UN Myanmar chief: ‘If we start compromising our principles, then we risk undermining our own work’

In November, Mr Knut Ostby, from Norway, was appointed the UN’s resident and humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar, replacing Canadian Ms Renata Lok-Dessallien.

In his first published media interview since taking the role, Ostby, who was previously UN’s RC in Timor Leste and has held UN posts in more than a dozen countries, spoke to Frontier’s Sean Gleeson about his review of the UN’s Myanmar strategy, its role in the refugee repatriation program in northern Rakhine State, and what he hopes to achieve during his time in office.

Your predecessor was rather infamous during her tenure here for being media-averse. I’d like to ask first of all why you’ve agreed to have this interview?

I think we need to communicate more. I had a very interesting lesson from Kemal Derviş, the former finance minister from Turkey. He told me that he spent half his time trying to save Turkey from financial crisis, and half his time telling people about it. So I think communication is extremely important for our work. We as outsiders cannot develop people; people have to develop themselves. So when we tell people about what we’re thinking and what we’re doing, that allows people to join in and agree with us, or not agree with us, and you have the chance to bring people onboard and move in the same direction.

So does the UN believe, then, that this lack of communication has been a shortcoming on the part of this office in the past?

I wasn’t here so I cannot say how it worked but I can say that I believe in communication. I think that the UN sometimes of course is under attack and sometimes it has many good things to say, and I think that we need to deal with both.

Last year there was a review of UN operations in Myanmar sent to the secretary general that characterised the mission here as “glaringly dysfunctional”. Is your appointment a response to this review and the shortcomings it identified, and what are your plans to rectify some of the criticisms that have been made?

I’m very aware of the accusation. That’s one of the first things I heard from my colleagues in the UN Country Team. One of the first things they said to me was, “We are aware that we have been accused of being dysfunctional, we strongly disagree with this.” Obviously I have dealt with many UN country teams, and there’s always some issues.

The reason we have a UN reform going on is for a purpose. We are not perfect. I think what I’m trying to do with the Country Team here is to also communicate internally, to have people talk to each other, to have people collaborate more strongly and I have opened this idea of having a new strategic approach to Rakhine, for example. Because there was not full agreement about where we should be going with Rakhine, I needed to bring people together.

It has been reported that your predecessor sidelined staff that urged a greater emphasis on humanitarian and human rights concerns in Rakhine State. Is the consideration of a new approach a recognition that the UN could have done more to prevent the situation as it stands in Rakhine?

First of all, what I’ve seen is that there was quite a lot done, both before and after the crisis. Publicly you know what has been done after the crisis, there were all these high level interventions. There were also a lot of letters, meetings and expressions of concern both from here and headquarters before this crisis started. There’s always something more that could be done. I feel that quite a lot was done, but I’m not here to try to compare myself to the past. I’m trying to deal with now.

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About this strategy and the human rights approach: it is a concern that the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights staff have not been able to get visas recently, and also that the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights [Ms. Yanghee Lee] was also refused a visa. We continue to urge the government to collaborate with all our human rights mechanisms.

I haven’t completed this strategy. We are working on it. I’m trying to involve not only the UN, but also international NGOs and the embassies in discussing common areas of focus. And this is not taken out of the blue but we are trying to base it on the Rakhine Advisory Commission recommendations led by Kofi Annan. I am sure it will include issues related to development, humanitarian access, [refugee] returns and human rights.

You recently sent out a New Year’s message saying the UN mission here was committed to ongoing “constructive and principled engagement” with the government. Could you speak a little more on what this means?

I think there are three key transitions in this country that we’re trying to support. One is the democratic transition, which is ongoing. It’s the transition from conflict to peace, which is also not finished yet, and of course the transition from a closed to an open economy. And we are involved in all through various kinds of development programs. We have capacity building programs with both local and central institutions, we have support programs for ceasefire monitoring, although we are not involved directly in political negotiations, and we have development programs for income generation and basic services.

What I mean with a constructive and principled approach is that there are both challenges and opportunities in development and human rights. We see an interest in working with us from different parts of the government on various development areas and also some humanitarian areas. I think it’s important to take those opportunities when they can benefit vulnerable people, people that we want to reach, and work with our counterparts in government and civil society. But then at the same time as we do this, we make sure that we observe our principles and don’t compromise on them.

There have been plenty of signs that the UN’s effort of good faith has not been reciprocated by the government. My understanding is that your appointment was a compromise because the government refused to allow the appointment of an assistant secretary general to oversee this mission. Is that not an example of compromising principle to maintain the UN’s engagement in other areas?

If we start compromising our principles, then we risk doing harm or undermining our own work. When we do programs, whether they are humanitarian or development, that requires that we come back to it and re-examine what we’re doing all the time. And we’re doing that. There is an enormous amount of attention on this particular question.

