Beyond the Myanmar Crisis: The Failure of United Nations System and The Prospect of Systemic Reforms

Penulis: Aulia Maharani Azzahra

“If the numerous discussions here at the General Assembly and in the Security Council continue to fall short of a forceful and timely response, perhaps existing structures are indeed in need of reforms, in keeping with the times.” Christine Schraner Burgener, Special Envoy on Myanmar, February 26, 2021

This is a statement from the United Nations special envoy of the secretary-general on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, during the Informal Meeting of the General Assembly on Myanmar on February 26, 2021. The statement was delivered as a part of an effort to “force” the UN Security Council (UNSC) to take action on the situation happening in Myanmar.

Myanmar is currently in the middle of a coup d’etat by the military junta. The military claimed election fraud in the November 2020 election. President U Win Myint, de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and other political figures and scholars have been detained since February 1. (Cuddy, 2021) The military issued propaganda for citizens not to protest or demonstrate for the first 72 hours leaders were imprisoned. By February 8, the civilians of Myanmar revolted and flooded the city’s main road, protesting and marching the slogan stating their position in resisting the coup. Not only civilians but also civil servants come to the street to join in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). Though the civilians were protesting in a nonviolent manner, the military used repressive acts to stop the protesters by using bullets, bombs, and other harmful weapons. This continuous action resulted in significant casualties — in which over 3.300 people were detained, and over 700 people died as casualties of the military’s brutal method to quell the anti-coup (Idrus, 2021).

What the military is doing in Myanmar meets the legal threshold to be considered a crime against humanity — which calls for help from the international community. According to Tom Andrew, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, “The people of Myanmar need not only words of support but supportive action. They need the help of the international community, now.”

Despite all good intentions, the international community did nothing but stand, slacked-jawed, watching the military junta commit a crime against humanity to the innocent lives in Myanmar. Even with the pressure from many experts and NGOs calling for an arms embargo on Myanmar, the United Nations did not take any significant actions towards the situation. In contrast, the situation in Myanmar kept worsening (Human Rights Watch, 2021). The UN Secretary-General, the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Special Envoy, and the Special Rapporteur have all moved in unison to condemn the violent action by the military in Myanmar. Yet, these moves are simply words or statements, not a significant ‘actual’ action.

Several bodies of the United Nations have taken a step closer to significant action. For example, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Human Rights Office (OHCHR) collectively encourage Myanmar’s surrounding countries to be open for refuge and to offer protection for citizens who are avoiding prosecution from the Myanmar military government (UN News, 2021). However, in response to the ongoing crisis, the United Nations should be able to do so much more than providing recommendations for Myanmar’s neighbors and running around in circles amidst discussions on how to prevent the emergence of Myanmar as a failed state.

What is needed is for the international community to take real action to stop this bloodbath and before Myanmar suffers more loss of innocent lives — be it bringing the case to the international criminal court, doing mandatory arms embargo to Myanmar, giving sanctions to the military members, or cutting both diplomatic ties and recognition to the military junta. The UNSC has the power and qualification — not to mention the means — to carry out all the actions above, yet no measures have been taken except for worded statements from its members. Quoting from Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch, “The council’s occasional statements of concern in the face of the military’s violent repression of largely peaceful protesters is the diplomatic equivalent of shrugging their shoulders and walking away.” The United Nations Security Council has unanimously adopted four statements on Myanmar since the first conflict breakout, but each time, they have been watered down in negotiations, mainly by Beijing.

Another question should come to our minds: Why does the UNSC decide not to take affirmative action in response to the Myanmar crisis? The answer lies in the veto power possessed by the five permanent members, especially China and Russia that are the two main actors behind the decision. While the conflict falls under the UNSC line of work, Russia and China hold considerable power as the council’s permanent members, considering their possession of the veto power. As the primary backup for the military junta, China and Russia continue to boost the military with arms support, and they refuse to support the UNSC action in order to condemn the military junta.

The dichotomy between the peace envisioned by the UN and the statements reflecting the member states’ national interests — rather than the collective vision of global peace — shows how political matters have influenced the UN today. The veto rights by Russia and China are the only thing holding the UN back from taking further action towards the Myanmar conflict. As a part of the UNSC, Russia and China should be a part of ensuring international peace and security, yet both countries claimed that this Myanmar conflict is a domestic issue that the international community should not intervene, when both Russia and China are known as the military’s biggest arms dealers.

The political matter should not be considered when this big of a problem occurs, not to mention that this is a crime against humanity. People’s lives are at stake here, innocent people’s lives. This proves that the UN is now politically ridden. Combined with five permanent members holding the veto rights that in principle allows them to veto whatever stance the UN takes if it is not in line with their national interest, it makes it dangerous for the entire international community. The UN has failed to execute the job they are trusted with by the international community. Maintaining peace and security has been — and should always be — a number one priority for the United Nations member states. What the UN is doing to Myanmar has caused the long-standing question to resurface, should the UN reform be carried out?

The veto right is one reason why the UN is problematic, and in this matter, act as the deal-breaker to help Myanmar. The existence of veto has been proven to be inadequate (Barkin, 2013). The presence of veto rights not only creates asymmetric relations of power among the UN member states, but it also does not reflect on today’s realities as power distribution has shifted. Nowadays, more countries have a better capability of making judgments and the capacity to join the security councils compared to the original five permanent members. Therefore, both the veto rights and the existence of five permanent members create an imbalance of democratic system in the United Nations. The proposal of the UN reform will alter the power of veto and the system within the UNSC.

The events that occur in Myanmar should be everyone’s primary focus at the moment, and the responsibility to protect the people of Myanmar should be in everyone’s best interest. This case should not be politicized, and whoever is responsible for this cruel crime against humanity should be held accountable for their actions. Significant action must be taken to settle this matter once and for all to restore the safety and peace of Myanmar people. In the long run, if the UN is still unable to perform its responsibility and unable to issue significant action in today’s crises, perhaps existing structures are indeed in need of reforms.

Reference list

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dppa.un.org. (2021). Informal Meeting of the General Assembly on Myanmar | Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs. [online] Available at: https://dppa.un.org/en/informal-meeting-of-general-assembly-myanmar [Accessed 26 May 2021].

Human Rights Watch. (2021). UN Security Council: Adopt Global Arms Embargo on Myanmar. [online] Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/05/05/un-security-council-adopt-global-arms-embargo-myanmar.

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