By Matthew Smith in The Washington Post
For too many years, human rights advocates have wasted precious time and valuable resources pressuring the U.N. Security Council to respond to mass atrocity crimes in Myanmar. I know because I’m one of them.
In September 2017, I flew from the Myanmar-Bangladesh border to New York City to brief the body on an unfolding genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar, thoroughly documented by the organization I represent, as well as by many others. The military was razing hundreds of villages and murdering men, women and children.
The Security Council failed to protect the people of Myanmar then, and now it’s failing again.
Last week, Myanmar’s military carried out a coup d’état, overthrowing the elected government and arresting State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and scores of other civilian ministers and members of parliament.
Before the coup, Myanmar’s democracy was far from perfect. It was based on a flawed 2008 constitution that gave the military outsized political power. The government accommodated genocide and war crimes. But this coup makes things even worse, threatening to plunge Myanmar back into the darkest depths of its isolated, authoritarian past. It’s good for no one.
The day after the coup, the U.N. Security Council convened to discuss it, but China, backed by Russia, blocked a statement condemning the putsch. The next day, the Myanmar military filed trumped-up charges against Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myint, clarifying their intentions to keep them locked up. China finally relented and the Security Council issued a diluted statement. It was hailed as a diplomatic achievement, but given the dire circumstances, it was a paltry substitute for action.
The root of the Security Council’s problem is the permanent veto, specifically China’s and Russia’s use. The veto — or, more specifically, the threat of a veto — enables China to torpedo anything it doesn’t like. In this way, Beijing has neutralized the Security Council while political, human rights and humanitarian crises unfold with impunity time and again.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
In 1950, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution entitled “Uniting for Peace” in response to consistent vetoes on the Security Council from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The resolution provided a way for the General Assembly to deal with states that threaten international peace and security when the Security Council fails to do so.
When the General Assembly is not in session, these interventions are known as Emergency Special Sessions. They’re rare. In the last 65 years, there have only been 10. It’s time for another one.
An Emergency Special Session can be called by nine U.N. Security Council members or by a majority vote of U.N. member states. Two main components must arise before this can happen: First, the Security Council must be at a stalemate, and second, there must exist a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression.”
The Security Council already recognizes that military coups, mass atrocities and cross-border refugee crises can threaten international peace. The situation in Myanmar checks all of those boxes. And the Security Council is undeniably at a stalemate concerning Myanmar, as it has been for years. The closest it came to action was when it sent a delegation to Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2018, which had no real impact.
To be clear, an Emergency Special Session is not a silver bullet for the same reasons that a properly functioning Security Council would not be a panacea. But it would harness global condemnation of the military’s coup and crimes and, if done right, could prompt meaningful action.
During past Emergency Special Sessions, the General Assembly recommended actions ranging from cease-fires to sanctions, arms embargoes to the deployment of supervisory U.N. forces, or peacekeepers, all of which should be considered for Myanmar. While Myanmar would reject the idea of peacekeepers, the General Assembly could recommend their deployment on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, which would satisfy a long-held recommendation from the Rohingya, who are at particular risk in the current situation.
The General Assembly could also create an ad hoc tribunal to focus on Myanmar’s international crimes, as it did when it established the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. Such a tribunal wouldn’t serve as a judicial body with binding judgments unless Myanmar consented, but it could still issue decisions that would prompt action.
The U.N. Human Rights Council — comprising 47 states — will hold a session this Friday to discuss the situation in Myanmar. This is an important development and can serve as a primer for an Emergency Special Session at the General Assembly.
The people of Myanmar are now taking to the streets in the largest nationwide protests since 2007. They know how dangerous the military is. There is a high risk the authorities will open fire on unarmed protesters and conduct mass arrests. This is an urgent case in which the international community can have a powerful effect. The United Nations should no longer let itself be hamstrung by the generals’ authoritarian enablers.
This article was originally published in The Washington Post here.