How to Help Myanmar Before It’s Too Late

The military coup that deposed Myanmar’s civilian government in February has created an escalating humanitarian crisis and left the country teetering on the brink of civil war. As the junta continues to target the population with violence, including torture and sexual assault, the opposition movement has also begun to question the effectiveness of its largely peaceful protests, especially in the absence of international support for the pro-democracy struggle.

In a WPR article earlier this week, Prachi Vidwans noted that this is precisely the kind of situation where the United Nations can do the most good if it were to act early, but where it is the least likely to do so. Indeed, as I told Vidwans in an interview for the article, “the U.N. does really poorly in supporting nonviolent resistance movements before they become violent or engaging in preventive diplomacy when violence is about to break out.”

It is reasonable to conclude, as Vidwans did in her article, that “the truth is that there is not much more that the international community could realistically be doing to help.” 

But rather than be the cause of despair, the gaps in U.N. architecture can instead be seen as an opportunity for innovation. First, the U.N. has more tools and more entrepreneurial power at its disposal than is often acknowledged, because it is not a single organization reducible to Security Council politics. And second, the international community is bigger, with more options at its disposal, than the U.N. itself, and it can exercise those options in ways that are consistent with the U.N. Charter.

After World War II, the U.N. was founded above all with the goal of eradicating interstate war. By locking in an arrangement that the two major blocs at the time could agree upon, the U.N. Charter outlived the blocs themselves and sustained a situation in which the five permanent, veto-wielding members of the Security Council were forced to work together to keep the international peace. At this, the U.N. Charter has succeeded brilliantly. 

But while the charter has staved off World War III by limiting aggressive war, it also promises to promote fundamental human rights and human freedoms, including freedom from violence at the hands of one’s own state. Coupled with the Genocide Convention requiring states to prevent and punish genocide, the U.N. Charter has always faced a paradox between upholding the territorial integrity norm at all costs and encouraging the protection of human rights within borders, a goal that occasionally requires war. Fortunately, the history of U.N. military operations shows that the U.N. is not limited by the charter’s strict language prohibiting armed warfare. Indeed, it is precisely the charter’s flexibility to innovate that enables it to bridge this gap. 

Take peacekeeping for example, which was not envisioned in the charter. What we now know as U.N. peacekeeping was devised by an entrepreneurial secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjold, as a way to overcome a split Security Council in managing the Suez Crisis. Invented on the fly, it has since become, remarkably, one of the most effective global policy tools ever conceived. But peacekeeping is not helpful in cases like the Bosnian war of the 1990s, where there was no peace to keep, or situations where a genocide is unfolding. 

What is missing in the international community’s response to Myanmar’s humanitarian crisis is not institutional options but political imagination.

In those cases, a Chapter VII military intervention to depose the genocidaires or bring the parties to the peace table is occasionally required. This, too, was not foreseen by the U.N.’s founders. Rather, it was a policy tool that gradually developed after the end of the Cold War, first in Iraqi Kurdistan, then in Bosnia and later in Libya. The problem is that these operations rarely reach consensus at the Security Council, because while Western powers often favor intervention, Russia and China are protective of the U.N. Charter’s non-intervention rules. That’s why in Kosovo in 1999, when ethnic Albanians were being targeted by Serbia in an ethnic cleansing campaign, NATO didn’t even ask for a Security Council resolution before waging an ethically righteous, but legally dubious humanitarian air war.

To resolve this dilemma, a new concept was invented by skilled norm entrepreneurs, the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, known as R2P, requiring the international community, through the U.N., to intervene in cases where a state was committing atrocities on its own territory, or when a state couldn’t or wouldn’t prevent them from occurring. Originally promulgated by Sudanese diplomat Francis Deng, it eventually gained traction at the U.N. Secretariat, which assigned a team of lawyers to hammer out a reframed understanding of sovereignty that could co-exist with the U.N. Charter’s ban on war, carving out an exception for crimes against humanity. It bears noting that the R2P principle allows ways around the Security Council when it is deadlocked. For example, the General Assembly can pass a Uniting for Peace resolution by a two-thirds vote. Or regional organizations can intervene, as NATO did in Kosovo, so long as the Security Council fails to pass a resolution by a two-thirds vote forcing them to withdraw.

But what about cases where neither the Security Council, the General Assembly nor a regional organization will act? Is there really nothing more the international community can do to stop a humanitarian disaster on the scale of genocide or crimes against humanity? Actually, this is where the U.N. Charter’s greatest and most underappreciated power to prevent atrocities, Article 51, comes into play. Article 51 ensures that states have the right to their own self-defense, until and unless the Security Council acts to restore international peace and security. Why should this matter? Because it justifies a humanitarian intervention when a situation of widespread atrocity causes massive refugee flows threatening nearby states. 

The argument that refugee flows constitute an attack on neighbors’ territorial integrity was used during the Cold War by Vietnam to justify intervention in Cambodia to stop the Khmer Rouge, and by India in what was then West Pakistan to stop the genocide against the Bengalis of then-East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. By the early 1990s, the Security Council itself was referring to refugee flows as a threat to international peace and security. 

Arguably, any country contiguous to Myanmar—India, Bangladesh, Thailand or China—could justify intervention for humanitarian reasons in the event of massive, destabilizing refugee flows, even if the Security Council could not technically act. Such an intervention would be consistent with the U.N. Charter regime. And even if China objected, as Russia did during the Kosovo War, the intervention might still be considered legitimate unless a Security Council resolution brought by China condemning the intervention passed by a two-thirds vote. These norms, if developed in practice by member states, would help balance U.N. Charter rules with humanitarian imperatives.

What is missing, in other words, is not institutional options but political imagination. Where that imagination has been exercised in the past, innovations have occurred. For example, while the refugee argument has not yet been used to justify a military intervention into Myanmar, it was used at the International Criminal Court in 2019 to justify a criminal investigation into atrocities committed by Myanmar’s military against the Rohingya. Though Myanmar is not a state party to the ICC and therefore technically beyond its jurisdiction, Bangladesh is a party, meaning crimes occurring on its territory can be prosecuted by that court. And though the genocidal massacres causing the Rohingya refugee flows were being perpetrated inside Myanmar, the crime of “forced displacement” as defined under the ICC statute was occurring on Bangladeshi territory once the Rohingya refugees crossed the border. This creative interpretation has set a new precedent that has the potential to begin closing a loophole in international law that has long served dictators. 

The reality is there will be more cases like that of Myanmar, in which military juntas and dictatorships terrorize the resistance movements seeking to establish or restore democracy. Once the situation escalates to either a genocide or civil war where war crimes or crimes against humanity are evident, it is morally easier to intervene, but politically and tactically harder. 

But should these situations really need to rise to the level of a genocide before the international community exercises its wider range of options? Need it be true that the international community cannot realistically do more at this stage? If that’s really the case, perhaps it’s time for the regional associations, neighboring states or international diplomats to exercise some fresh imagination. Or maybe it’s time for the U.N. secretary-general to establish a High-Level Panel on Early Warning and Early Action to consider additional ways the U.N. can innovate.

Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science and legal studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, specializing in human security and international law. She tweets at @charlicarpenter. Her WPR column appears every other Friday.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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