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Rakhine: Returns must be safe, dignified and voluntary

Speech by the ICRC President Peter Maurer at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore, 2 June 2018

Relocated families receiving aid in Cox's Bazar. CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / Sheikh Mehedi Morshed

I'm pleased to address you today and to bring a humanitarian perspective to this discussion with security experts from the countries most concerned by the crisis in Rakhine. Thank you to the IISS for allowing the ICRC to provide its observations on this platform – it is crucial that the humanitarian dimensions of this crisis are part of the security sector's discussion.

From a humanitarian perspective, the situation in Rakhine features similar characteristics to what we have seen in other contexts:

  • Mass displacements due to multiple extensions of violence (political - military, inter-community) and violations of international humanitarian law and international humanitarian rights law

  • An increasingly long-term crisis, in which political solutions seem elusive and humanitarian organizations are assisting a large number of beneficiaries over a long time; and

  • Short-term, emergency issues compounding more structural challenges (such as poverty, injustice, exclusion and lack of governance) and pushing countries and regions towards protracted conflict.

Today, in both Cox's Bazar and in Rakhine, the ICRC and the broader humanitarian community is very much still in relief and emergency mode – providing life-saving assistance along well-established principles and practices.

For instance, in Rakhine today we are doubling the distribution of food rations, so that we can help communities before the rainy season begins and many areas become inaccessible. Working with our partners, the Myanmar Red Cross and the International Federation of the Red Cross, we are also running mobile health clinics, and distributing emergency assistance kits. We are also working to reconnect thousands of people on both sides of the border separated in the crisis.

We are focusing not only on mitigating the effects of violence, but our mandate also requires us to protect populations affected by war and violence through the law. In this perspective, we engage in a series of activities, which give us unique additional access and insight into the conflict dynamics. Such activities include:

  • Visiting places of detention in Rakhine and elsewhere in Myanmar;

  • Promoting International Humanitarian Law to Non-State Armed Groups and holding a dialogue on the Conduct of Hostilities with parties to the conflict; and

  • Educating armed forces on health issues – protecting health care systems and personnel and on weapon wounded and war surgery.

While it may sound obvious that we are delivering such services, nothing can be taken for granted in today's contexts: even basic humanitarian programs need trustful relationships with all actors and authorities. Humanitarian assistance must be delivered in a neutral and impartial way, taking into considerations the different tensions in the conflict environment. Failure to do so will further polarize the situation. In that sense, I am glad that our long-term engagement in Myanmar and Bangladesh, with our strict neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian approach plus our method of confidentially raising sensitive issues with the parties, is facilitating today's crisis response.

While the emergency response continues, there must also be urgent progress – from humanitarians, development actors, and the authorities – on building sustainable solutions. In Rakhine, before the current crisis and continuing, we are contributing to sustainable health, economic and water activities, which are in line with the recommendations of the Kofi Annan led Rakhine Advisory Commission. We are keen to see these humanitarian recommendations politically embraced and implemented on the ground. The Annan Commission's recommendations are an especially noteworthy example of how humanitarian and political steps can – and should – go hand-in-hand.

We acknowledge that political solutions are difficult, yet we also see that the current conditions of people living in the camps are untenable. We urge therefore that sustainable solutions are found to allow safe, dignified and voluntary returns as soon possible. Our current understanding of the situation is that the vast majority of displaced people are not yet ready to return. Confidence to return will require not only humanitarian and mitigating activities, but also effective political steps towards:

  • Ensuring freedom of movement;

  • Access to basic services;

  • Freedom to undertake economic activity and access to markets in Rakhine; and

  • Most importantly trust in security arrangements for returnees.

We are still far away from reuniting such ramifications today at a large scale.

And even if returns started today and followed the process and timeline laid out by Bangladesh and Myanmar, it would most likely take several years to complete.

In the meantime, those living in camps in Bangladesh must be able to live in dignity and with basic services met.

Families cannot live in dignity over years under makeshift tents tarpaulin exposed to the monsoon.

Children cannot miss years of education.

The sick, elderly cannot go without health care.

No one can live with constant uncertainty, and without hope of a better life.

We must focus both on pragmatic, immediate measures, especially in the face of the upcoming monsoons. And to press for sustainable solutions that mean a better life for people waiting in Bangladesh and for the return to their homes.

Speaking today in the heart of Asia, I cannot but emphasize the important role that this region must play in creating a conducive atmosphere for a political solution for the Rakhine crisis which must address the underlying and long standing causes. There are displaced people and migrants from Myanmar spread through Asia, with many of your countries hosting people from Myanmar over decades.

This audience and those on this panel in particular know well the geopolitical elements that could further complicate this crisis. With its religious, security, economic and political divides, with the alliances of interest which have been building around the Rakhine crisis, this has become one of the most internationalized and protracted conflict situations. Engagement of the region is critical to manage further globalization of the crisis.

We all know that despair and hopelessness felt by people affected by violence, if left to fester, can have terrible long-term impact on individuals, communities and states. And we know that respect for International Humanitarian Law and the rule of law can contribute to better protection, and to mitigate against further despair and radicalization of populations affected by the crisis.

Let me conclude by suggesting three parameters to consider in order to improve both the humanitarian and security situation:

  1. Uphold the dignity of those displaced to Bangladesh, and provide them the best chance of returning home with safety and dignity when conditions are right and in respect of the principle of non-refoulement;

  2. Support the Government of Myanmar in full and speedy implementation of the Rakhine Advisory Commission's recommendations. Spread across the five thematic areas of conflict prevention, humanitarian assistance, reconciliation, institution building and development, these recommendations contain the necessary ingredients to address the security and humanitarian crisis in Rakhine.

  3. Ensure that security operations are conducted with full respect of principles of IHL – do not target civilians, do not inflict unnecessary suffering, and adhere to the principle of military necessity and proportionality.

Speech given by Mr Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Panel discussion on Security and Humanitarian Crisis in Rakhine State, 2 June 2018, Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore


(c) 2018 The International Committee of the Red Cross

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