Breaking the Silence in Myanmar

This piece has been republished from post on IPI Global Observatory, 3 June.

A recent diplomatic row over whether new United States Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel may call the self-identified Rohingya ethnic minority group by that name or use the government preferred “Bengali” shows that ethnic and religious tensions remain high in the Southeast Asian nation.

The situation today for the Rohingya remains largely the same as it did prior to Myanmar’s peaceful political transition last year, which included moving from a military junta-dominated parliament to one with a National League for Democracy majority, the appointment of a new president, and continued efforts to reach a peace agreement between the country’s many armed groups.

As well as being denied the right to self-identify, the Rohingya are still not recognized as citizens of Myanmar, and the 125,000 to 140,000 in Rakhine are denied the right to leave the state, while facing massive impositions on their lives. There is no sign that those still interned in displacement camps near the Rakhine capital Sittwe since June 2012 will be released. Women bear a particularly high brunt from the worrying levels of malnutrition and long-term health implications among their children, high rates of gender-based violence, and society-wide intimidation.

A fire within Rakhine’s Baw Du Pha 2 camp, which led to 2,000 losing their homes at the start of May, was the latest tragedy to befall this displaced population. In October last year, an eight-year-old girl who was already severely malnourished died from injuries allegedly resulting from a rape by a military officer. The daily persecution continues to drive many to attempt leaving Myanmar by sea, many of who drown, as with the 21 who died at sea last month, or face brutality at the hands of those who assist in their flight, as with those found dead in Malaysia last year.

The pattern of pervasive discrimination is one we personally comprehended when speaking to those responsible for delivering the limited humanitarian assistance permitted for the internally displaced population in Rakhine. All those who spoke to us insisted on anonymity, fearing that their access to the camps would be denied if their identities were revealed. Many spoke of fearing to even submit reports to their organizations, in case the governments of Rakhine or Myanmar expelled them.

While restricted in their ability to report on it, the humanitarian workers spoke of the severe forms of violence facing women and children and the limited rights for Rohingya both inside and outside the camps. They reported having witnessed few other situations approaching those in Sittwe, and many of these people had held postings in trouble spots such as Darfur, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and Afghanistan.

While the case of the Rohingya population may be the most notable, it is also among many examples of displacement and limited humanitarian access in Myanmar. Much more is at stake for ethnic minorities in the country’s ongoing political transition. The National Ceasefire Agreement, which is yet to attract the signature of all 15 ethnic armed groups concerned, contains provisions on the relocation of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons and refugees. These relocations are proposed for displaced populations that have endured persistent human rights violations and denial of access to humanitarian assistance. They will be high-risk movements in environments where there may be significant resource competition. A recurrence of the violence that followed displacements in 2012 is feared, and compensation offered by the government is seen as insufficient to overcome persistent deprivation of rights such as land ownership.

The culture of silence around the treatment of Rohingya and other ethnic groups in Myanmar poses some important questions. First, whose responsibility is it to report human rights violations in the country’s complex political situation? And do United Nations, international humanitarian, and civil society reports protect populations or further erode the protection they have, however minimal? While most humanitarian agencies must operate in conditions where they are expected to be impartial and neutral, this does not apply to the UN or embassies.

There are also concerns over the point at which securing humanitarian access requires complicity with denying rights and identity for vulnerable and displaced populations. Silence may be justified as a way to prevent further violence, but it also enables violations to continue with impunity.

Civil society groups operating in Myanmar are already concerned about the state’s failure to recognize and prosecute acts of violence committed by the country’s Tatmadaw armed forces. A climate of impunity, coupled with aggressive pro-Myanmar Buddhist nationalist sentiment and resource rivalry generate risks that cannot be overstated. In a political environment where official reporting about violence or discrimination against minority populations is already restricted, and where humanitarian workers are prone to self-censorship to protect these groups, the risk of violence is ever present. The international community must therefore closely watch Myanmar during this important and ongoing regime transition.

Sara E. Davies is Associate Professor in the Centre for Governance and Public Policy, Griffith University. Jacqui True is Professor of Politics & International Relations at Monash University.

