNHCR is clear on this.  Key areas of risk are in the areas of schooling, food and job security, personal safety and inadequate nutrition for children.  The official number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is 1,017,433 but these may not accurately reflect reality.  Recently a Palestinian friend in the camp of Burj al-Barajneh informed me that the number of people in the camp (both Syrian and Palestinian) has doubled from around 17,000 to 40,000 since the war began and tensions between new and old residents are high.

I have spent considerable time in Lebanon since 2011 when the Syrian war began and I didn’t need a report to show me how the situation is worsening.  But in my view it is important to look at both sides of the coin.  Lebanon is a small state still in the process of recovering from a protracted civil war, occupation by Syria and Israel, and it remains vulnerable to security threats from non-state actors.  I have both Syrian and Lebanese friends and I have deep sympathy for both sides.

Alerting the international community to the situation is useful and important.  But to the Lebanese any critique of the current situation comes across as hypocritical when most wealthy states are not accommodating the refugees in anything like the numbers that Lebanon is.  As an observer of how this situation is playing out on the ground in Lebanon, I believe the way forward in this crisis is to establish collaborative projects that work to ameliorate the worst of the fears of the Lebanese which are: that their job opportunities are undermined by the presence of the refugees; that the Syrians will never leave Lebanon thus altering the sectarian and cultural balance of the country; and that the Syrian community represents a security threat to the local population.

This last perception is largely born of a suicide bomb attack that took place in the tiny village of Al Qaa in northern Lebanon whereby eight suicide bombers attacked a Christian village in the space of one day.  This has led to the imposition of curfews on Syrian movement in many villages across Lebanon with most curfews being from 8pm to 8am each day.  One of the major challenges therefore for any grassroots peacebuilding organisations is to work with the communities to alleviate threat perceptions on both sides.

Finding sustainable ways to assist Syrians in finding employment that does not threaten Lebanese job opportunities is possibly a more challenging task as many Lebanese are hiring Syrians in the knowledge that they will work for less money thereby cutting business costs and cutting out Lebanese who also need the work. A useful task would be to try to develop local projects that will assist in generating an income for Syrians but will also benefit the local community.

The fear that the Syrians will never leave is more challenging to address because this depends on circumstances beyond the control of the Lebanese Government. Whilst all Syrian refugees I have ever met in Lebanon are adamant they want to return home and do not wish to remain in Lebanon; the situation in Syria has the potential to go in one of two ways that could well prevent Syrian refugees from returning home.

Firstly, there is a risk of an increase in the sectarian nature of the conflict.  Currently most refugees I speak to don’t speak of the war in sectarian terms, rather they talk of ‘al-Hukumah’ (the government) versus ‘al-Madineen’ (the civilians).  But were a protracted conflict to develop, it would most likely be comprised of pro-Assad and Shi’a (possibly also Christian) militia versus Sunni-backed forces.  In this scenario it is unlikely the majority of refugees will feel the country is safe enough to return to.  The insecurity of living under those conditions is well known to the Lebanese who suffered through regular checkpoint killings based on religious status during the civil war.

The second risk relates to the increasing possibility that Assad will win the war but regard those who left the country as being de facto enemies of the state.  His internal security mechanisms remain strong and this may also prevent Syrians from returning for fear of persecution.  This is reminiscent of the Vietnamese camps in Hong Kong in the early 1990s which remained long after the Vietnam War had ended due to fears of persecution.  There is another path for Syria however.  After the Israeli withdrawal in 2000 Hizbullah were quick to establish an edict ordering non-recrimination or persecution of Lebanese who had worked with the Israelis in the occupied zone.  This edict was respected by the local population and the government and proved extremely helpful in maintaining peace and security in the south. A similar pledge would be required for post-war Syria.