I think my point is that there is not a whole country of 51 million people and everything is bad or everything is good. It’s not possible. So what we need to do is find where we can do something good, and then we should also express concern or criticism when we see something which is bad. We may not always succeed in doing everything perfectly, but this is the direction I would like to encourage. After all, we have an enormous amount of vulnerable people, whether they are stateless, or in need of humanitarian assistance, or living in poverty, that can benefit from us doing things.

Could you elaborate on the nature of your mandate? I understand that you’re currently halfway through your six-month term. Does the fact that you have only been appointed for six months signal that the UN holds out hope for successfully negotiating the appointment of an assistant secretary general?

I don’t know exactly what the situation is in New York, but it’s with the secretary general [Mr Antonio Guterres]; he will make a decision on this. I was sent here on short notice after the government said they would not agree to an ASG, but I have been told to work as if I am here for the longer term, and that’s what I’m doing. I’m also of course open to the possibility of being extended myself, but that is up to my bosses in New York.

But this is not a usual kind of appointment.

No, the normal appointment is for three to five years depending on the country. And I have had several of these appointments before. So this is unusual, but they were in an unusual situation because there was disagreement with the government on the proposal that was being made and they had to find a way forward. Exactly why they chose this model over others, I cannot say.

There have been conflicting media accounts of the UN’s role in the refugee repatriation program in northern Rakhine State. Could you clarify the nature of the cooperation?

It’s fair to say that this was misrepresented in media, what transpired in the meetings. To directly answer the question, there is no cooperation at the moment. We are interested in collaborating, but UNHCR is taking the lead, trying to propose to government how this could happen and then of course they have certain standards, principles and practices for how responsible returns can take place. The other UN agencies are ready to join in. But the main discussion from our side is with the UNHCR at the moment, but it hasn’t led to any concrete actions.

The agencies who were there, they heard some information, there were some ideas proposed, but they did not respond with specific actions or proposals to move forward with return. They also discussed the general health situation in the state, which is different from return. They told me that they also used the opportunity to express the need for return to be voluntary, dignified and to place of origin.

If the current arrangements for repatriation established by the government of Myanmar continue, will the UN consider operating under that framework?

I don’t think I would like to speculate on what might or might not transpire in the future. But we know about this MoU [between Bangladesh and Myanmar]. UNHCR and UN agencies are mentioned in this MoU. On the Bangladesh side it’s mentioned to engage them immediately, on the Myanmar side, its wording is something like “as soon as relevant”. UNHCR has responded formally on our side. They have written to the government inviting discussions on how to assist with returns.

If there is a real discussion and real agreement to the standards that will allow this return to be responsible, we are very keen to go and assist. But there is no indication at this point that this agreement is nearby. There’s no formal response to UNHCR’s request for negotiations.

So if the standards for a safe and voluntary return fall short but the UN is still invited to cooperate, what do you see happening?

As I said, I don’t think I’d like to speculate what we would do in a hypothetical situation in the future.

But it is a possibility. You can’t emphatically rule out that would happen at this stage?

Many things could happen. I think we are focusing on advocating for responsible return and positioning ourselves for discussion for a responsible return, also proposing assistance with the implementation of the Rakhine Advisory Commission recommendations. But we’re not focusing any energy on speculating about possible future questions.

Newly erected tents at the Hla Pho Kaung camp in northern Rakhine State, where the government plans to temporarily house refugees who return from Bangladesh. (Mratt Kyaw Thu | Frontier)

Newly erected tents at the Hla Pho Kaung camp in northern Rakhine State, where the government plans to temporarily house refugees who return from Bangladesh. (Mratt Kyaw Thu | Frontier)

The current framework has similarities to what UN faced in Sri Lanka at the end of the civil war there, where with UN cooperation, IDPs were sent into facilities very similar to the ones being constructed at the moment. Subsequent reports were heavily critical of the UN’s decision to participate in that process. Is it not fair to say that if the UN agreed to cooperate under the existing framework, it would be repeating the mistakes from that era, not to mention a compromise of the sort of principled engagement you discussed earlier?

We are very aware of some of the mistakes from Sri Lanka and other places. We even have people working for us who were part of this. We feel it is very important that those kinds of mistakes are not repeated. But that doesn’t necessarily make me able to answer a question that hasn’t been asked yet.

What is your view on the proposal by the High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish an independent, international and impartial mechanism to gather evidence for any future inquiries into whether crimes against humanity occurred in northern Rakhine?

