External Affairs

Ahead of General Assembly, Antonio Guterres Calls on Myanmar to End Violence

Among the most pressing issues expected to be discussed during the annual meeting is the humanitarian crisis and escalation of violence in Myanmar.

Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), arrives for a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland December 18, 2015. Credit: Reuters

Antonio Guterres, United Nations high commissioner for refugees, arrives for a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland December 18, 2015. Credit: Reuters

UN: In an environment full of major threats, countries must work together towards peace and stability, the secretary-general said ahead of the General Assembly.

As the UN gears up for the 72nd session of the General Assembly, when leaders from around the world will convene, the secretary-general pointed to pressing issues and actions to be discussed over the course of the week.

“Global leaders will gather here next week at a time where our world faces major threats – from nuclear peril to global terrorism, from inequality to cyber crime,” Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said of his first General Assembly session since assuming office in January 2017.

“No country can meet these tests alone. But if we work together, we can chart a safer, more stable course, and that is why the General Assembly meeting is so important,” he continued.

Among the most pressing issues expected to be discussed during the annual meeting is the humanitarian crisis and escalation of violence in Myanmar, which Guterres described as “catastrophic” and “unacceptable.”

“I call on the Myanmar authorities to suspend military action, end the violence, uphold the rule of law, and recognise the right of return of all those who had to leave the country,” Guterres said, recommending that Rohingya Muslims be granted citizenship or at least a legal status that allows them to lead a productive life.

Sparked after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked a security post on August 25, Myanmar’s military has launched “clearance operations” which has left a path of destruction in its wake.

Security forces have reportedly systematically targeted Rohingya communities, including by burning their homes and indiscriminately shooting at villagers.

Over 370,000 Rohingya Muslims have since fled into neighbouring Bangladesh, a figure that tripled in just one week.

In response to the violent outbreak, the high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said that the treatment of Rohingya Muslims seems to be a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

When asked if he agrees that the Rohingya population is facing ethnic cleansing, Guterres stated: “When one-third of the Rohingya population has to flee a country, can you find a better word to describe it?”

However, he stopped short of describing the atrocities as genocide, instead calling it a “dramatic tragedy.”

“The question here is not to establish a dialogue on the different kinds of technical words…people are dying and suffering at horrible numbers and we need to stop it. That is my main concern.”

Amid mounting criticism over her response to the latest iteration of the crisis, Nobel Peace laureate and Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi recently cancelled her trip to the UN meeting this year.

In her address to the General Assembly in 2016, Suu Kyi said that her government did not fear international scrutiny over its treatment of the Rohingya population.

“We are committed to a sustainable solution that will lead to peace, stability and development for all communities within the state,” she said.

Myanmar is reportedly sending its Second Vice President Henry Van Thio in Suu Kyi’s place.

The Security Council (UNSC) has also faced criticism for its silence and lack of action on the situation in Myanmar.

The group last met behind closed doors at the end of August but issued no formal statement or proposal to end the crisis.

The secretary-general wrote a letter to the 15-member council asking it to “undertake concerted efforts to prevent further escalation of the crisis.”

During a press conference, Guterres highlighted his personal commitment to the issue, stating: “This is a matter that I feel very deeply in my heart…the suffering of the people is something I feel very strongly about.”

UNSC held another closed-door meeting on Wednesday which many non-governmental organisations are saying is insufficient and are urging for a public meeting.

“[UNSC] needs to take control of the issue and show that they are really concerned about it,” said Human Rights Watch’s UN director Louis Charbonneau at a press conference on the Myanmar crisis.

“The Security Council is supposed to be the guardian of international peace and security. This is an international peace and security crisis. It is a nightmare – people are dying, there is destruction, there is no excuse for them to keep sitting on their hands,” he continued.

In an effort to advance the UN’s work on peace and security, Guterres also announced a new High-Level Advisory Board on Mediation.

The 18-member group, which includes personalities such as President of Chile Michelle Bachelet and president of the International Crisis Group Jean-Marie Guéhenno, will advise the secretary-general on mediation efforts and challenges.

Guterres also said that he aims to discuss the Myanmar crisis along with other challenges such as climate change with the US’s President Donald Trump who is due to attend and speak at the general debate on September 19.

Since taking office, President Trump has butted heads with the UN, threatening to significantly cut funds to UN programmes and even eliminating all funds to the UN Population Fund after citing concerns that the agency conducts “coercive abortion or involuntary sterilisation” in China.

Earlier this year, Trump also announced the US’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, a landmark commitment made by 195 countries to address and combat climate change.

In response to such challenges, Guterres highlighted the efforts being made to make the US-UN relationship a constructive one and hopes that it will be a message that the president will also convey in his address.

“It is my deep belief that to preserve the American interests is to engage positively in global affairs and to engage positively in support to multilateral organisations like the UN,” Guterres said.

(IPS)