NAYPYITAW, Myanmar — A U.N. Security Council delegation on Tuesday visited Myanmar's Rakhine state, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled military-led violence, and urged the government to improve the security conditions for the return of the refugees.
Around 700,000 Rohingya fled their homes to squalid camps in Bangladesh last year as Myanmar's army launched a brutal crackdown following insurgent attacks on security posts.
State television showed the ambassadors touring the border area. Travelling by helicopter, they visited two villages, one transit center and one reception camp, where refugees who return will initially be housed. They also met with members of different groups affected by the violence, including Rakhine Buddhists, Hindus and some Muslims who did not flee.
The ambassadors visited refugees in Bangladesh over the weekend, and on Monday held talks with Myanmar officials, including the country's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and military commander-in-chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.
At a news conference in Myanmar's capital, Naypyitaw, before flying out of the country, the ambassadors reminded Myanmar's government of its obligations as a member of the United Nations. The envoys represent the 15 countries making up the Security Council, the U.N.'s most powerful body.
"We are not asking Myanmar government something new. They are a member of the United Nations and they are a member and state party to many U.N. conventions. The return of refugees should be in conformity with international standards," said Kuwait's representative, Mansour Al-Otaibi.
Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed in December to begin repatriating the refugees in January, but there were concerns among rights groups and Rohingya that they would be forced to return and face unsafe conditions in Myanmar.
In its counterinsurgency sweeps in Rakhine state after the attacks last August on security personnel, Myanmar's military was accused of massive human rights violations, including rape, killing, torture, and the burning of Rohingya homes, that U.N. and U.S. officials have called ethnic cleansing. Thousands are believed to have died.
The Rohingya face official and social discrimination in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, which denies most of them citizenship and basic rights because they are looked on as immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many settled in Myanmar generations ago.
"Basically the message we convey is it is very important to improve the security conditions for the return of the refugees, and also collaboration with the international organization, particularly the United Nations," said Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, ambassador of Peru. "And we also mentioned the importance of the investigation regarding what happened here before the refugees went to Bangladesh."
The U.N. refugee agency and Bangladesh recently finalized a memorandum of understanding that said the repatriation process must be "safe, voluntary and dignified, in line with international standards." The Security Council delegation has asked Myanmar's government to sign the memorandum as well.
"We believe that if the memorandum of understanding can be signed quickly and the U.N. agencies given unconditional access, that would be the best thing to do with the scale of the problem," said Karen Pierce, Britain's ambassador to the United Nations.
Pierce parried a journalist's question about whether the U.N. should make a referral to the International Criminal Court to investigate the atrocities alleged to have been carried out by Myanmar security forces, acknowledging only that it could be one avenue of investigation.
In New York, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq noted at a briefing that around 500,000 Rohingya still live in Rakhine, "facing continued discrimination and marginalization, including around 130,000 men, women and children who are trapped in appalling conditions in camps."
"Severe restrictions on their freedom of movement persist, grossly restricting their access to health care, education and livelihoods," he said. "This is the reality that must be changed if refugees are to be reasonably expected to return."
He also pointed out that many of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, already living in poor and crowded conditions, face further misery with the early onset on the monsoon season, with a strong risk of landslides and flooding.
An international appeal for $951 million for humanitarian aid for the refugees and their host communities was only 10 percent funded, he added.
Myanmar's government agreed to allow the Security Council to visit after previously rejecting U.N. requests for a trip by a specially appointed independent fact-finding committee. The team said in March that it found evidence of human rights violations against the Kachin, Shan and Rohingya minorities "in all likelihood amounting to crimes under international law."