The Inexorable Rise in Global IDP Numbers

Dr. Vickie Frater and Dr. Phil Orchard

Aid Distribution in Mayfa'a, Shabwah, Yemen on 4 Nov 2015. Courtesy UNHCR

Aid Distribution in Mayfa’a, Shabwah, Yemen on 4 Nov 2015. Courtesy UNHCR

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), a Geneva-based NGO supported by a number of governments and the Norwegian Refugee Council, has released its annual Global Report on Internal Displacement or GRID. Driven by the conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, and Iraq, the numbers of internally displaced persons, or IDPs, climbed by 4.5 million in 2013 and 5 million in 2014. This meant there was a global total of 38 million IDPs at the end of 2014.

Unfortunately, this pattern is continuing, though it has started to slow down. IDMC reports that overall IDPs globally increased by 2.8 million in 2015, reaching a total of 40.8 million. This includes 8.6 million new displacements, offset by around 5.8 million returns. Ten countries alone account for almost three-quarters of the total, producing some 30 million IDPs. Of these ten, four (Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, and South Sudan) have remained amongst the top ten IDP producing states since 2003. A further five -Nigeria, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen- have been producing significant IDPs over the past five years.

What’s driving this inexorable rise? Part of the issue is the rise in conflict, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, a region the IDMC argues has been ‘snowballing’ since the Arab Spring in 2010/2011. Indeed, Yemen, Syria and Iraq alone account for over half the global total for new displacements, with Yemen taking the top spot for new displacements in 2015, with a total of 2,175,000. This represents a 20-fold increase on IDP totals reported in 2014 and is largely due to Saudi-led airstrikes against the Houthi insurgency. IDMC notes that in Yemen, the “humanitarian and protection needs among IDPs and the rest of the civilian population are acute, and neither the national nor international response have gone far enough in addressing them.”

In Syria, the IDMC now estimates that there are 6.6 million IDPs, or 40 per cent of the remaining Syrian population. But the Syrian case in particular also shows the limitations of data collection during active conflicts. As IDMC noted in a December 2015 report, “data gathering in Syria has also been consistently complicated by the inability to access to certain areas, including besieged cities… IDMC’s displacement figures are also qualified by the fact that the sources cited above have used different methodologies to estimate the number of IDPs in various locations… Monitoring of internal displacement in Syria has been further hampered by the volatility of the frontlines and the intensity of the conflict.”

Another critical issue the report points to is that the steady increase in IDP figures reflects the fact that most IDPs have not found durable solutions, even with many having been displaced for years if not decades. Counting IDPs is an especially difficult exercise of population measurement and measuring the end of displacement is proving to be one of the hardest yardsticks to define and apply to these complex crises.

With IDPs – as opposed to with refugees – there is no clear end point when displacement ends. The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the main soft law framework for the protection of the internally displaced, notes only that internal displacement “shall last no longer than required by the circumstance.” While a 2007 UN report proposes that IDP “durable solutions” should include three elements – “long-term safety and security, restitution of or compensation for lost property and an environment that sustains the life of the former IDPs under normal economic and social conditions”- this has yet to be widely accepted and solutions remain elusive.

This has also meant that there is an increasing prevalence of protracted, or long-term, displacement. When IDMC first began collecting data eighteen years ago in 1998, protracted cases such as Colombia, Algeria and Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenia and Azerbaijan) seemed exceptional.

And yet, in each of these cases IDP populations have persisted, even as newer cases join them. In Colombia, peace negotiations continue to stall, while in Azerbaijan and Armenia not only does a long term peace agreement remain non-existent but since April the dormant conflict has threatened to restart. This is not all bad news- over the past few years, IDMC has indicated that both states seemed to show signs of accepting a responsibility to adequately measure and respond to the needs of IDP populations.

Finally, within the report the IDMC has also sought to explore other causes of displacement beyond conflicts. This includes natural disasters, which created 19.2 million disaster-induced IDPs in 2015. These disasters affected 113 countries, more than twice the number of those affected by conflict and violence. India, China, and Nepal had the highest figures, with 3.7 million, 3.6 million, and 2.6 million disaster-induced IDPs respectively.