The recent joint report is important because the toll that the Syrian war is taking on both Lebanon and the Syrian refugees is getting worse and the need to find sustainable solutions is imperative.  All sides need to respect the point of view of the other and the international community needs to work with the Lebanese Government and offer assistance at the local level in ways that can help alleviate the stress of the situation.  Grassroots peacebuilding is what is needed to ensure that tensions do not reach a point where conflict erupts between groups which would further threaten the stability of Lebanon and the security of the refugees.

Dr. Vanessa Newby
Research Fellow & Teaching Coordinator
Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs,ANU College of Asia and the Pacific ,The Australian National University

Action needed to resolve Rakhine Crisis

Noel Morada, Alex Bellamy and Sarah Teitt, Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
3 December 2016

The ongoing crisis in Rakhine, Myanmar is once again a major concern for neighbouring ASEAN member states. It has been close to two months since the 9 October attacks by suspected militants in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships against border and security forces. Military operations continue in these areas where a large community of stateless Rohingyas live, some 10,000 of whom have already fled to Bangladesh where they are also not welcome. in The NLD government rejected allegations made by international human rights organisations about abuses committed by security forces against the Muslim community in Rakhine since the attacks. As of mid-November, the state media reported that civilian and military casualties reached more than 130, with 102 militants and 32 soldiers killed.

Rallies at the Myanmar embassies in Bangkok, Jakarta, and Kuala Lumpur were held last week to protest the continuing lockdown operations in Rakhine and violence against the stateless Rohingyas. Thus far, Malaysia has taken the strongest stance among ASEAN members in denouncing the Myanmar government’s response to the crisis. No less than the Prime Minister of Malaysia is reported to be joining a protest rally in Kuala Lumpur on 4 December where other politicians and NGOs concerned with the plight of the Rohingyas are expected to attend. The Malaysian foreign ministry last week summoned the Myanmar ambassador to Kuala Lumpur over the violence in Rakhine even as the cabinet issued a strong criticism against the NLD government on the issue. A youth minister in particular called for a review of Myanmar’s membership in ASEAN in light of allegations made by some UN officials about ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity being committed against the Rohingyas. In Indonesia, calls for stronger ASEAN response against Myanmar were also made by some government officials, civil society organisations, and the media. A scheduled visit this month to Jakarta by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has been postponed due to the ongoing crisis in Rakhine.

Meanwhile, some 13 political parties in Myanmar that includes the former ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) on 28 November issued a joint statement calling on the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC) dominated by the Tatmadaw (military) to hold an emergency meeting and to intervene in order to solve the various crises in the country, citing primarily the violence in Arakan (Rakhine). Specifically, it blamed the incompetence of the NLD government in handling these problems and alleged that “there is a systematic plan by domestic and overseas elements to cripple the nation’s defences and border regions.”1 The statement called for measures that will “effectively counter domestic and overseas threats” and for the NLD to “show some courage” in telling the international community that the crisis in western and northern Myanmar were linked to “terrorist organisations” with international connections.2

We join the international community in expressing our deep concern over the continuing crisis in Rakhine where ongoing military operations against militants have severely affected both Muslim and Buddhist communities in the area. We support the call of the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng for the Myanmar government “to demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law and to the human rights of all its populations.” Specifically, the government and the military in Myanmar should allow access to humanitarian assistance to affected communities in northern Rakhine as well as verification of allegations of human rights violations against the Rohingyas. While recognising the difficult position of the ruling NLD in managing the crisis, the people of Myanmar should be vigilant in supporting its democratically-elected civilian government.
We support calls for ASEAN to be more pro-active in responding to the crisis in Rakhine and use its existing mechanisms in helping the Myanmar government to effectively put a stop to alleged human rights violations against the Rohingyas and other affected communities in the area. In the context of humanitarian crisis and alleged crimes against humanity possibly being committed, ASEAN members should step up and call on the Myanmar government and the military to uphold the primarily responsibility of the state to protect its populations from atrocity crimes.

1 “13 parties call for NDSC intervention,” 29 November 2016, from, accessed on 1 December 2016.

1 “13 parties call for NDSC intervention,” 29 November 2016, from, accessed on 1 December 2016.