Weary Rohingya trudging from Myanmar's Rakhine state to Ukhia, Bangladesh
Weary Rohingya trudging from Myanmar's Rakhine state to Ukhia, BangladeshSyful Islam

In the wake of the mass exodus of the Rohingyas from the Northern Rakhine State of Myanmar from 25 August 2017, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, while opening the border for them, made a call to the international community to create UN supervised ‘safe zones’ inside Myanmar for protection of all civilians irrespective of religion and ethnicity.

Bangladesh is currently hosting over 1.1 million Rohingyas who fled the Northern Rakhine State of Myanmar in several phases due to repeated infliction of atrocities and systematic violations of human rights against them. The innocent civilians, mostly women and children, took shelter in Bangladesh, primarily to protect themselves from a situation where their safety, security and dignity were at serious stake and they continued to suffer from deliberate expulsion, executed through killing, abduction, torture, rape, arson, starvation and other crimes, which has been termed by various international quarters including the UN, as ‘genocide’.

While the Rohingyas are now staying in Bangladesh for temporary protection, they must be able to return to their homeland in Northern Rakhine State of Myanmar. The Bilateral Arrangement signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar requires Myanmar to restore normalcy in Rakhine and ensure conducive atmosphere for return of Rohingyas in safety, security and dignity. However, according to the international community, the Rakhine State is still not safe for the return of the Rohingyas.

There are reports of escalated attacks by Arakan Army on Myanmar Forces that makes the situation further fluid. Myanmar has continued to disallow access to northern Rakhine to mandated UN agencies (like UNHCR, UNDP, WFP etc.) and INGOs despite elapsing of two years since the first conflict in October 2016. There has been no improvement of Rohingyas in IDP camps and isolated villages in Rakhine. In such a situation, the proposal to create ‘safe zones,’ merits consideration.

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‘Safe Zone” and the applicable laws

Protracted conflicts (both international and non-international) in many parts of the world renewed calls for so called ‘safe zones’ and ‘safe corridors’ to prevent people from needing to seek protection abroad as refugees, and to encourage refugees and displaced people to return home. The concept has been practiced in various parts of the world under various names, such as, ‘save haven’, ‘interim zones of stability’, ‘neutralized zones’, ‘deescalated zones’, etc.

The ‘safe zones’ suggest an area within a country engulfed in armed conflict or generalized violence that is made safe from military attack. Such zones are designated in the areas where the civilians and non-combatants face security challenges. Such zones can be created either by agreement of the parties in conflict or by Security Council Resolution.

Similarly ‘safe corridor’ refers to a route out of the conflict for civilians and non-combatants, or in the midst of conflict, a way to move around (such as corridor that allows people to go to a market or to a medical facility, etc.). Seen as concomitant to ‘safe zones’, these are essential for humanitarian actors to operate freely among various zones.

There is no clear principle for ‘safe zones’ in international law and the state practices are still evolving. Yet existing laws that regulate protection of civilians and non-combatants – such as, international refugee law , the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement , the law of armed conflicts (Geneva Conventions 1949 and the Additional Protocols I and II) international human rights law and the international law relating to peacekeeping operations offer some guidelines on the nature and scopes of such zones. Besides, the previous instances provide important lessons for such future initiatives.

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While the nature of a ‘safe zone’ would depend to a great extent on the respective conflict situation, the international laws and practices offer few guidelines, which could be taken into consideration in formulating principles for a new ‘safe zone’:

· ‘Safe Zones’ must have an exclusively civilian, humanitarian, neutral and demilitarized character with no armed elements in the designated safe areas.

· For a ‘safe zone’ to be able to function and provide an acceptable degree of protection, humanitarian actors need to be provided with unhindered access to the people of their concern.

· ‘Safe corridors’ must be open and accessible at all times or at certain times of the day or certain days of the week.

· ‘Safe zones’ and ‘safe corridors’ must be protected from attacks by the parties in conflict on the bases of principles of distinction, which implies that the civilians and non-combatants must not be an object of attack.

· The ‘safe zones’ and ‘safe corridors’ being demilitarized and civilian in nature would require internal security arrangements to prevent and address crimes and violence within the zone. This which may be provided by the ‘observers’/‘monitors’ deployed for this purpose.

· The inhabitants of the ‘safe zones’ would be eligible to exercise some basic human rights under the international law, subject to applicable emergency derogations.

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‘Safe Zones’ and ‘Safe Corridor’ - a humanitarian alternative for the Rohingyas

Although Bangladesh has been providing shelter and other basic services to the forcibly displaced Rohingyas, the ultimate solution to the protracted Rohingya crisis lies in the safe and sustainable return to their homeland in Myanmar. To arrive at such a solution, Bangladesh has remained diplomatically engaged with Myanmar and signed the Arrangement of Return for the sustainable return of the Rohingyas to their homes in Northern Rakhine State in Myanmar. The arrangements provided for rights and protection of the returnees in the Rakhine State of Myanmar as conditions for “conducive environment”.

