To end global statelessness within 6 years, an ambitious goal set by UNHCR under its Global Action Plan 2014-2024, the Southeast Asian region should be a clear priority. Not only because an estimated 40 per cent of the world’s stateless population is located there, but more particularly because of the Rohingya – a persecuted Muslim minority group residing in western Myanmar. While the nationality situation in Myanmar is complex and controversial, it is clear that under the current Myanmar citizenship law the Rohingya are denied the right to citizenship and are therefore stateless. This confirms UNHCR’s finding that globally more than three-quarters of those who are stateless belong to minority groups.
Together with nine other members, Myanmar is part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Complicating factor to any collaboration in the region is that countries in Southeast Asia have not acceded to any of the relevant international conventions dealing with refugees and stateless persons. The 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1954 UN Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons Convention and the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness have not been signed by any of the ASEAN member states, with the exception of Cambodia (1951 Convention) and the Philippines (1951 and 1954 Conventions). A visualisation by UNHCR clearly shows how countries on the Asian continent do not nearly have the accession rates as countries on other continents.
This in itself has an effect on the large Rohingya diapora living throughout Southeast Asia, considering that according to the Institute for Statelessness and Inclusion, an estimated 1.33 million Rohingya live in Myanmar while another 1.5 million live outside Myanmar. As pointed out by Ridwanul Hoque in respect of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh in recent years, the Bangladesh government accepted them not out of any obligation, but rather acting under its prerogative and on a humanitarian ground.
Earlier this year the United Nations described the violence against the Rohingya as genocide, and Facebook has admitted it did not do enough to prevent the incitement of violence and hate speech directed at the minority. Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s civilian leader, has had her Canadian honorary citizenship revoked over her inaction regarding the military violence against the Rohingya.
In a recent article, Zezen Zaenal Mutaqin has asked what ASEAN should do in respect of the current Rohingya refugee crisis and the gross human rights violations perpetrated against this group. Criticising ASEAN for its inability and indifference in responding to the Rohingya crisis, Mutaqin feels ‘this moment is a critical time for ASEAN to formulate a workable refugee framework that adapts to ASEAN culture, values, and conditions’. It also implies applying the principle of non-refoulement (the prohibition of returning refugees to a place where their lives may be threatened), as non-refoulement ‘has been gaining recognition as part of customary international law, meaning that the principle should be respected by any country, including within ASEAN member states, regardless of whether they have ratified the Refugee Convention’.
It remains to be seen whether these recommendations are realistic given ASEAN’s current institutional structure. The principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states is central among the six principles underpinning the organisation, so that any interference by ASEAN will likely be met with strong national resistance.
Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk