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HomeOpinionHumanitarian Dialogue - Discreet or Cowboy Diplomacy? - Part 3/3

Humanitarian Dialogue – Discreet or Cowboy Diplomacy? – Part 3/3

Guest contributor

Shafiur Rahman

The shadowy return of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) to the Rohingya repatriation discourse, marked by clandestine meetings in Singapore, raises alarms about their renewed involvement in a situation already fraught with tension and despair. 

The disastrous outcomes of their previous covert involvement with the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH) in the refugee camps of Bangladesh – a catastrophe by any measure – loom large. This situation begs the question of why they are being called upon once again for planning repatriation efforts. 

HD’s secretive tactics in the Rohingya crisis echo its historical patterns of intervention, particularly evident in its dealings in Aceh, Indonesia. A study by Konrad Huber reveals that HD’s strategy in Aceh was marked by a significant reliance on confidentiality and secrecy, an approach intended to protect the integrity of negotiations.

Yet, this strategy often backfired, limiting the inclusivity of the dialogue process and alienating key stakeholders. Such secrecy not only hindered the potential for broader engagement but also raised questions about HD’s ability to foster genuine and representative dialogue. 

Critically, HD’s interventions in Aceh revealed a series of shortcomings that mirror those observed in the Rohingya camps: HD was criticised for a naive understanding of the local dynamics and motivations, particularly concerning the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). This lack of deep engagement compromised the effectiveness of their mediation efforts.

Criticisms also targeted the organisation’s motivations, suggesting an ambition to establish a reputation in conflict resolution that sometimes overshadowed the needs of the peace process. 

According to Huber, HD demonstrated a series of strategic misjudgements that painted a picture of an organisation out of its depth. The limited political influence became evident when HD could not ensure the safety of its partners, as tragically highlighted by the killing of an HD monitor. At least one HD operative received threats in the Rohingya camps. 

The reliance on problem-solving workshops and third-party-assisted dialogues was particularly criticised as ill-suited for the Aceh context, where significant power imbalances existed, potentially freezing the conflict in a state that benefited the stronger party at the expense of the weaker. 

What is the Singapore meeting if not an attenuated repeat of this? 

From 2013 to 2016, despite HD’s secretive modus operandi, the U.K. government invested millions of pounds into their coffers. 

The expectation, as revealed by documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request, was clear: “The expected impact of U.K. funding from 2012-2016 was an increase in the prevention and reduction of violent conflict.”

The documents illustrate HD’s involvement in Myanmar, stating, “In Myanmar, by working with Rakhine State and Muslim community leaders – including women and the business community – HD helped to de-escalate tensions. 

In the build-up to the national elections in November 2015, HD facilitated agreement among 14 political parties and 10 independent candidates on a code of conduct which helped ensure the election was conducted peacefully.”

Furthermore, “HD convened a series of dialogues involving Myanmar and its ASEAN neighbours on the situation in Rakhine State. HD contributed ideas and helped frame a regional plan of action for dealing with the massive outflow and illegal trafficking of the Muslim population.”

Yet, the documents concede challenges in evaluating the efficacy of HD’s work, quoting: “significant challenges in measuring the impact of mediation efforts, particularly at the outcome and impact levels,” which stem from “the confidential and sensitive nature of many mediation processes, as well as the intellectual challenges of attributing results to specific actors and defining meaningful indicators.”  

The U.K. authorities also highlight stakeholder concerns: “Local stakeholders have in the past perceived a reluctance to share detailed information, with much of the information in the work plan and quarterly report fairly generic in nature. This made it difficult to evaluate progress, assess outcomes and weigh up the merits of future investment.”

The U.K. Conflict Security and Stability Fund, with its multimillion-pound support, appears to have suspended the usual benchmarks of accountability and effectiveness, taking HD’s word as gospel. 

This blind faith persists even as the document acknowledges the significant hurdles in gauging the true impact of HD’s mediation efforts. 

The nature of HD’s work, shrouded in secrecy, conveniently exempts it from the rigorous scrutiny applied to other recipients of public funds, allowing HD to control the narrative around its achievements without  external verification

The violent conflicts of 2016 and 2017 in Rakhine (Arakan) State confirmed a grim reality starkly at odds with the goals of HD’s U.K.-funded programs. 

It laid bare the limitations of such track two diplomacy. The crisis stood as  testament to HD’s failure to make any measurable impact, despite the substantial funds and trust invested by the UK government. 

It was a clear case of the emperor having no clothes – with HD’s efficacy unproven and the U.K. government’s acceptance of their opaque methods resulting in a questionable allocation of taxpayer money.  

Has HD even been transparent with the British government regarding its array of activities, particularly those related to ARSPH and other operations within and beyond the camps? 

A detailed look into various testimonies  suggests a pattern of engagement that raises concerns about the organisation’s transparency and its overall strategy.

