A report by the United Nations on its own conduct in Myanmar has condemned the agency’s “obviously dysfunctional performance” over the past decade, and said there was a “systemic failure” in its foundational mandate to protect human rights. The 2017 military crackdown drove more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The report, written by former Guatemalan Foreign Affairs Minister Gert Rosenthal, said the United Nations system had been overall “relatively impotent to effectively work with the authorities of Myanmar to reverse the negative trends in the areas of human rights, and consolidate the positive trends in other areas”. The report was commissioned by United Nations Secretary General António Guterres to look at the world body’s involvement in Myanmar from 2010 to 2018 after it was accused of ignoring warning signs of escalating violence before an alleged genocide of the Rohingya minority.

“Without question serious errors were committed and opportunities were lost in the UN system following a fragmented strategy rather than a common plan of action,” Rosenthal, who is also a former UN Ambassador, wrote in the 36-page internal review. “The overall responsibility was of a collective character; in other words, it truly can be characterised as a systemic failure of the United Nations.”

He criticised the top leadership at the world body, saying “even at the highest level of the organisation there was no common strategy”.

Rosenthal asserted that he did not investigate particular individuals but his report addresses the controversial actions of former Resident Coordinator for Myanmar Renata Lok-Dessallien. “There appear to have been instances of deliberately de-dramatising events in reports prepared by the resident coordinator,” he claimed.

The former Guatemalan diplomat also said that Myanmar’s government “appeared to exploit the diverse narratives that they were hearing from different UN entities to play one against another”, and forward its own agenda. Myanmar has denied widespread wrongdoing and reiterated that the 2017 military campaign across hundreds of villages in northern Rakhine state was carried out in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.

In his conclusions and recommendations, Rosenthal stated that the responsibility for the abuses lay mainly with the government. The UN’s systematic failures were not down to any single entity or individuals but “clearly there is a shared responsibility on the part of all parties involved in not having been able to accompany the government’s political process with constructive actions, while at the same time conveying more forcefully the United Nations’ principled concerns regarding grave human rights violations”, he added.

Rosenthals said the key lesson from this was “to foster an environment encouraging different entities of the UN System to work together” to reinforce a “broader, system-wide strategy”.

Exodus to Bangladesh and India

More than seven lakh Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh in August 2017 as the Myanmar Army began to retaliate after attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, an insurgent group, on police posts and a military base. Most of them now live in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in the country’s southeast coast.

In February, Bangladesh had requested India to help with the early repatriation of the Rohingya to Rakhine province.

A number of the Rohingya also sought refuge in India. However, since May 2018, at least 2,000 of them have reportedly left for Bangladesh. Rohingya refugees face open hostility in India, from both the society and the state. India followed through with its threat on October 4, deporting seven Rohingya refugees to Myanmar despite opposition from human rights organisations. Five more were deported on January 4. None of them were granted citizenship rights in Myanmar even though the Centre had assured the Supreme Court they would be accepted as Myanmarese nationals.