While victims of natural disasters tend to be able to return quickly to their homes, this is not always the case. In Japan, tens of thousands of people remained displaced from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. In Haiti, at least 62,000 people still remained displaced following the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake. The IDMC is raising similar concerns in Nepal following the April and May 2015 earthquakes. They argue that “political instability and weak institutions have… hampered the humanitarian response.”

Overall, then, the picture is mixed. While the growth rate in the number of IDPs is slowing, new conflicts continue to generate significant numbers of IDPs, even as groups in Syria and other states remain displaced for years in protracted situations. This points directly to the need for the international community to continue and to improve its provision of protection and assistance to the internally displaced.

Vickie Frater is a Project Officer with the APR2P, and recently completed her PhD examining questions of legality and legitimacy around the use of force.

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. 


Time to Rethink Protection as Syrian Mistakes Echo Sri Lanka

By Dr Alex J. Bellamy


Image: ©AFP/B.Kilik

Post originally published in the Global Observatory

Residents of the Syrian town of Madaya are again reported to be near starvation. The United Nations is said to have underestimated the number suffering under blockades enforced by Bashar al-Assad’s government, adding to earlier accusations that the UN deliberately failed to highlight the problem. The revelations show much more needs to be done to implement Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Human Rights Up Front action plan and mainstream the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine.

The government’s January siege on the rebel-held Madaya caused severe malnourishment among the civilian population, with as many as 70 people starving to death. As the Secretary-General has explained, both the denial of humanitarian access and the adoption of tactics designed to harm the civilian population constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In a January briefing, Ban told the UN General Assembly that “The town has been the victim of deliberate starvation. Let me be clear: the use of food as a weapon of war is a war crime. All sides, including the Syrian government, which has the primary responsibility to protect Syrians, are committing atrocious acts prohibited under international humanitarian law.”

But it has also emerged that UN officials in Damascus knew about the situation in Madaya as early as July last year and, fearing that it would jeopardize already fraught relations with the Syrian government, chose not to highlight it publicly. Four senior UN officials and two aid workers told The Guardian that “access to [Syrian] officials had been prioritized over access to areas in need, meaning aid goals had often not been met.”

These individuals suggested that showing respect for Syrian sovereignty had been prioritized over humanitarian assistance, despite the fact that UN Security Council Resolution 2165 expressly permits the delivery of aid into Syria without the government’s consent. What is more, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reportedly insisted on the deletion of the words “siege” and “besieged” from the UN’s humanitarian reports and plans. Privately, some humanitarian workers have lamented the cozy relationships established between UN officials and Syrian government officials in Damascus, reporting that the UN has at times even employed members of the Assad regime.

The parallels between this and the UN’s response to the humanitarian crisis that befell Sri Lanka in 2009 are striking. Then, the organization’s humanitarian officials refused to speak out about alleged violations of international humanitarian law, fearing that the government would respond by restricting access. They even went as far as to publicly disown civilian casualty estimates publicized by the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights. In the end, the government restricted access anyway.

Continue reading “Time to Rethink Protection as Syrian Mistakes Echo Sri Lanka”

The Responsibility to Protect and the “Migrant Crisis”

By Dr Alex J Bellamy


Image: ©UNHCR/I.Prickett

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) entails a responsibility to provide safe flight and asylum to those fleeing atrocity crimes. Yet some of those states that are the loudest advocates of R2P have been among the most reticent to extend protection to individuals fleeing atrocity crimes.  Adopting new and tougher restrictions, such as arbitrary detention and financial penalties, aimed at deterring asylum seekers, these states are not only failing to uphold their responsibility to protect, they are also fundamentally undermining International Refugee Law. This needs to change, and we need to recognize the centrality of asylum to the implementation of R2P.

Agreed at the 2005 World Summit, and reaffirmed by both the UN General Assembly and UN Security Council (which has now passed 43 resolutions referring to the principle), R2P rests on three mutually reinforcing pillars: (I) the responsibility of each state to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and from their incitement; (II) the international community’s responsibility to encourage and assist states in protecting their own populations; and (III) the international community’s responsibility to use diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to protect populations from these atrocity crimes and, when that is judged inadequate and national authorities are “manifestly failing” to protect their population, to take timely and decisive action through the UN Charter. As the UN Secretary-General emphasized in 2012, R2P is universal and enduring. It applies everywhere and all the time inasmuch as there is never a situation in which states, and the international community, do not have a responsibility to protect populations from atrocity crimes.[1]  We should therefore never ask whether R2P applies, but rather what can be done to fulfill it. And governments should never look to others to shoulder their responsibilities. R2P is a responsibility that demands something of everyone.