Starting in late 2012, HD’s initiative to reconcile Rohingya and Rakhine in Yangon through workshops, which predominantly included Rohingya without the presence of Rakhine, showcases an early example of HD’s efforts lacking in transparency and tangible outcomes. 

Despite forming a 21-member Rohingya committee for these workshops, the efforts were abandoned by late 2014 due to a lack of progress. This signalled an early disconnect between HD’s intentions and actual achievements.

Further, in early 2017, HD’s engagement with Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s (ARSA) “transmitting team” in Malaysia, characterised by confidential meetings and promises of mediation between the Myanmar government and ARSA, illustrates a more contentious aspect of HD’s activities. 

Here the rumours are incendiary including advice purportedly given by HD concerning military operations as a means to bring the Burmese government to the negotiation table. Preposterous? Perhaps. Yet, conspicuously, HD itself offers no denials or clarifications, allowing the rumour to persist unaddressed.

The situation escalates with HD’s alleged involvement in bringing ARSA members to Geneva for meetings with international bodies, hinting at a deeper, more complex web of interactions than previously disclosed. 

By May 2018, HD’s outreach extended into the Bangladesh camps, notably making contact with ARSPH and suggesting, under the guise of human rights activism, strategies that included advocating for repatriation to Myanmar given the massive safety concerns in Bangladesh. 

Such moves, alongside attempts to influence ARSA’s messaging and strategies, further complicate the narrative of HD’s involvement.

Finally, HD’s early interactions with one of the most well resourced Rohingya diaspora organisations – the Arakan Rohingya Union (ARU) – adds a curious complexity.

It’s worth pondering whether ARU’s distinct positions on the International Criminal Court (ICC) process and pilot repatriation — positions that diverge from those of other diaspora organisations — might stem from HD’s influence. 

HD itself has acknowledged the tension between the dual objectives of peace and justice, suggesting that mechanisms of accountability, for example arrest warrants, complicate the kinds of negotiation they know! 

This perspective sheds light on the former director general of ARU’s controversial rejection of the ICC process, a stance that elicited widespread disapproval from Rohingya in the camps and the diaspora. 

Similarly, the current director general’s support for pilot repatriation has raised eyebrows – again suggesting a potential alignment with HD’s approach.

This montage of examples, drawn from interviews, suggests a pattern of engagement by HD that is far from transparent. 

With activities ranging from workshops in Yangon to providing covert advice to armed groups, and suggestions for repatriation amid safety concerns pertaining to the camps, the depth and breadth of HD’s involvement remain shrouded in secrecy. 

All this, to repeat myself, raises the obvious question: to what extent has HD informed its funders, including the British government, of its true scope of operations? 

The implications of these actions, particularly in light of the failed attempts at repatriation and the ongoing humanitarian crisis, warrant a critical examination of HD’s strategy, its “impartiality,” its outcomes, and the level of oversight exercised by its financial backers.

After HD’s ARSPH initiatives in 2018 and 2019 did not yield the expected results, a strategic rethink has taken place by the powers that be. 

The emergence of the “Rohingya FDMN Representative Committee,” created and supported by the Bangladesh government’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) and Bangladesh’s National Security Intelligence (NSI), marks this shift. 

This new body, drawing upon the leadership and experience of former ARSPH figures, including individuals trained by HD, aims not just to mobilise the Rohingya towards repatriation but to win their hearts and minds. 

Within this framework, the meeting convened by HD in Singapore, drawing together diverse actors such as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), officials from Myanmar’s junta, and other aligned entities, signals a strategic preparation for an intensified repatriation initiative. 

Despite HD’s controversial history, its involvement suggests a deliberate choice to leverage third-party dialogue as a mechanism to hasten the repatriation process. 

This orchestration seems aimed not merely at facilitating return but aligning with the strategic and geopolitical interests of the involved states – Bangladesh, Myanmar, India and China in particular.  

Consequently, HD’s role transcends that of an impartial  facilitator, positioning it as a player with vested interests in the geopolitical chess game.

In the camps of Bangladesh, HD’s operations have led to conflict and increased securitization. What to call an entity that purports to be a peace-building organisation and then sows discord among the communities it intends to help?   

By fanning the flames of discord, wittingly or not, and then stepping back into the shadows, HD has left a legacy of heightened security, and suppressed voices. 

There is a glaring disconnect between HD’s stated objectives and the outcomes of its involvement in the Rohingya crisis.  

As the international community moves forward, it ought to reevaluate the frameworks and strategies employed in conflict resolution and peace-building, ensuring that they do not merely aim to achieve a “resolution” at any cost but strive for a resolution that is inclusive, just and transparent.

The author has made multiple attempts to reach out to HD for comments, but these efforts have been met with no response.


Shafiur Rahman is a documentary filmmaker working on Rohingya issues. 

DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]

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