Why Myanmar’s massacres shame the world
When representatives of all UN member states met in 2005 for the World Summit, billed at the time as the “largest gathering of world leaders in history,” and passed a resolution that set out the parameters for the Responsibility to Protect populations (R2P) from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, there was an air of togetherness and optimism that the journey toward eradicating these horrific phenomena had begun.
In the intervening years, this hope has been dented time and time again when such atrocities have been committed by some of the very countries that supported this resolution, while others have remained silent, or reacted to them with no real conviction. Recent events in Myanmar are a tragic reminder that R2P is still far from a universal commitment in the face of brutal regimes in the mould of the military one in Yangon, led by Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who staged a coup against the elected government in February this year.
The heartbreaking pictures from the streets of Myanmar tell a disturbing story of more than 500 people who have been killed by the security forces. In one day of carnage last weekend over 100 people lost their lives at the hands of those who were supposed to protect them, and many others were injured and arrested. This brutality is especially troubling in the light of the peaceful nature of the protests. This cowardly killing, maiming and arresting of unarmed people, who are legitimately protesting against a military regime which toppled a democratically elected government that only last November won a landslide victory, presents the clearest of instances in which the principle of R2P must be applied. Every single day that the blood of these protesters continues to be spilt in the streets and the world responds without conviction and purpose is a stain on the conscience of the international community and their commitment to protect people against the brutalities committed against them by their very own governments or by foreign forces.
To a large extent we have arrived at this point due to the past failures of the international community to hold Myanmar’s military accountable for their crimes, especially the 2017 genocide of the Rohingya.
The Responsibility to Protect, though not a binding resolution, is nevertheless a firm commitment, arising from more than a century of evolution of international humanitarian law, which began with the Geneva Conventions in the mid-19th century and gathered momentum in the aftermath of the horrendous slaughter and genocides of the Second World War, establishing new international norms in response to mass atrocities. By the end of the Cold War, conflict and aggression between states had lessened somewhat, and instead intra-state aggression and civil wars have become more prominent, requiring an adequate response from the international community and its representative organs. It became apparent in the face of atrocities in Somalia, in former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, that the world was ill-prepared to prevent or contain, let alone stop altogether, such mass crimes against humanity and war crimes against innocent civilian populations. It was former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan who questioned the viability of the organisation if it couldn’t stop such atrocities. And the 2005 World Summit gave real impetus and hope to those who believed that the international community had learned its lesson and would no longer allow despots to inflict the most horrendous crimes on their own people, a hope only to be dashed later when faced with the realities of Syria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the oppression of the Uighur Muslims in China and yes, the Rohingya in Myanmar, among other cases. Admittedly the intervention in Libya under the R2P banner in 2011 left something of the bitter taste of a regime change in the guise of humanitarian intervention, but a decade later it can hardly serve as an excuse for the international community to sit on its hands when such an intervention is desperately needed in Myanmar.
The pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar are well aware that in the face of a brutal military regime they stand little chance of success without outside intervention. Many of them carry placards that distinctly mention R2P and display the familiar light blue of the UN emblem. They are also written in English, which is not widely spoken in the country and points to the fact that these people are pleading with the outside world to wake up before it is too late. In this type of situation the response must be rapid, and one that sends a clear message that those involved in the brutal oppression will be identified, sanctions will be imposed on them and an ICC investigation of their crimes against humanity will commence immediately.
To a large extent we have arrived at this point due to the past failures of the international community to hold Myanmar’s military accountable for their crimes, especially the 2017 genocide of the Rohingya. The country’s transition from military dictatorship to civilian-led government in 2011 misled many to believe that the country was moving in the right direction and to take their eyes off the ball while the generals continued to wield tremendous power and commit atrocities that the civilian government refused to confront.
R2P shouldn’t necessarily lead to military intervention, which should be kept as a credible option, though one of last resort. In the first instance there is a need for a strongly worded Security Council resolution, one that holds China responsible should it veto it. It is also the task of the regional powers such as India, which is currently serving on the Security Council, to make a stand, which regrettably has been muted thus far. Several states have already put in place punitive measures against the military government, among them Australia, Canada, the UK and the US, as have the EU and some big businesses. This pressure must increase, and what happens in Myanmar should not divide the international community but unite it in isolating the issue from other differences, in line with their international obligations.
If the international community is unable to act with a sense of urgency and determination to stop the killing and oppression in Myanmar, if it doesn’t assist in restoring the country’s legitimate, elected government, it will be quite safe to say that R2P has been shamefully buried in Myanmar, together with many hundreds of innocent victims whose only desire was to live in a free and democratic society.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg