The World

Does the World Have a Responsibility to Protect Myanmar?

Democracy activists are invoking a controversial international norm to demand outside intervention.

TOPSHOT - A protester makes the three-finger salute as other make noise by hitting metal objects and singing revolutionary songs during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon's Ahlone township on April 3, 2021. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
A protester makes the three-finger salute as other make noise by hitting metal objects and singing revolutionary songs during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon’s Ahlone township on April 3, 2021. STR/Getty Images

As pro-democracy demonstrations in Myanmar continue in the wake of the February 1 coup, many protesters within the country are taking to the streets and directly calling for the implementation of Responsibility to Protect, a United Nations norm that they believe could shield them from the violence of the military.

Responsibility to Protect, known colloquially as R2P, is a U.N. principle that is used when the government of a country fails to protect its own citizens from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity—in many cases the government itself is the perpetrator of those crimes. In these situations, the U.N. can take collective action through the Security Council on a case-by-case basis to protect civilians, even if the government does not consent and the action violates the country’s sovereignty.

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The norm was developed after the international community failed to prevent genocides in the Balkans, Kosovo and Rwanda in the 1990s. In 2000, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan published the report “We the Peoples,” writing, “[S]urely no legal principle—not even sovereignty—can ever shield crimes against humanity. Where such crimes occur and peaceful attempts to halt them have been exhausted, the Security Council has a moral duty to act on behalf of the international community.” Four years later, at the U.N.’s 2005 World Summit, R2P was unanimously adopted. Since then, it has been referenced in 92 Security Council resolutions and has been invoked in decisions ranging from an arms embargo in the Central African Republic to enforcing a no-fly zone followed by NATO airstrikes in Libya.

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In the days after the coup in Myanmar, discussions about R2P began to circulate online, as protesters launched demonstrations against the military (known as the Tatmadaw). The calls for action increased when Dr. Sasa, the U.N. envoy for the democratically elected Burmese government in exile, (like many Burmese, he goes by a single name) wrote to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres on March 4, asking the Security Council to uphold R2P. Across the country, protesters adopted this demand, writing “R2P” on their signs and banners and marching through the streets. Experts say the citizens’ requests for R2P on this scale are unprecedented.

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“There’s no real comparable example,” said Simon Adams, the executive director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. “Never as widespread as what we’ve seen in Myanmar.”

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This raises the question of what exactly invoking R2P would mean in this case. Methods of enacting R2P are varied, and international diplomatic figures who are proponents of the principle being invoked in Myanmar are quick to emphasize it doesn’t necessarily consist of military intervention. Gareth Evans, a former Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs who was integral in first formulating R2P, wrote in an April 8 op-ed that, “military intervention is simply not a realistic option” in Myanmar, but went on to say it’s “just one element in the R2P reaction toolbox.” Adams suggests that instead of military intervention, the U.N. implement other measures, including targeted sanctions, diplomatic non-recognition, divestment, withdrawal of aid, an arms embargo and a referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court.

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However, protesters in Myanmar are clear that when they ask for R2P, they’re asking specifically for boots on the ground.

“R2P is coming with armies that can protect the civilians,” said Ko Sa, who is from Myanmar and is currently studying for his master’s degree in the U.S. (For safety concerns, he is not using his full name.) “That is my understanding of R2P. Troops will go there and protect the people from the military shooting them.”

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Miemie Winn Byrd, an Asia-Pacific security analyst and former army colonel, said that while R2P is not synonymous with military intervention, those calling for it often view it that way.

“From the very first time, the U.S. military was involved,” said Byrd. “They think that R2P means military coming in and supporting. But R2P is a broad range.”

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R2P has been discussed with reference to Myanmar before. When Cyclone Nargis struck the country in 2008, killing over 130,000 and causing widespread devastation, Byrd, then serving in the Army, was on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Myanmar, and ready to deliver aid, which the Tatmadaw rejected. At the time, the French advocated for R2P, arguing that the international community should deliver aid whether the government agreed or not, but critics argued that the norm was limited to—as written in the 2005 World Summit Outcome—“genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” and not disaster relief. The U.N. never invoked the principle. In 2017, when the Tatmadaw committed genocide on the Rohingya people in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, some international advocates again called for R2P. The Security Council met to discuss the situation, but China and Russia blocked the release of a statement after the meeting was held. In the end, the only official response from the Security Council was a Presidential Statement emphasizing that it was the “primary responsibility of the Myanmar government to protect its population.” And despite the scale of these events, military intervention, according to Adams, was never on the table.