When atrocity crimes are committed, as they have been on a massive scale in Syria, one of the things that determines whether civilians caught between barrel bombs and beheadings live or die is their capacity to flee from immediate harm. The more a targeted group is able to find refuge from violence, the lower the number of casualties from direct violence is likely to be. When civilian populations are trapped in besieged communities, such as Homs, Aleppo, Malakal, and Yarmouk in Syria – and Srebrenica in Bosnia two decades ago – the death toll from atrocities can reach astronomical scales, as indeed it has in Syria and did in Bosnia. When foreign countries refuse to permit refugees fleeing for their lives to land on their territory they contribute to the death toll. That is a lesson that should have been learned in Europe and North America in the 1930s. Back then, instead of facilitating the flight of Jews from Nazi Germany they prohibited. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of people who might have escaped the Holocaust did not because they were denied asylum in third countries.

But the granting of asylum is only part of the story. As we have come to learn only too well in the Aegean, the downside is that displacement significantly increases an individual’s exposure to harm. Flight, especially across water, is difficult and dangerous. Fleeing across land exposes individuals to a crippling loss of assets and the risk of attack. Most of the world’s displaced are deprived the “essentials of life,” namely shelter, food, medicine, education, community and a resource base for self-reliant livelihood. Indeed, mortality rates among displaced populations are higher than among almost any other group, with the exception of those who stay behind to face the violence. Refugee camps, such as those that have sprung up across Jordan, are sometimes quite violent places. Women and girls can face particular protection challenges, including significant threats of sexual violence and exploitation.

Continue reading “The Responsibility to Protect and the “Migrant Crisis””

Overcoming the Gender Gap

Sarah Hewitt


This blog is based on a recently published article by Sarah Hewitt, “Overcoming the Gender Gap: The Possibilities of Alignment between the Responsibility to Protect and the Women, Peace and Security Agenda”, Global Responsibility to Protect 8/1: 3-28 (2016). To remain up to date with GR2P Issues and to submit your own article to GR2P, kindly visit here.

This week the UN Commission on the Status of Women meets in New York for its 60th session to discuss the priority theme: Women’s empowerment and its link to sustainable development. The responsibility of governments to ensure women’s empowerment is one held by multiple actors and institutions and is, I argue in my article, directly relevant to both the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) agendas.

In the article I examine the relationship between the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The WPS agenda is the most comprehensive policy articulation of gender issues in peace and security. It is based upon United Nations Security Council Res. 1325, passed unanimously in October 2000. UNSC Res. 1325 addresses the unique and different impacts of conflict on women and men, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in conflict and the importance of women’s empowerment and inclusion as respected agents in international peace and security.[1] The resolution, and the WPS agenda more widely that consists of an additional 7 UNSC resolutions, follows a general three-pillar mandate: prevention of violence and derogation of rights; protection from violence; and participation in peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction.[2] Laura Shepherd and Jacqui True add a fourth pillar: identifying the structural social, political and economic conditions required for sustainable and lasting peace.[3]

In the article I address the following question: are there any potential overlaps that exist between these two normative frameworks to provide a more holistic gender-sensitive approach to conflict prevention, protection, and post-conflict reconstruction? The article questions where there is a lack of women and women’s participation regarding decision-making, designing, and implementing policies concerning conflict and peace. Both R2P and the WPS agenda hinge upon the same central tenets of prevention, protection, and participation, but women’s involvement in R2P and within wider UN peacebuilding efforts is grossly deficient. I expand on existing literature by explicitly mapping the overlaps between the R2P and WPS frameworks and how they can be normatively and practically aligned. [4] First, I examine the development of the WPS agenda and how it has extended women’s human rights and gender equality architecture, becoming the eminent reference to women’s security. Second, I review existing feminist critiques of the R2P principle. Third, I focus on the three central and parallel tenets of R2P and the WPS agenda.

