The UN commissioned and then â€œsuppressedâ€ a report that criticised its strategy in Myanmar and warned it was ill-prepared to deal with the impending Rohingya crisis, sources have told the Guardian.
The review, written by a consultant and submitted in May, offered a highly critical analysis of the UNâ€™s approach and said there should be â€œno silence on human rightsâ€.
The report, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, accurately predicted a â€œserious deteriorationâ€ in the six months following its submission and urged the UN to undertake â€œserious contingency planningâ€.
â€œIt is recommended that, as a matter of urgency, UN headquarters identifies ways to improve overall coherence in the UNâ€™s system approach,â€ wrote independent analyst Richard Horsey, the reportâ€™s author.
Security forces would be â€œheavy-handed and indiscriminateâ€ in dealing with the Rohingya, said Horsey â€“ a prediction that rang true when Rohingya militants attacked dozens of outposts on 25 August, prompting a massive military crackdown.
In little more than a month, more than half a million Rohingya have fled over the border to Bangladesh amid allegations of massacres by Myanmarâ€™s armed forces and Rohingya insurgents. On Thursday Bangladesh announced that it would build one of the worldâ€™s biggest refugee camps to house all those who have sought asylum.
The UN report, entitled The Role of the United Nations in Rakhine state, was commissioned by Renata Lok-Dessallien, the UN resident coordinator and the organisationâ€™s most senior figure in Myanmar. It made 16 recommendations. Horsey outlined the need for new staff positions and â€œfrankâ€ discussions with government, and called for the report to be widely distributed among aid agencies.
The UN was urged to ensure that the human rights up front initiative, a strategy introduced by former secretary general Ban Ki-moon to prevent mass atrocities, was fully implemented. Horsey said the initiative should â€œbe at the core of how the UN operatesâ€, adding that there should be â€œno silence on human rights and protection concernsâ€.
However, sources within the UN and humanitarian community claimed the recommendations were ignored and the report was suppressed.
A source close to events, who asked not to be named, said the paper was â€œspikedâ€ and not circulated among UN and aid agencies â€œbecause Renata [Lok-Dessallien] didnâ€™t like the analysisâ€.
â€œIt was given to Renata and she didnâ€™t distribute it further because she wasnâ€™t happy with it,â€ said another well-placed source.
The 28-page document said its author would be expected to provide feedback to the UNâ€™s humanitarian country team, a group consisting of UN agencies such as the World Food Programme and the UN refugee agency as well as other aid groups such as Save the Children. The Guardian understands this meeting never took place.
A media representative for the office of the resident coordinator in Myanmar said a briefing meeting on the initial findings, open to all UN agencies, took place in April.
â€œThe UN agreed with the documentâ€™s outline of some of the challenges of providing peace, humanitarian and development assistance in Rakhine state, and the risk of further outbreaks of violence.
â€œIn fact, the UN in Myanmar was already putting in place some of the changes suggested in the document prior to its release,â€ said the representative, adding that this included the â€œcrucialâ€ human rights up front mechanism.
The final report was â€œshared with some senior officialsâ€, said the representative, who declined to identify the individuals concerned. Sources in Myanmar said the report was â€œmentioned at meetings on two occasionsâ€ before it â€œdisappeared off the agendaâ€. No one was able to access the document subsequently.
A senior aid official said the final report was â€œkept very low-keyâ€.
â€œCriticisms, constructive ones, are rarely taken as learning opportunities but are received as personal attacks and provoke defensive responses,â€ the source added.
Meanwhile, Lok-Dessallien faces fresh charges that she undermined attempts to publicly promote the rights of the Rohingya, the stateless Muslim minority. Aid workers said the UN prioritised good relations with the Myanmar government over humanitarian and human rights advocacy.
A spokesperson for the UN secretary general denied the allegations. â€œThe resident coordinator has been a tireless advocate for human rights,â€ said the spokesperson. â€œHuman rights stand at the centre of everything the UN does.â€
The Guardian approached Horsey, the author of the report, for comment. â€œThe UN knew, or should have known, that the status quo in Rakhine was likely to evolve into a major crisis,â€ he said in an emailed response.
However, he added that the severity of the criticism directed at Lok-Dessallien was unwarranted.
â€œIt may be true that the resident coordinator could have done some things differently or better, [but] primary responsibility for any UN failings lies with its headquarters over the last several years,â€ wrote Horsey.
â€œThey did not have a coherent or well-coordinated approach to Myanmar, and especially Rakhine, and did not provide the required political support and guidance to their in-country team.â€
His report said senior UN figures in New York had sent â€œmixed messagesâ€ and there was no replacement special adviser to the secretary general, a high-level UN official with â€œdiplomatic cloutâ€, leaving the resident coordinator in an impossible position.
The study cited a â€œwidely-held perceptionâ€ that there had been â€œtrade-offs between advocacy and access that have in practice de-prioritised human rights and humanitarian action, which are seen as complicating and undermining relations with governmentâ€.
A UN official in Yangon said: â€œHuman rights up front isnâ€™t being implemented. It just isnâ€™t. They can say that they are ticking some boxes but in terms of actions that lead to results weâ€™re seeing nothing.â€
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: â€œItâ€™s not been human rights up front, itâ€™s been human rights down in back.
â€œThe UN is going to have to acknowledge their significant share of blame in letting this situation descend this far, this fast.â€