September 17, 2020

On 11th September the British government pulled off quite a diplomatic coup at the UN Security Council. Following a closed door meeting on Burma, eight of the fifteen UN Security Council members issued a joint statement. The statement included the usual uncontroversial calls for peace and humanitarian access, but also included calls for Burma to comply with the provisional measures of the International Court of Justice, for measures to ensure ending impunity and for accountability, and for the Rohingya to have the right to vote in the election due on 8th November. Disappointingly, it didn’t mention citizenship, which is the critical first step to start to address the Rohingya crisis.

Nevertheless, to have eight UN Security Council members make a statement which includes these points is very significant diplomatically. These eight have stood up to pressure from China, which doesn’t want Burma even discussed, let alone statements to be made. It includes the USA, whose current government is allergic to international justice mechanisms, and countries from Africa and the Caribbean, as well as European members of the Council.

Diplomats see statements like this as vital in demonstrating to the government and military that there is widespread international concern about what they are doing, and that it is not just limited to European countries and the USA.

There is just one problem. The statement won’t make a blind bit of difference.

It will be like water off a duck’s back, just one more statement which won’t be followed by action. The government of Burma and the military will be confident that they can ignore this statement without suffering any consequences because that’s what governments in Burma have been doing for more than 30 years.

The military dictatorship, Thein Sein’s military-backed government, and now Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian-led government have all been ignoring statements and resolutions by the UNSC, UN General Assembly, UN Special Rapporteur, UN Human Rights Council and others without any significant consequences. UN General Assembly Resolutions have mostly been remarkably soft, talking up small positives when they happen, and restrained in language and demands despite referring to violations of international law for almost 30 years. The diplomatic priority has been to demonstrate international consensus to the government of the day in Burma. That always means toning down the reality of the horror of what is taking place to a low denominator to achieve broader consensus. Yet still they are ignored.

As well as citizenship, another noticeable absence from the statement by UN Security Council members was compliance with UN Fact-Finding Mission recommendations. Burma was asked in the statement to comply with recommendations of two commissions established by the government of Burma, The Rakhine Commission, which was banned in its mandate from covering human rights and justice and accountability, and the so-called Independent Commission of Enquiry, a farcical sham investigation which has no credibility.

The UN Fact-Finding Mission was established precisely because so-called domestic investigations were not credible. It was mandated to assess the facts and make recommendations, which it did. It provides a comprehensive list of steps the government of Burma should take, steps which the government has rejected.

So why the silence from UN Security Council members on the recommendations of a UN inquiry?

The reason is that the Fact-Finding Mission also made recommendations to those Security Council members. Recommendations specifically to the UN Security Council, and recommendations to UN member states. Not one country in the world is implementing all these recommendations. Not even UN Security Council members, who by accepting membership of the Council have accepted a special responsibility to uphold international peace and security and international law.

The UN Security Council members, by failing to implement the recommendations of the UN Fact-Finding Mission, have placed themselves in a position whereby they cannot credibly call on the government and military in Burma to implement the UN Fact-Finding Mission recommendations. So they are silent.

Opposition from China and the vow by Russia to veto any future attempt to refer any situation to the International Criminal Court, or establish any Ad Hoc tribunal, may explain why recommendations such as resolutions on a referral to the International Criminal Court, and a global arms embargo, have not been passed. This doesn’t prevent these signatory countries from stating publicly that they agree with these recommendations in principle. But they haven’t done so.  

Nor does there seem to be creative thinking to work around the Chinese and Russian veto. The UK, with the support of other European countries, approached UN Security Council members to sign this statement, but did they also ask them to join them in unilaterally implementing an arms embargo? No.

The UN Fact-Finding Mission, along with the UN Special Rapporteur, have made a series of comprehensive recommendations to start to address the human rights crisis in Burma. These are experts who have examined the situation and proposed a way forward. The international community complains the situation is complex and intractable and bemoans the lack of progress while at the same time ignoring the UN experts who are proposing ways to make progress.

The British government has probably made more progress than others in implementing some of the UN Fact-Finding Mission recommendations, but it is doing so selectively. It has not said publicly and unequivocally that it supports the recommendations and will implement them.

By themselves, will implementing these recommendations solve the human rights crisis in Burma? The answer is no. It would be a very good start and likely lead to much greater progress than we have seen so far. However, they are not a magic bullet. There is no magic bullet. There is no single action which can bring the kind change many in Burma and internationally want to see. This is why it is so essential that everything that can be done is done. By themselves each individual action may have a small apparent impact. It is the collective application of many apparently small actions that could have an impact that can bring about change. They can reinforce and support the activities of brave activists and communities in Burma who are pushing for change in their country, and who pay for our failure to act to support them with their lives and the loss of their liberty.

The statement by UN Security Council members should be an important part of a comprehensive application of measures to promote human rights in Burma. Without using every tool available, statements at the Security Council in isolation of a more comprehensive approach are equivalent to taking one piece of the puzzle out of the box but leaving most pieces still in the box. It is no surprise you don’t see the picture you want to see.

UN Fact Finding Mission recommendations should be a starting point for governments, as well as deploying other diplomatic, economic and legal tools at their disposal.

UN Security Council members are aware that an ongoing genocide is happening on their watch, and not one of them can claim they have done everything they can.

More information:

Joint statement by the UK, Belgium, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Tunisia, and the United States after Security Council consultations on Myanmar.

Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar compilation of recommendations.

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