Sri Lanka 2.0: Independent Inquiry Shows UN “Systemic Failure” in Myanmar

| July 2019
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Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, delivers a press briefing in 2017. Photo Credit: Violaine Martin via Flickr


Prevention sits at the heart of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres’s reform agenda for the organization. It remains to be seen, however, whether reforms will ever be sufficient to prevent atrocity situations. A recent independent inquiry into the involvement of the UN in Myanmar from 2010 to 2018 assigns collective responsibility for the atrocities committed during the 2017 Rohingya crisis to both the UN civil service and UN member states. Despite eight intervening years, these deficits remain strikingly similar to those identified in the 2011 Internal Report on Sri Lanka. 1

At that time, the UN’s inability to prevent over 33,000 civilian deaths in the last phase of the Sri Lankan civil war (2008–09) was the catalyst for the Human Rights up Front (HRuF) action plan to bring about cultural change, political support, and coherent analysis to prevent precisely this type of atrocity scenario. Despite the implementation of the HRuF strategy in 2013, the latest report on Myanmar details the lack of a coherent and coordinated strategy within the UN when responding to the crisis. In short, the UN still suffers from “systemic” and “structural” failure when it comes to prevention.

In 2017, Secretary-General Guterres announced a series of reform packages, the stated impetus for which speaks directly to the shortcomings identified in the recent report. The peace and security 2 reforms target greater coherence between the UN pillars of peace and security and the pillars of human rights and development. His first year in office, the secretary-general even co-located relevant field offices to physically connect these units. The presence of a regional Special Representative who reports directly to the secretary-general connects field to headquarter-level communication and decision-making, and enables greater accountability for the peace and security pillar. The development3 and management4 reforms give greater autonomy and decision-making powers to field staff, and provide for stronger backstopping from UN headquarters to encourage—rather than deter—UN staff to engage governments on early warning indicators of potential crises, thus creating  an organization that is proactive on prevention. The reinvigoration of the Resident Coordinator (RC) role, now moved from the UNDP to the Secretariat, is also important. The RC reports directly to the secretary-general and, in addition to development, is responsible for political and humanitarian affairs and is, with an eye toward enhanced prevention capacity, empowered to raise politically sensitive issues, such as human rights, with host governments.

As the findings from the Independent Inquiry make clear, these reforms target key institutional deficits that were evident in Myanmar. The report states that previous structural and systemic factors evident in the 2008-09 Sri Lanka experience “appear to have been repeated in Myanmar, despite the adoption in 2014 of the ‘Human Rights Up Front’ initiative, designed precisely to avoid the repetition of the Sri Lankan experience.”5 The secretary-general’s reforms attempt to deal with systemic and structural issues that surfaced in both contexts, such as conflicting strategy, lack of political backstopping from UN headquarters, and an insufficiently trained and resourced RC, unable to manage the crises that unfolded. Below I briefly describe what happened in Myanmar that led to the conclusion of “systemic and structural failure” by the UN, before assessing how well the reform process is addressing the shortcomings described.


Systemic and Structural Failure in Myanmar

The military-led clearance operations in Rakhine State in 2017, in which crimes against humanity were committed against the Rohingya, followed years of escalating discrimination and violence. The Rohingya people have faced persecution and discrimination since the independence of Myanmar in 1948, and recent tensions had been escalating since 2012 in the context of democratic transition, with growing Buddhist nationalism and strong anti-Muslim overtones. Violence in Rakhine State between Rohingya militants and security forces resurfaced periodically in the lead up to the 2017 crisis. At the same time, the country’s leadership has blocked crucial access for key international partners, such as the Independent Monitoring Mission deployed in late 2017, that have put its human rights record and systematic violations are under an international spotlight. The situation in Myanmar is complex, and these dynamics have constrained international actors from responding promptly and decisively to early warnings and mounting evidence of a potential crisis.

However, for many years preceding the violence, the UN maintained a presence in Myanmar and had an architecture in place to mobilize preventive action. In addition to having numerous offices based in the country, this architecture included HRuF and the associated prevention mechanisms within the Executive Office of the Secretary-General (EOSG) intended to bring coordinated analysis of situations necessitating prevention to the attention of the highest-level decision makers. Other actors involved included mediators and special advisors to the secretary-general on the prevention of genocide, sexual violence and armed conflict, and children and armed conflict. Indeed, the secretary-general himself had several communications with Myanmar’s State Counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi, in efforts to subdue the crisis. The UN has a special envoy on Myanmar, the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights was engaged in Myanmar for years prior to the crisis, a series of special rapporteurs on human rights in Myanmar were appointed, and the secretary-general released follow-up reports on Myanmar. With all of these mechanisms for prevention in place, what went wrong?

A central conclusion drawn in the Independent Inquiry was that the UN field offices were divided in deciding how best to deal with the Myanmar government on its human rights situation, and fell within one of two camps. The first position, broadly represented by the development agencies, preferred to keep a low profile and engage in “quiet diplomacy” that would not endanger the long-term involvement of the UN within the country and the overall goal of shepherding it through its political transition and economic development. The second position, represented by the human rights and humanitarian mandate holders, preferred “outspoken advocacy” to compel the government to act promptly to end its systematic abuses. On the ground, UN field staff did not coordinate their strategies for dealing with the Myanmar government, sending ambiguous messages that undermined their positions and the UN itself lacked political leverage inside the country given the more prominent role that regional and bilateral partners had assumed in the early transition period. The systemic failure therefore stemmed in part from fragmentation and incoherence among UN actors at the country-level.

