Remarks at a UN Side-Event on “Atrocities Against Rohingya: From Condemnation to Action”

Ambassador Michele J. Sison
U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
October 24, 2017


Thank you, Dr. Adams, distinguished panelists, colleagues.

As we are all too well aware, thousands of individuals continue to cross the border from Burma into Bangladesh, as the Under-Secretary-General has just noted. And there are now more than 603,000 individuals who have fled since August 25, the majority of them self-identifying as Rohingya. Today is UN Day. Many of us attended a touching ceremony here at the UN at 8:00 this morning. And seventy-two years ago, when we adopted the UN Charter to form this body, we “reaffirmed our faith…in the dignity and worth of the human person.” That’s a direct quote from the preamble of the Charter. “The dignity and worth of the human person” – we need to remember that when we discuss the atrocities which have occurred in northern Rakhine State in Burma, we remember that we are talking about real people. Real human beings. Men, women, and children. Real people who deserve to have their dignity and their worth recognized as we all agreed to 72 years ago. Real people who have gone through unimaginable traumas from which it will be difficult for them to recover. Witnessing the killing of children, witnessing or being subjected to rape, torture – their struggle has been, and continues to be, very, very real. It is for those people – and in recognition of their suffering – that we are here today.

We welcome the statements of the Government of Burma in recent weeks, and we sincerely hope those words will transform into real action. It is time to stop all violence in the country and to restore the rule of law, encourage unity and tolerance amongst the country’s various ethnic and religious groups, and to work with the international community, including the UN, to find a real resolution to the current crisis.

We again, and unequivocally, condemn all acts of violence in Burma. But no violent act relieves the Burmese security forces of their duty – their duty to restore the rule of law and to ensure the safety and security of all individuals in Burma without discrimination. It is clear that the Burmese security forces continue to fail in this duty in Rakhine State, where there is a continued lack of law and order. There must be accountability for abuses and atrocities, both for those who committed them and those who ordered them.

Yesterday, the U.S. State Department identified new and ongoing actions to pursue accountability for those who have committed violence and abuses, including, among other measures, suspending travel waivers for military leaders; assessing authorities under the JADE Act to consider economic options available to target individuals associated with atrocities; finding that all units and officers involved in operations in northern Rakhine State are, pursuant to the Leahy Law, ineligible for U.S. assistance programs; rescinding invitations for Burmese security leaders to attend U.S.-sponsored events; maintaining an embargo on military sales; consulting with partners on accountability options at the UN, the Human Rights Council, and at other venues; pressing the Government of Burma to allow access to the UN Fact-Finding Mission; and exploring accountability mechanisms under U.S. law, including Global Magnitsky targeted sanctions.

The Government of Burma should allow immediate, unfettered access for UN agencies and other humanitarian groups to provide aid and assistance to all affected populations in Rakhine State. Allowing full access, as I mentioned, for the UN Fact Finding Mission to all parts of the country to do its important work and allowing the international media unrestricted access to report facts from the ground – this is all vital.

We have publicly recognized – and will continue to recognize – the generosity of Bangladesh as hosts to such a large number of refugees. And we encourage the government of Bangladesh to allow a more extensive role for UNHCR in the country that draws upon UNHCR’s unique mandate and expertise in refugee protection. And we also note the efforts of the government of Indonesia to promote access and encourage de-escalation of violence in Burma.

We welcome State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s commitment that refugees will be able to return home. We encourage the Government of Burma to work closely with UNHCR and other appropriate UN agencies throughout the process. So the Government of Burma must also ensure that conditions on the ground allow for the safe, dignified, and voluntary return of all those who have fled the violence in their country or who are internally displaced. While we welcome increased cooperation between Bangladesh and Burma, we encourage both sides to work with the international community to agree to an appropriate and workable mechanism to govern those returns.

Finally, while our immediate efforts must focus on this humanitarian and human rights crisis, failure to address the long-term causes of instability in Rakhine – deep-rooted discrimination and economic deprivation – will only result in a replay of this tragedy, we fear, in the future. It is thus crucial that we support Burma in implementing the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission, led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to address underdevelopment, shortcomings in services, access to justice, and a citizenship process for all people in Rakhine State.

Thank you, and we thank Ambassador Momen and the Permanent Mission of Bangladesh for organizing this important and very timely side event this afternoon. Thank you.