Silence in the Face of Atrocity: The Role of the United Nations and United States in Myanmar

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By: Aly Niehans

Since its conception following World War II, the United Nations has striven to protect the rights of human beings worldwide. Unfortunately, it has largely failed to do so thus far due to its repeated and crippling inaction towards human rights crises in Rwanda, the Balkans, and Myanmar.

Located in the western slice of Southeast Asia, the small country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a nation riddled with economic and ethnic strife. Ranking 145th out of 188 countries on the 2016 Human Development Index, Myanmar has an average gross national income (GNI) of only $4943 a person, more than a 19 percent poverty rate, and boasts the lowest life-expectancy and the second highest rate of infant and child mortality of all ASEAN countries. More pressing recently, though, is the ethnic conflict that continues to smolder in the southwestern Rakhine state, the minority Rohingya Muslim population as its victims.

The Rohingya are not counted by the Myanmar government among the more than 135 ethnic minorities in the country, which is dominated by a majority Buddhist population. Considered by the United Nations to be one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, the Rohingya claim to be indigenous to Myanmar and the Rakhine state. However, they were stripped of their citizenship in 1982 under the Citizenship Law, leading to a popular view of the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Beginning in 2012, persecution against and violence towards the Rohingya dramatically increased. Organized massacres left more than two hundred Rohingya and another sixty non-Rohingya from the Rakhine dead. Mosques, homes, and entire Rohingya villages were torched by the Myanmar military. Rohingya women were raped, individuals were executed or detained. The 2012 conflict saw the disappearance of Muslims from Sittwe, the capital city of Rakhine, into detention camps and the Aung Mingalar ghetto. The ghetto, home to 15,000 Rohingya, is manned by armed, state-sanctioned security guards, is partitioned off from outside neighborhoods by barbed wire fencing, and is supported by the Myanmar government as a way to remove the “problematic” Rohingya from mainstream society. Since the outbreak of violence five years ago, more than 140,000 Rohingya have been shoved into desolate camps outside Sittwe, while the remaining 800,000 are trapped in the militarized northern portion of the state. The sequestered Rohingya rarely receive the food rations sent by international organizations such as the United Nations, are denied access to healthcare, and are not allowed to pursue an education or a career.  

As in the past, the United Nations’ rhetoric of promoting world peace and protecting human rights failed to amount to any real action. Instead, it has relied almost entirely on member states to take ultimately ineffective action that has not benefited the Rohingya nor made any strides towards resolving the conflict. As in Rwanda, the United Nations remains complacent in avoiding a potentially messy, prolonged intervention in a country whose government ardently denies allegations of ethnic cleansing. The UN aid following the 2012 flare of violence did nothing to prevent future ethnically motivated surges of violence, resulting in yet another spike of aggression five years later.

2017 brought a new wave of violence against the Rohingya, causing 74,000 people to flee to neighboring Bangladesh and leaving another 130,000 trapped in Rakhine with no access to humanitarian aid. It is estimated that more than 607,000 Rohingya refugees find themselves displaced, forced to remain in camps in Bangladesh because the Bangladeshi government refuses to register the refugees in an attempt to spur their return to Myanmar. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has provided supplies such as tents, blankets, mosquito nets and latrines to the Rohingya living in these camps, but their efforts are underfunded and unable to adequately provide aid to those remaining in the Rakhine state.Terrified Rohingya refugees are left floating between two inhospitable countries, both of which refuse to grant them citizenship or rights.  

The United Nations cannot in one breath espouse the importance of human rights while lobbing half-hearted aid packages and insufficient funds at a country with a known history of targeting ethnic minorities. The aid currently provided is drastically disproportionate to the need in the refugee communities, and does not excuse the lack of further aid, funds, or intervention from the UN. The UN does recognize the need for further aid but has failed to secure the resources to provide it. It is time that the United Nations shed its cloak of timidity when addressing hostile situations in unstable countries like Myanmar, whose frail democracy emerging from a military dictatorship threatens to collapse under the pressure and scrutiny of the international community. Instead, the United Nations must require far more from its member states than just a slap on the wrist to the conflict’s perpetrators and unenthusiastic financial aid for Rohingya refugees.

Granting the UN power to require its member states contribute to a concerted, collective effort to intervene in states in violation of citizens’ human rights would allow the  UN to prevent and end egregious human rights offenses. Such a massive reallocation of power would entail a sweeping reform of the UN’s structure, as members are currently permitted to either provide or deny aid on an individual basis. However, a United Nations possessing the power to require states to contribute a certain amount of peacekeepers, troops, aid in the form of food or money, impose economic sanctions, or accept refugees displaced because of a crisis would become markedly more responsive to transgressions of human rights.

Requiring member states to take decisive action in conflicts would mean relinquishing sovereignty that many states hold near and dear to their very essence. Nevertheless, this defense of sovereignty has continuously allowed vengeful regimes to carry out sweeping genocidal campaigns and violate the rights of their citizens. Take Rwanda for example: a Hutu-dominated government blatantly violated a peace agreement and, following the assassination of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, embarked on 100 days of expedited violence and killing. The UN and the international community were well aware of the situation. UN peacekeepers, firsthand witnesses of the violence, were extracted and jetted back to their countries. The UN prioritized removing peacekeepers for fear of domestic political backlash were a Belgian or a Canadian to die protecting a Tutsi in an African country most Westerners could not locate on a map. The horrors of Rwanda prove the need for a United Nations that can require its member states to provide personnel and aid to remedy tragedies, as it is grossly apparent that individual states will continue acting in their own best interest even if it means the death of anywhere from 500,000 to 800,000 innocent men, women, and children.

A more powerful UN would have at its disposal peacekeepers acting on behalf of the organization rather than individual countries with the understanding that their explicit mission was to protect the targeted civilian population. A more powerful UN would have the resources, both in manpower and money to assemble sophisticated peacekeeping missions that could efficiently provide aid and protection, a distinct improvement from past peacekeeping missions such as Rwanda that bailed at the first gunshot. A more powerful UN would be more equipped to prevent and end ethnic cleansings, genocides, and mass atrocities and reaffirm the organization’s role as more than just an idealistic “cheap talk” factory espousing unrealistic goals.

As it stands, the United Nations is rendered ineffective by the lassitude of its member states in responding to humanitarian crises like the one unfolding in Myanmar. The lack of concrete power and ability to invoke real consequences cripples an organization. If it were given more power, the UN could truly work towards its stated goal of promoting world peace and ending human rights violations.

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