‘Responsibility to protect’ underpins the international system of states, and now it is crumbling. How we respond to humanitarian crises in Syria, Yemen, and now Myanmar is crucial for maintaining the United Nations’ credibility. I n 2011 the Qaddafi regime began waging indiscriminate war against its own people in one of the bloodiest uprisings of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. US President Obama announced that a coalition of forces would conduct an aerial campaign against the dictator in support of UN resolution 1973, authorising military intervention under the doctrine of ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P).
R2P came about in response to failures of the international community to stop crimes against humanity being perpetrated. The genocide in Rwanda in 1994 stands out: hundreds of thousands of people from the minority Tutsi ethnic group were slaughtered in a co-ordinated campaign reminiscent of the Holocaust in occupied Europe. Despite ample evidence of ethnic cleansing, the UN did too little too late, leaving a permanent stain on the record of the world’s largest governance body. In response to these failures, then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan introduced the doctrine of ‘responsibility to protect’ in 2005. This addition to international law marked the threshold by which states would have to act, by military means if necessary, to prevent the comprehensive mass destruction of human beings. Crucially for the discussion at hand, it mandated that the UN Security Council (UNSC) would have the final say over any proposed military response.
It is now nearly ten years since those operations were conducted in Libya, and the failures of that campaign have contributed to an extreme reluctance in the international community to enforce R2P. Authoritarian regimes around the world have noticed and are reacting accordingly. Bashar al Assad’s regime continues to shell civilians indiscriminately in Syria’s Idlib province; Saudi-backed forces in Yemen continue to escalate what the UN Secretary General has called the worst humanitarian crisis in a generation. Now in Myanmar, the military junta that launched a coup in February actively targets civilians, including children, in a terror campaign that worsens by the day. Western governments talk of respecting human rights, but avoid the language of R2P.
We should be clear about the consequences of inaction: these atrocities will grow worse as the perpetrators increasingly recognise that they can act with impunity. A failure in the international community to respond decisively will transmit a message that atrocities of the worst kind—the murder, rape, torture and confiscation of human life—will be tolerated and indeed tacitly encouraged.
These are the consequences of inaction. Clearly this is not a viable option. What then are we to do? Enforcing R2P in the case of Myanmar is a fraught process, especially given the deterioration of relationships between several of the permanent members of the Security Council, namely China, Russia and the US. Russia has recently announced its support for the military in Myanmar, and China almost always votes against actions it deems would weaken the principle of state sovereignty, wary of international scrutiny of its own ethnic cleansing practices. It seems evident, given this fact, that concerned states face two options.
First, unilateral or bilateral action could be taken without the consent of the UNSC. This was done in 1999 when NATO aerial units bombed Yugoslavian forces in an effort to end ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. This would be a risky course to take; imposing unilateral economic and diplomatic sanctions is one thing, launching a military campaign the scope and scale of which is unknown is another. Action through an organisation such as NATO also carries risk: the group is not recognised as having jurisdiction in Asia and its involvement would be viewed as an act of extreme aggression by China.
Second (and as I see it, the more achievable option), is to try to bring China or Russia on board with attempts to stop Myanmar’s Generals. This will involve a great deal of negotiation. Russia, keen to reassert its former geopolitical influence, will want a seat at the table. China will want assurances that actions in Myanmar will be strictly limited; it does not want a war on its border. But the fact of the matter is that military action may be necessary if the generals refuse to stand down, which is not unlikely. Bringing China in on imposing economic and diplomatic sanctions would be a difficult, yet crucial first step. Do this and the pressure on Myanmar’s military would be ramped up significantly. Failure to capitulate would apply further pressure on China to back its talk of stability with meaningful action. There may, however, be more scope for agreement than is immediately apparent. Whilst China remains broadly hostile to democratic movements in its sphere of influence, it also enjoys good relations with Myanmar’s democratically elected governing party, the NLD. In China’s cost-benefit analysis, it may be ultimately favourable to have a democratic yet stable neighbour rather than the uncertainty of a military junta and the anathema this could prove to Chinese investment.
Getting Chinese support for action is essential; get them and the rest of the ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) states will follow. If Russia cannot be convinced to support action, they will be obliged to acquiesce by China’s involvement. For all its economic and political might, China remains confined, somewhat, to the international system of states set up after World War II. In the game of international politics, one can only play the role of disruptor for so long. Becoming a meaningful guarantor of stability and human rights legislation, despite its hypocrisies at home, is a far greater long-term strategy for China. If it wants to secure its ascendancy, this is what being a global power looks like.
The key to reasserting R2P as the lynchpin of international law is reaching some sort of consensus in the permanent Security Council. If no agreement can be made, the future of a rights-based international system is in serious doubt. With a weakened international system, the outrages of repressive regimes will grow in scale, and the dangers of unilateralism will become more acute.