The unanimously adopted press statement of the UN Security Council (UNSC) condemning violence in Myanmar at the closed-door meeting on Wednesday is encouraging but unlikely to deter the Myanmar government from continuing its heinous acts of ethnic cleansing. The UNSC statement is more of a symbolic gesture rather than a substantive action. It won’t even be included in the official records, unless there is a Presidential Statement of the UNSC, which some members have demanded.
The language of the statement, by itself, is remarkably mellow: “They (member states) expressed concern about excessive violence during the security operations and called for immediate steps to end the violence in Rakhine, de-escalate the situation, re-establish law and order, ensure the protection of civilians, restore normal socio-economic conditions, and resolve the refugee problem.”
That China and Russia concurred with the statement, obviously, is not a small feat. However, Egypt proposed to include the right to return of the Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, which was blocked by China. As we are aware, China and Russia vetoed a resolution on Myanmar in January 2007 and blocked a short statement in March 2017. The 2007 double veto was a rare occurrence. Prior to this, China and then Soviet Union cast vetoes together only once, in 1972, against a resolution on the Middle East. Therefore, Wednesday’s statement is not a plan of action of the UNSC. It has drawn more attention because China and Russia acted in an unanticipated manner.
The justification for the 2007 veto warrants our attention, as it has an implication for 2017. In 2007, China and Russia argued that human rights violations were not the purview of the Security Council unless they endangered regional or international peace and security, which Myanmar did not (Reuters, January 12, 2007). In opposition to the resolution, these two countries were joined by South Africa, while Indonesia, Qatar, and the Republic of Congo abstained, and nine countries including the US supported the resolution.
In March 2017, this duo blocked a short statement of the Security Council. The meeting was convened at the request of Britain. The short draft press statement, which was seen by Reuters at that time said, “[The members] noted with concern renewed fighting in some parts of the country and stressed the importance of humanitarian access to all affected areas.” The Council had a closed-door meeting on Myanmar in November 2016. Following the meeting “as Western nations became increasingly concerned about how Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was dealing with violence in the divided northwest, Suu Kyi told diplomats in the capital, Naypyitaw, that her country was being treated unfairly” (Reuters, March 17, 2017).
These episodes, and the recent unequivocal statement of China that it stands with Myanmar, led many to believe that the Wednesday meeting would be a repeat of January 2007 or March 2017. The cycle has been broken, at least for now.
What made this possible? A definite answer will remain unknown until the envoys of these two countries speak on the issue or perhaps write memoirs. None are currently forthcoming. Sources allude to three events in the wake of this meeting: First, the rare request of the UN Secretary General António Guterres to the UNSC. History tells us that last time such a request from the Secretary General went to the Council was 28 years ago. The Secretary General reminded everybody in the press briefing that, “The last official letter sent by the secretary general to the Security Council on an issue was in 1989 about Lebanon.” This evidently put somewhat a not-so-tacit pressure on the Council members to do something and the “duo” not to be viewed as “obstructionists”.
The second event was the letter from the 27 eminent personalities including 12 Nobel Laureates which urged the Council to act. “We call on UNSC to intervene immediately by using all available means. We request you to take immediate action for cessation of indiscriminate military attack on innocent civilians that is forcing them to leave their home and flee their country to turn into stateless people,” the letter said. Reportedly organised by Bangladeshi Peace Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammed Yunus, the timing of the letter was too close to the meeting to ignore.
The third potential factor was the number of refugees. The number swelled to hundreds and thousands in a short span of time. It surpassed the previous two episodes, of 1978 and of 1991, within a few days. It was too obvious to avoid these hapless faces as these countries sat around a table in New York.
Whatever may have caused it, the UNSC did come up with the statement.
Notwithstanding the irresolute nature of the statement, that the statement is unanimous and that this is the first statement on Rohingya in nine years are both important. The most significant is that it has created an opportunity for further diplomatic efforts in the coming days, particularly during the General Assembly session. The British UN Ambassador informed that there could be open sessions because some countries have indicated their desire for it. Two meetings are already expected soon—at the request of Turkey, and Britain. Additional meetings with the Bangladesh Foreign Minister on the sidelines during the General Assembly session are being planned too.
This is where the 1972 justification of China and Russia becomes handy. Does the Rohingya crisis “endanger regional and international peace and security?” Granted, what was considered as “endangerment of security” in 1972 may not be valid any longer. Yet, this is an argument one can take back to China. The danger to human security is the most obvious consequence of the so-called security operation of the Myanmar government. More than 400,000 people are now facing a dire situation as refugees and that number may soon reach 1 million. Besides, there are reasons to believe that transnational terrorist groups will try to take advantage of the situation.
The letter of the eminent personalities had asked the UNSC to use “whatever means available.” Although the UN Security Council members are yet to be ready to act, the European Parliament has laid out some measures it may consider. The Parliament adopted a resolution on Thursday which is clear and unequivocal in condemning the violence. The most important element is that it mentioned that it is ready to take “targeted punitive sanctions against individuals and entities.” This shouldn’t be taken lightly, because the EU has been following the events in Myanmar for years and has been vocal on human rights situation. It was the European Union which drafted the resolution in the UN Human Rights Council in April this year for appointing a three-member fact-finding mission to Myanmar. (In addition to Myanmar, four countries—China, India, the Philippines and Venezuela—disassociated themselves from the resolution. Although Japan disassociated itself, it welcomed the resolution).
As hundreds and thousands of Rohingyas face a grave situation under the open sky in Bangladesh, and many more face life and death questions inside Myanmar, the international community has two things on its hands: first, a plan as to how to address the causes of and conditions for the humanitarian disaster; that’s the Annan Commission report. Second, how to make the recalcitrant Myanmar government stop the ethnic cleansing and engage in a dialogue; that’s the EP’s suggestion—imposing sanctions.
If the international community is sincere in addressing the current catastrophe unfolding in Myanmar it should highlight these. It’s incumbent on Bangladesh, which is unduly bearing the burden of hundreds and thousands of refugees for the third time and risking its own security, to make the case to the international community.
Published in the Daily Star, 17 September 2017