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“The military intervention thing is a total red herring,” said Adams. “Including when talking about the genocide in 2017 in Rakhine State. I never heard anybody seriously suggest that from a diplomatic point of view.”

In the past decade, skepticism has grown about R2P, particularly since the 2011 intervention in Libya which left a power vacuum that ultimately destabilized the country. But in the case of Myanmar, the skepticism that R2P may give way to harmful foreign intervention is largely depleted due to the fact that the Burmese people themselves are asking for the norm.

If the Security Council does intend to invoke R2P in Myanmar, it is moving at a glacial pace to do so, despite pressure from the exiled National Unity Government, various NGOs and even other elements within the U.N. On March 28, the U.N. Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Alice Waimiru Nderitu and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, released a joint statement, saying that the “international community has a responsibility to protect the people of Myanmar from atrocity crimes.”

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Like with the Rohginya genocide, the real obstacles R2P faces now are China and Russia, two of the five veto-wielding countries on the U.N. Security Council. China, which is Myanmar’s top trading partner and has billions of dollars invested in the country, likely wants to tread lightly and avoid further economic instability in the country. Russia has openly supported the military, sending Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin in March to meet with the Tatmadaw’s Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and attend the Armed Forces Day military parade on the same day 114 protesters were killed. This feeds into the broader struggle between these two countries and the West that plays out in the Security Council and the wariness that China and Russia have about invoking R2P after Libya.

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“When it comes to what used to be fairly uncontroversial peacekeeping missions in countries where there’s conflict and where there are atrocities… there used to be a kind of consensus around how the international community could respond,” said Adams. “A lot of that has broken down and it’s become ideological. The Chinese and the Russians are, in general, opposed to anything that’s about strengthening human rights.”

R2P remains in limbo more than ever as international and regional organizations play a kind of intervention hot potato. On April 24, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),      held an emergency meeting on the situation in Myanmar, reaching a “five-point consensus” agreeing upon an “immediate cessation of violence.” Two days later, the junta released a press statement declaring it would consider this when “the situation returns to stability in the country since priorities at the moment were to maintain law and order and to restore community peace and tranquility.”

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“All eyes shift back to ASEAN,” Adams said. “If they were a little bit more courageous and active around the issue, then it would increase pressure on the Security Council to do something.”

Of course, there are other options to pressure Myanmar that bypass the Security Council entirely. Countries can impose their own restrictions, and many have already, from the United States’ targeted sanctions to New Zealand not recognizing the junta and implementing a travel ban on military leaders. But none of these individual actions would be as impactful as a resolution from the U.N.

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On May 17, the U.N. held a plenary meeting on the topic of R2P. Myanmar’s envoy, Kyaw Moe Tun, who supports the opposition, gave a statement, saying, “I understand that today’s debate is of thematic nature, not about a country specific one. However, I find it extremely hard not to relate relevance of the topic to what has been happening in my country.”

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He urged the international community to adhere to the principle of R2P in Myanmar, and also appealed to the U.N. member states and Security Council to enact further measures punishing the Tatmadaw, give humanitarian assistance, and recognize the National Unity Government.

The following day, the U.N. General Assembly was set to consider an arms embargo on the junta, but the vote was postponed indefinitely to gain more support and have more time to negotiate with      ASEAN     , according to the AFP. Resolutions from the General Assembly are not legally binding but do hold political heft.

In Myanmar, protesters grow skeptical of the international community’s willingness to help.

“You do not see them holding U.N. or R2P posters anymore,” said Theo, who has been sharing information online and following the situation. He requested to be identified by his nickname due to safety reasons.

Now, he says, instead of the R2P messages, protesters have been holding signs in support of the newly formed National Unity Government and flags representing the Ethnic Armed Organizations in the country.

In the beginning, Ko Sa, the graduate student, knew it would be difficult to get R2P, but he was hopeful it would happen as he observed people protecting themselves from the military by using their knives, slingshots and hunting weapons. Now, he’s skeptical as well.

“If we hope too much, we will be hurt,” he said.

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