In the article I identify three common intersecting commitments of these two normative frameworks to provide a more holistic, gender-sensitive approach to conflict. First I consider conflict prevention, specifically early warning mechanisms and the incorporation of gender-sensitive indicators. Next, protection is analysed as to the potential for ensuring women’s participation and mainstreaming gender in peacekeeping missions. Lastly I examine post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding. The post-conflict phase is extremely complex, thus I concentrate on the importance of women’s participation and representation in peace processes. A feminist perspective that analyses the socially constructed gender binaries based upon masculine/feminine characteristics underpins the article. These characteristics that are inherent in conflict, peace, protection, and security are highlighted.

I argue that locating women’s experiences in conflict and peace contributes to transforming R2P into a holistic gender-sensitive vehicle for protection and prevention of conflict. I conclude that identifying common areas of engagement could potentially effect positive changes for women and men on the ground in conflict prevention and protection, and post-conflict reconstruction.

Sarah Hewitt is a postgraduate student at the Gender Peace and Security Initiative, School of Social Sciences, Monash University. She is a research assistant on the Prevention of Sexual Violence in Asia Pacific research project.

Continue reading “Overcoming the Gender Gap”


By Dr Phil Orchard



Image: ©UNHCR/I.Prickett

Post originally published in the Australian Outlook

With the situation in Syria showing no signs of improvement, the influx of asylum seekers into Europe continues. However Europe is beginning to close its doors to the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees on its doorstep. 

The refugee problem currently facing Europe is immense. In 2015, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimated that more than a million migrants crossed the Mediterranean. 84 percent of these came from the top 10 refugee-producing countries in the world. Another 74,000 have arrived in the first five weeks of this year. Alarmingly, the journey to Europe remains incredibly perilous. So far this year, at least 374 people have died. At this rate, last year’s 3,770 estimated deaths will likely be eclipsed.

These figures pale in comparison with the total population displaced by the Syrian civil war, a conflict which has created 5.3 million refugees and 6.6 million internally displaced persons. The vast majority of these remain in the countries around Syria: 2.5 million in Turkey, 1 million in Lebanon, and between 636,000 and 1.27 million in Jordan. These countries are at their tipping point. Moreover, Turkey has announced that it has reached its capacity to take new refugees and has closed its border to the 35,000 Syrians who have fled their government’s recent offensive.

After a long period of neglect, donors are making welcome contributions to the humanitarian crisis in Syria and its immediate neighbours. Recently, a commitment has been made to provide more than $US10 billion in assistance. Having said this, resettlement remains a critical and necessary part of the international response. However this is becoming increasingly difficult.


High Level Advisory Panel’s Public Seminar in Phnom Penh on Mainstreaming the Responsibility to Protect


Download the latest Spotlight on R2P for the event summary of the High Level Advisory Panel’s Public Seminar in Phnom Penh: Mainstreaming the Responsibility to Protect.

The third public seminar on mainstreaming the Responsiblility to Protect was held on the 12th of August 2015 in Phnom Penh and follows events in Bangkok (in October 2014) and Jakarta (in January 2015). It was attended by over 50 local participants, including ambassadors from China, Japan, and Germany, representatives from ASEAN member states, senior Cambodian government officials, representatives from the academe, civil society groups, and the media.

It is a significant follow up activity in Cambodia after a successful conference on R2P held in Phnom Penh early this year as it reinforced the value of continuing public awareness campaigns in promoting R2P and mass atrocities prevention across the region. Former ASEAN Secretary-General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, who is also Chair of the HLAP, was the guest of honour and keynote speaker at the seminar.

The seminar involved discussing the role of ASEAN in promoting R2P, and gave a number of recommendations for implementing R2P in the region. These included using existing structures such as the ASEAN International Governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) to create early warning mechanisms; promoting regional cooperation and exchange of knowledge and information; supporting the work of civil society groups; and ratifying relevant human rights treaties. In response to some issues raised by participants, such as whether it is the task of the region’s states or the most powerful states to implement R2P on behalf of the international community, Dr. Surin stressed that it is the role of regional organisations like ASEAN to take the lead in their own region because they are the ones directly affected.