I haven’t picked up on that particular proposal. I know that the fact-finding Mission is nearing the end of its term. But clearly in the current situation it is not able to work because they are not receiving access to the country. Also on our side, we are not receiving humanitarian access to the northern parts of Rakhine State so we are a bit deprived of our ability to observe. The Special Rapporteur was also denied a visa. So at the moment they are collecting evidence from outside the country.

Of course we would like to have access to Rakhine State, for humanitarian purposes, and for development and protection purposes. We haven’t got the access we would like yet but we continue to ask for it.

There seems to be a strong sense of antipathy towards the UN’s operations in Myanmar, both from the government and the public. There have been claims it is part of a campaign to destabilise and undermine the country. What do you have to say in response?

We have a lot of regular cooperation with the government and civil society in all states and regions of the country. One example is the vaccination program, which recently reached more than 15 million children through WHO and UNICEF. I was yesterday in an earthquake preparedness simulation, where we had a wide range of senior government and military members. We have a whole range of these development programs, humanitarian assistance programs … so we have a good collaboration to assist with these programs.

At the same time, we don’t have all the collaboration we would like to have. Which has manifested itself in this lack of access, for example, in northern Rakhine State, parts of Kachin and Shan, and even Kayin State. And that has a consequence for internally displaced people who are not receiving humanitarian assistance, or development assistance.

What I’m trying to say is that there is a number of members of government at the senior level, and a number of institutions, that are collaborating with us on a regular basis, and we have new programs started all the time.

Now, I can confirm that we are not part of any global conspiracy [laughs]. I have enough insight into what we do here to know that as a fact. We are here at the invitation of the government.

I think it’s important for us to get out to the general public what we are and what we do, the many good things that we do both for the country and the people. There is not enough knowledge today about that and we would like to improve that.

As we speak, there’s a fresh bombardment and displacement underway in Kachin State. What is the UN’s response to the latest conflict in the north and what representations have been made to the government?

We have not made a specific representation to the government on this specific latest attack. It is a concern that this is happening. We are trying to contribute to the peace process and we are trying to request humanitarian access. I was discussing yesterday how we can find a new way to negotiate access across the line to IDPs and others. But I unfortunately cannot show to you any great new initiative to make the peace process accelerate. We are trying to work to support the peace process, to keep the dialogue going, and I think that’s more or less where we are.

The UN has been integral in supporting the peace process, and was instrumental in bringing at least some armed groups that signed the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement to be the table. Right now, the peace process doesn’t appear to be in good health. In hindsight, was it right for the UN to support the NCA and its associated architecture, and is there anything the UN could be doing differently?

It’s a bit difficult for me to address what could have been done differently because I’m not privy to the details. But in principle, we would always like to support peaceful solutions. There’s obviously more things that we can do, but we have to do it when the parties want us to be involved. If they want us to be involved, we can definitely do more. We can be involved in mediation, reconciliation processes, but we would need to be invited to do so.

The Tatmadaw, the civilian government and the armed groups are all involved in this process. If there’s a discussion between the parties, it has to be between all parties. I have not seen an active interest from any of the parties for us to be more involved in the process while I’ve been here, but I’ve only been here for three months.

It’s a 70-year-old problem with conflict, and we would be extremely happy if we can help put an end to it, or at least partially help put an end to it.

Assuming your mandate is renewed and you serve here for three to five years, what would you like to see the UN achieve here in that time?

A lot of things. I mentioned these three transitions. There is the ambition to complete the democratic transition and this is something where we have a lot of expertise, we can assist in that. The timeframe would allow us to make some real progress there. I don’t dare to predict what progress could be made on the peace process, but some progress could happen. On the economic transition, there was a sort of opening up with new investments and new livelihoods and that has to continue. We can contribute to some of that. Maybe the international banks have more expertise when it comes to big investments, but there are many other parts of the UN system that can also contribute.

Perhaps what is most acute on my mind is access to deliver humanitarian services, not only food and water but also protection, that we are allowed to do as much as we can on those areas and to reach people that we cannot reach today. And of course everybody, including me, would like to make progress on the return of refugees, but it can happen, and we should be ready to contribute to making it happen in a responsible way, with voluntary and dignified return to place of origin and assistance to do so.

I have restarted the human rights theme group among the UN system. There’s something called the Human Rights Up Front initiative, which was developed after the Sri Lankan civil war, and I want to make sure we fully live up to that. I think we can do that before four years are up.

There’s so many things that can be done here. It’s a country that could achieve so much. It’s got a central strategic place in Southeast Asia. It has started so many interesting trends in development. And then it has several challenges that that have to be addressed, which blocks the country going ahead as it should in social, political and economic development. Ideally we would like to be part of helping all of that going forward. But maybe now I’m thinking of more than we can do in four years. A strong partnership between Myanmar and the United Nations could really help the country move forward.

TOP PHOTO: Steve Tickner | Frontier

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