The international community has been persistently engaged with Myanmar to create a ‘conducive environment’ in the Northern Rakhine State so that the Rohingyas can voluntarily decide to return to their homes with the assurances of safety, security and dignity. UNHCR and UNDP have signed MoU with Myanmar to provide support to Myanmar authorities in this regard. However, the UN agencies continue to complain about lack of humanitarian access to the affected areas.

Recently Bangladesh and Myanmar, in accordance with the terms of the bilateral arrangement signed on 23 November 2017, put all infrastructural set-ups in place and invited the verified Rohingyas to return to Myanmar to designated reception areas, without clarity on their return to places of origin or safe places near to those. However, no Rohingya expressed willingness to return to Myanmar. The incident clearly indicated failure on the part of Myanmar to create ‘conducive environment’ and generate enough confidence amongst the Rohingyas to return to their own homes. Besides, the volume and intensity of atrocities committed against the Rohingyas as well as the present condition in Rakhine State continue to make the Rohingyas unsure of their safety and security in Myanmar.

In this circumstance, it can be assumed that the Rohingyas would not be able to return voluntarily until and unless they are provided with credible assurance for safety, freedom of movement and access as well as for international protection. The military operations of Myanmar in various phases, including the most recent and the most brutal one through August 2017 have disproportionately affected the Rohingyas, especially the civilians. In order to ensure the protection of the civilians including the returnees, the international community must work out a sustainable initiative, such as the one proposed by the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina- creating ‘safe zones’ in the Northern Rakhine state of Myanmar.

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Creation of ‘Safe Zones’ in Myanmar

The ‘safe zones’ may be created/declared/designated primarily in three most affected villages of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung and other affected areas in Sittwe and Kaladan- Lemro river valley where the civilians and non-combatants faced security challenges and eventually would like to return. The safe zones would be different from the IDP camps that Myanmar created as ghettoes after violence of 2012 where more than 130,000 have been living for about 6 years.

To enable the initiative of ‘safe zones’ to function effectively, ‘safe corridors’ need to be created which would connect the individual ‘safe zones’. These ‘safe corridors’ would facilitate free and unimpeded movement of the humanitarian actors across the ‘safe zones’. The inhabitants of the ‘safe zones,’ too, would be allowed to move between the ‘zones’ using the ‘safe corridors’ and would enjoy access from health, education, trade, agriculture and livelihood considerations. The corridors would be kept open either at all times or at certain times in the day or certain days in the week.

Principles and nature of the ‘Safe Zones’ in Myanmar

The forcibly displaced Rohingyas who wish to return to their homes in Myanmar may be encouraged to live in the designated ‘safe zones’ till they are resettled in their original places of abode. In addition, Rohingyas who have not fled their homes and are still staying in Rakhine State, but are at risk of continued marginalization and vulnerability that often compel to consider exodus, may also be provided protection in those ‘safe zones’.

Creation of “Safe Zones” in Rakhine State of Myanmar will substitute to some extent the need for creating ‘conducive environment’ and will remain in place until and unless such conditions are created in Myanmar. This will build confidence amongst the Rohingyas to return to Myanmar

The civilians inside the ‘safe zones’ will have to be provided with basic services, such as, shelter, food, medicine etc. as well as safety and security by duly mandated national and international entities. The designated authorities of Myanmar government may be entrusted with the responsibility to manage the safe zones with the support from mandated domestic and international entities Myanmar Red Cross, ICRC, UNHCR, UNDP and other entities with proven track record, in accordance with relevant international laws and practices. As Myanmar is somewhat agreeable to an ASEAN-led initiative, and therefore ASEAN Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA) may also be included.

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To monitor the principles and rules of engagement inside the ‘safe zones’, and well as to ensure the safety and security of the civilians and humanitarian actors, UN mandated forces (peacekeeping or otherwise), may be deployed. The member-states of the ASEAN and other Asian countries in the region in particular India and China may contribute observers /troops in such monitoring.

As regards the scope of protection/rights of the inhabitants of the ‘safe zones’ are concerned, the principles/provisions negotiated by Myanmar and Bangladesh in the bilateral arrangements may be taken as a reference point. The provisions, having been agreed upon by Myanmar side, offer basic guidelines applicable for the ‘safe zones’, pending return of the Rohingyas to their villages where they lived for centuries.

Conclusion

Creation of “Safe Zones” in Rakhine State of Myanmar will substitute to some extent the need for creating ‘conducive environment’ and will remain in place until and unless such conditions are created in Myanmar. This will build confidence amongst the Rohingyas to return to Myanmar and eventually live with harmony with the other ethnicities in Rakhine State. This will also enable the Myanmar government to speed up its activities towards creating conducive environment in Myanmar and help implementation of the recommendations made by the Rakhine Advisory (Kofi Annan) Commission. Such internationally mandated arrangement will also work as a preventive measure against recurrence of violence and mass exodus in Myanmar.

Pending creation of conducive environment in Myanmar for voluntary return, friendly countries may be sensitised to mobilise support in favour of the safe zones in designated areas of the Rakhine State so that the forcibly displaced are not made to wait forever to return to their own homes and build the future of them and their future generations in a peaceful and secured manner.

Md Shahidul Haque is a senior fellow, South Asian Institute of Policy and Governance (SIPG), North South University and former foreign secretary of Bangladesh.