A stark warning from the UN in mid-December that genocide may be taking place in Myanmar has been met by an awkward silence around the world, indicating a limited appetite for forceful humanitarian intervention, even in the most extreme cases.
The persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority is beginning to resemble the plight of the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994, albeit on a smaller scale. After failing to stop the Rwanda slaughter, when up to 1 million people died, the international community vowed it would never happen again. Now, it seems, the nightmare is back.
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, previously described systematic attacks on the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military and civilian militias as ethnic cleansing, an assessment shared by the US.
But in a BBC interview last month, Hussein went a big step further. “You cannot rule out the possibility that acts of genocide have been committed … It wouldn’t surprise me in the future if the court were to make such a finding on the basis of what we see.”
The embarrassed silence that greeted his remarks reflects the fact that there is zero support for direct action in Myanmar. The concept of forceful humanitarian intervention, formulated in a celebrated speech in Chicago in 1999 by Tony Blair – and implemented in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and East Timor – is blown.
The disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, justified on moral and humanitarian grounds after the WMD argument imploded, discredited the “Blair doctrine”.
Now the pendulum has swung the other way. Myanmar’s generals are not alone in their impunity. In Yemen, which Boris Johnson, Britain’s foreign secretary, terms “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis”, Saudi forces are accused of causing large-scale civilian casualties, and of illegally blocking aid as a weapon of war.
A similar situation exists in Syria. Bashar al-Assad, the country’s president, has been widely accused of war crimes. But after six years of murderous mayhem, he still sits tight in Damascus.
Lack of political will is only one reason why the international community appears powerless to halt mass killings. Hussein’s prediction that Myanmar’s nominal leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and its top general, Min Aung Hlaing, could end up before a court was presumably a reference to the international criminal court, founded under UN auspices in 2002 and backed by 123 states out of a possible 195. The ICC is the world’s criminal court of last resort, charged with investigating and prosecuting individuals responsible for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
But Myanmar, like Syria and Yemen, is not a party to the ICC and lies outside its jurisdiction. The only way its leaders could face a judicial reckoning would be if the UN security council referred them to the ICC. This is not going to happen because China, a permanent member and Myanmar’s close commercial and political ally, would veto any such move. Likewise, Assad is protected by Russia, which has strategic interests in Syria.
The ICC has enjoyed limited success since its inception, in large part because major powers such as the US, China, Russia and India reject its jurisdiction, ostensibly on grounds of national sovereignty – although the US supports the court when it suits its purposes overseas. The ICC has also been weakened by member countries refusing to enforce its statute.
The most notorious case concerns Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president accused of genocide in Darfur. When Bashir visited South Africa in 2015, Jacob Zuma’s government ignored its legal obligation to arrest him. Following criticism of its behaviour, South Africa and other African members have threatened to quit the ICC.
Leading countries with the capacity to make a difference in places such as Myanmar or, for example, war-torn South Sudan, are also frequently guilty of failing to uphold international treaties, human rights conventions and resolutions which they previously signed up to through the UN system.
A total of 143 countries backed the convention on the prevention and punishment of genocide, adopted by the UN general assembly in 1948. At the time, the Holocaust was still a recent event. But memories fade and so, too, it seems, does political resolve.
A more recent, egregious example of international backsliding is the failure to honour the principle of the collective “responsibility to protect”. Shamed by the failures in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s, a UN world summit meeting in 2005 agreed all countries have shared responsibility to prevent and respond to the most serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.
The summit agreed that the principle of state sovereignty carried with it the obligation of the state to protect its own citizens. If a state was unable or unwilling to do so, the international community was empowered to act.
In Myanmar, where about 870,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee to Bangladesh and up to 10,000 people have been killed so far, their government has not only failed to protect them. It also appears directly culpable.
This is precisely the sort of situation the 2005 UN declaration was intended to prevent. And it promised, if and when such crises occurred, that member states would take “timely and decisive action, in accordance with the UN charter”. All over the world, this solemn promise is being broken on a daily basis.