U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday called on Myanmar to end its military action that has forced nearly 380,000 Muslims to flee the country since last month and to allow those driven out to return safely.
"I call on the Myanmar authorities to suspend military action, end the violence, uphold the rule of law and recognize the right of return of all those who had to leave the country," he told a press conference ahead of the annual gathering of the world's top diplomats that gets underway next Tuesday.
Calling the humanitarian situation "catastrophic" as hundreds of thousands have taken refuge in neighboring Bangladesh, Guterres also condemned the attacks carried out by the opposition group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in Rakhine state. Their Aug. 25 attack resulted in the deaths of 12 people and sparked a counter-insurgency clampdown from the country's security forces.
The situation has rapidly deteriorated since then, causing a massive outflow of the country's Muslims, with the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein describing it on Monday as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."
Guterres, asked by a reporter about the applicability of the term, responded, "When one-third of the Rohingya population had to flee the country, can you find a better word to describe it?"
The U.N. chief, who served as the international body's High Commissioner for Refugees for a decade until 2015, explained how his past visits to Rakhine State had impacted him. "This is a matter that I feel very deeply in my heart. The suffering of the people is something that...I mean, I feel very, very strongly," he said.
The former Portuguese prime minister also pointed out the importance of the letter he had written to the U.N. Security Council on Sept. 2, which was the first time in nearly three decades that a secretary general called on the council to address a worrying situation. The previous time was in 1989 over Lebanon.
Britain and Sweden asked for the matter to be discussed at the Security Council meeting that took place Wednesday behind closed doors. It resulted in the weakest form of a public statement being read out by the current rotating president of the month, Ethiopian Ambassador Tekeda Alemu.
For the council to agree on any statement, it must be endorsed by all 15 members including permanent seat-holders like China and Russia who typically argue against interference in the internal matters of countries.
The so-called "press elements" expressed the council's "deep concern" about the unfolding situation in Myanmar. The council called for "immediate steps to end the violence in Rakhine" as well as for de-escalating the situation, re-establishing law and order, protecting civilians, normalizing socio-economic conditions and resolving the refugee situation.
"This is the first time in nine years that the Security Council has agreed on this particular issue," British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft told reporters. "The press elements agreed today are an important first step." The British envoy expressed his hope that in the future a stronger presidential statement could be forthcoming from the council.
Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International had joined forced to press the council to hold open meetings on the issue and to take more concrete measures to respond to the worrying situation, warning against council silence.
"Let's be clear here -- this isn't about having another meeting, whether open or closed. It's about the Security Council uniting and sending a very public message to the government of Myanmar that they have to put an end to the ongoing violence," Sherine Tadros, the New York director of Amnesty International, told reporters recently.
In response to Wednesday's meeting, Louis Charbonneau, United Nations director at Human Rights Watch, said, "It's a first step, but falls far short of the mark for a crisis that has all the hallmarks of an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingyas."