Remarks at a UN General Assembly Briefing on Burma

Austin Smith
Acting U.S. Representative to ECOSOC
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
July 1, 2019


Thank you, Madam President. Thank you, Ambassador Burgener, for your briefing.

The United States remains deeply concerned about the situation in Myanmar, especially in Rakhine State.  Sadly, the Government has made little progress in improving conditions there, while the military’s conflict with the Arakan Army continues to escalate and civilian casualties rise by the day.

We agree with UNHCR’s assessment that conditions in Rakhine State are not yet conducive for voluntary returns, and that the responsibility to improve those conditions rests with the Myanmar authorities.  Any returns of Rohingya refugees and internally displaced persons must be voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable, consistent with international principles.  Such returns will not be possible without freedom of movement, access to livelihoods, security reform, rule of law, and implementation of other recommendations of the Annan Commission.  Furthermore, returns should be based on relevant and reliable information about the conditions in Myanmar.  Refugees and IDPs cannot make informed, voluntary choices without unhindered humanitarian, media, and NGO access – which the government and military have not allowed since the start of this crisis.

The Myanmar government’s regrettable decision to suspend internet service in Rakhine State casts further doubt on its commitment to creating conditions that allow people to feel they can live in safety and security. Shutting down the Internet violates the democratic principle of freedom of expression, and will surely abet impunity in areas already stricken by devastating violence.  We are deeply concerned by reports of human rights abuses occurring under this internet “black out.”  Further, this action damages Myanmar’s reputation among the community of nations and among key economic actors.  We reiterate that peace and prosperity depend on the free flow of information and ideas, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information.

There are voices, including in this chamber, who counsel patience.  But for the one million Rohingya who have fled devastating violence, the situation could not be more urgent.  As we approach the two year anniversary of the ethnic cleansing in northern Rakhine State, the Myanmar authorities must take concrete actions to resolve this crisis and prevent the recurrence of atrocities in Rakhine State and other conflict-affected areas across Myanmar.  They must acknowledge the abusive behavior of Myanmar’s military, ensure meaningful accountability for those responsible for atrocities and human rights abuses, remove those implicated in abuses from positions of power, and address the needs of victims.

In the meantime, we in the international community must continue to undertake measures to address this crisis.  The United States supports multiple efforts and mechanisms at the UN to foster justice and accountability for human rights abuses in Myanmar.  In addition to supporting Ambassador Burgener’s mandate, we have welcomed the work of the UN Fact-Finding Mission and the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar.  We support the expeditious operationalization of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, which will collect, consolidate, preserve, and analyze evidence of the most serious crimes.  We again call upon the Myanmar authorities to resume cooperation with UN human rights mechanisms and entities.

In closing, the United States would like to applaud Bangladesh’s generosity in continuing to host one million Rohingya refugees.  We will continue to seek to increase access to education, livelihoods, and durable shelters for these refugees, while maintaining pressure on Myanmar to create the conditions necessary for safe and voluntary repatriation.

Thank you, Madam President.