12 November 2014DVB

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon (World Economic Forum/Flickr).

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke out in support of Rohingya rights to self-identification and dignified treatment on Wednesday, advising “the leaders of Myanmar [Burma] to uphold human rights, take a strong stance against incitement, and ensure humanitarian access to Rohingya [who] are living in vulnerable conditions.”

At a press conference during the 25th ASEAN Summit, held this week in Burma’s capital Naypyidaw, Ban warned that Burma’s “process of democratisation is at a defining moment,” noting that “an inclusive and transparent election next year will be crucial for the country’s future.”

He urged Burma’s government to take a firm stance against the persecution of minorities, and to review rules and procedures – such as the ongoing citizenship verification programme in Arakan State – that are not in line with international best practices.

“At a time of rising extremism and intolerance in many countries, progress on this front in Myanmar would keep the country’s transition on track, and send a positive message to the world,” he said.

A comprehensive government plan for the development of Arakan State, leaked in late September, included worrying provisions that many fear will lead to permanent segregation between Buddhist and Muslim communities. A key component of the Rakhine Action Plan, as it has become known, is a program to “verify” the citizenship of hundreds of thousands across the state, with those failing to pass stringent requirements facing deportation.

Although the government is apparently working to modify the draft leaked to the public, an updated version has not yet been released.

“I also urge the authorities to avoid measures that could entrench the current segregation between communities,” Ban warned. “Efforts must be made to [enforce] interfaith dialogue and harmony to bring communities closer together.”

He added: “I am urging that the human rights and human dignity of people in Rakhine [Arakan] should be respected, as this process of granting citizenship is going on.”

Ban’s claim that “the United Nations uses that word [Rohingya] based on the rights of minorities” serves to defend the rights of the embattled minority to refer to themselves by any name they desire, despite the government’s insistence to label them “Bengalis,” a term most Rohingya find pejorative.

In recent months, UN agencies operating in Burma have tended to avoid saying the word. At a press conference before her departure from Burma in July, Yanghee Lee, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, claimed she had been discouraged from using the term in talks with the government.

In June, UNICEF country head Bertrand Bainvel apologised for a lack of “oversight” after a staffer used the term in a presentation. He claimed that terminology acted as a barrier to humanitarian access, telling DVB that “it does not help denominating children by one name or another.”

Assistant UN Secretary-General Haoliang Xu told DVB in a September interview that, while the Rohingya have rights to self-identification currently denied them by prevailing Burmese laws, nomenclature was “probably an impediment to focus on the real issue that is citizenship.”

Earlier in the day, Ban met with ASEAN heads of state as part of the 6th ASEAN-UN Summit, a formal interface between the Secretary-General and the leaders of the ten-country bloc.

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