The inquiry also calls member states to account given they hold responsibility for budgets, negotiating and approving mandates, and providing political backing at the headquarters level to facilitate prompt action on early warning signs. The report traces this responsibility back to earlier efforts to increase UN presence in the country with accountability oversight, and the obstruction within the Security Council by China and Russia that hindered efforts to raise the profile of the situation at a much earlier stage. Any efforts coming from the UN Secretariat or civil administration require cooperation from member states, and therefore the report attributes as much blame for the systemic failure to the member states that obstructed prevention efforts as to the UN administration.


Are the current reforms sufficient to redress systemic and structural failure at the UN?

The reform streams initiated by the secretary-general described at the outset have only been recently implemented, and time will determine whether these will redress the deficits identified in the report in the long-term. However, as noted, HRuF has been in place for several years now, and a few key points are worth mentioning.

In 2018, the Chinese blocked a funding request by the secretary-general for a permanent post on HRuF in the EOSG through the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly. This move resulted in the dismantling of the dedicated HRuF unit (the work is now shared across the EOSG), and this has undermined both the function of HRuF and the perception of its ongoing utility within the organization. Such efforts to undermine systematic analysis and early warning on prevention situations within the organization point to the fact that UN civil administrators are facing an uphill battle to institutionalize the basic mechanisms needed for atrocity prevention.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the United Nations General Assembly, New York, September 19, 2017. Photo Credit: John Gillespie via Flickr

Second, a number of member states have signaled their resistance to the latest secretary-general–led reforms that would enhance autonomy and decision-making of UN leadership at the country level. Member states have refused to fund the relocated RC position in budget negotiations. The peace and security reform looks to many observers to be no more than a technical “box moving” exercise as it has  not engaged the more substantive issues of the “primacy of politics” and need for increased preventive action as identified in the 2015 High Level Panel Report on Peacekeeping. The minimal content of the peace and security reform allowed for a swift consensus, while sidelining fundamental political challenges that may have garnered resistance to the reform. The final resolution on the development reform omitted any references to conflict prevention and human rights promotion due to opposition from a number of government delegates, disregarding the very reason why the RC position was moved to the Secretariat in the first place. In short, the reforms should have the capacity to mitigate the institutional, political, and cultural deficits leading to systemic failure of the UN in atrocity situations. However, cherry-picking and state resistance to elements of the reforms are undermining their intent, and the reforms risk becoming a technocratic exercise that is detached from the realities of the difficult political situations in which UN country teams are expected to navigate atrocity prevention.

To conclude, though the Independent Inquiry was much shorter and less resourced than the 2011 Sri Lanka report, its findings are crucial. With a stated focus on prevention in the current reform era, the UN cannot afford another major report that shows blood its hands. The situation in Rakhine State was one for which the UN had sufficient early warning and an architecture in place to respond. The lack of appropriate positioning in Myanmar early in the transition period, a conflicting internal strategy at the country-level, and inconsistent international backing undermined the UN’s ability to maneuver around the Myanmar Government when required. The report points to the urgent need for cooperation across UN funds, programs, and agencies to agree on clear-sighted and coordinated strategies in situations of escalating violence. Second, its findings point to the need for improved cooperation between the UN and its member states to ensure the implementation of much needed reforms in a manner that serves the best interest of the populations in need of such action.

Cecilia Jacob is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University. Her work focuses on civilian protection, mass atrocity prevention, and international human protection norms. She is the author of Child Security in Asia: The Impact of Armed Conflict and Cambodia and Myanmar (2014), and co-editor of Civilian Protection in the Twenty-First Century: Governance and Responsibility in a Fragmented World (2016) and Implementing the Responsibility to Protect: A Future Agenda (forthcoming, 2019).


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  1. Internal Review Panel on United Nations Action in Sri Lanka, ‘Report of the Secretary-General’s Internal Review Panel on United Nations Action in Sri Lanka’ (New York: United Nations, November 2012)
  2. António Guterres, ‘Restructuring of the United Nations peace and security pillar: Report of the Secretary-General’, A/72/525, 13 October 2017
  3. António Guterres, ‘Repositioning the United Nations development system to deliver on the 2030 agenda: Our promise for dignity, prosperity and peace on a healthy planet: Report of the Secretary-General’, A/72/684‒E/2018/7, 21 December 2017
  4. António Guterres, ‘Shifting the management paradigm in the United Nations: Implementing a new management architecture for improved effectiveness and strengthened accountability: Report of the Secretary-General’, A/72/492/Add.2, 21 March 2018
  5. Gert Rosenthal, ‘A Brief and Independent Inquiry into the Involvement of the United Nations in Myanmar from 2010 to 2018’, 29 May, 2019, p3.


Category: Atrocity Prevention, Online Exclusive, United Nations

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