UN must end its ‘failed approach’ in Myanmar, report says

Criticising the UN’s Myanmar Country Team for accepting the junta as ‘de facto authorities,’ international experts urge direct coordination with the publicly mandated government, ethnic governance bodies and other resistance groups to deliver aid 

The Special Advisory Council for Myanmar (SAC-M) criticised the United Nations (UN) for “failing” the people of Myanmar through its dealings with the military regime in a report released on Tuesday. 

The group of independent international experts outlined how the UN Country Team (UNCT)—the officials representing the UN Secretariat and all UN agencies operating in Myanmar—prioritises ”appeasing” the junta in order to maintain a presence in the country rather than finding ways to deliver aid directly to people “in line with their needs and their democratic will and aspirations.” 

It also reinforces the military council’s claim to legitimacy, they pointed out, even though cooperation with the administration—formed after the army attempted a seizure of power in the 2021 coup—contradicts the UN’s stated non-recognition of the junta as Myanmar’s government. The report described the UNCT’s treatment of the regime as the country’s “de facto authorities” as “factually and legally inaccurate.”

“There is not just one de facto authority or state actor in Myanmar—there are many,” SAC-M stated, referring to ethnic political organisations, the publicly mandated National Unity Government (NUG), and the armed resistance under its command. 

The NUG and several other organisations resisting the regime, including the Karen National Union, Karenni National Progressive Party, and Chin National Front, have called on the UN to coordinate with them directly in humanitarian aid efforts, noting that they, and not the military, control wide swathes of territory where most of the country’s internally displaced persons have sought refuge from the Myanmar army’s offensives. This population has been cited by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) as numbering 1.7 million—a figure that civil society organisations operating in these areas say is an underestimate due to the agency’s lack of access.

“The UNCT subjects itself to the junta’s access restrictions and so is unable to reach the majority of people in need,” SAC-M explained.

The group pointed to an August meeting between the head of the UNOCHA Martin Griffiths and junta chief Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyitaw as a failed attempt to secure broader access for humanitarian aid work through engagement with the regime. Volker Türk, who heads the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), is cited as saying that the meeting had no effect on the access the military was willing to provide to humanitarian workers within Myanmar. 

Yet the UNCT’s compliance with the military council’s restrictions is effectively an acceptance of them, SAC-M argued.

“The junta uses arbitrary administrative tools, such as a complex bureaucratic system for travel authorisations, registration processes and visa issuance, to restrict the movements of humanitarian actors,” the group explained. “The junta also delays customs clearance or confiscates humanitarian supplies, and places tight controls on the banking system.”

SAC-M’s independent experts recommended that the UNCT rewrite its principles of engagement and directly coordinate with the NUG and “resistance authorities” to provide humanitarian assistance; they also urged the country team to increase support for existing civil society networks able to deliver cross-border aid. 

While the group criticised the UNCT as a whole for its strategy in Myanmar, they noted that one of its member agencies, the OHCHR, is an exception due to its “effective exclusion” from the country “as a result of some of the in-country UN entities opposing its investigation and reporting mandates.”

The OHCHR has been operating as part of the Myanmar UNCT from neighbouring Thailand since 2019. The government, then run by the elected National League for Democracy—which was later ousted in the 2021 coup—granted authorisation to the OHCHR to establish a presence in the country on the condition that it would restrict its activities to technical assistance, which the high commissioner at the time refused to accept, according to SAC-M.  

“We should be located inside the country, but we are not,” said James Rodehaver, the current chief of the Myanmar Team for the OHCHR Regional Office for Southeast Asia, at a media briefing on Monday. The event followed the release of the office’s latest report on the situation of human rights in Myanmar earlier this month, which it described as “continu[ing] to incessantly deteriorate” due to an increase in military airstrikes, ground offensives, mass killings, and arson attacks. 

“OHCHR is a key part of the country team and we try to help wherever we can,” Rodehaver said. “We try to work with them so that they are getting human rights guidance.”

He denied any tension between his office and the members of the UNCT operating from within Myanmar, describing these agencies as following “a very different set of considerations and criteria than the way we view things from outside the country.”

Rodehaver, however, noted that some guidance from the OHCHR “has gotten muted, somewhat.” 

Public messaging, he explained, largely centres on the urgent issue of humanitarian access, while “the need for accountability, the need to be clear about who the perpetrators of the attacks are—that has become muted.” 

Like SAC-M, the OHCHR condemned the “widespread impunity” to which Myanmar’s military has become accustomed for decades, blaming the institution for “driving the humanitarian crisis” and “instilling fear” in the general population.  

In addition to outlining changes required within the Myanmar UNCT, SAC-M directed recommendations to the UN General Assembly, Security Council, and Human Rights Council, the latter being the entity to which OHCHR’s Myanmar section presents its own regular reports; SAC-M urged the Council to call for the team to be granted “a full mandate” within the country. 

The group’s independent experts also advised UN bodies to adopt a more comprehensive arms embargo and financial sanctions targeting military officials, military companies and their subsidiaries; refer human rights violations to international courts; and take other measures that would better align their strategies and actions to their stated support for the country’s people. 

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