Go back

Rohingya Crisis and UN involvement

Why Pragmatism is Key to Humanitarian Resolve.

The United Nations’ half-hearted response to the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine State (Myanmar) is disappointing, but unsurprising. The Security Council’s failure to act decisively to react to today’s fastest growing humanitarian crisis is reminiscent of its attitude towards similar crises since the 1990s across the world. Despite the ever-extensive toolbox of UN policy makers to deal with large-scale human rights violations, ethnic cleansing campaigns, and acts of genocide, the Rohingya crisis reminds us of the fact that human security is always secondary to political interests. There is no use for idealism. Pragmatism is key.

The Rohingya Muslim minority in Western Myanmar has been subject to state oppression and internal conflict since Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948. The roughly one million Rohingya in the state of Rakhine have been effectively stateless since a citizenship law of 1982 which designated them as foreign Bengali from neighboring Bangladesh.

What is happening precisely in Rakhine state is unclear. Since the start of the government’s military campaign in the summer of 2017 an estimated 688.000 people have fled their homes, mostly to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. Human rights investigators have however consistently been denied access to the region. In June a team of UN human rights investigators were denied visas. A February 2018 Security Council visit was postponed because ‘the time was not right to visit Rakhine State.’ This game of hide and seek is reminiscent of the IAEA inspectors in North Korea and Iran, who were consistently mislead so as to obscure these countries’ ‘alleged’ nuclear developments.

Despite Burmese efforts to thwart investigations, the Rohingya have been able to make headlines and catch the world’s attention. Although the Burmese government claims to target anti-government insurgents and terrorists, many refugees bring stories of villages being burned down, indiscriminate killings, torture, and rape. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres described it as the world’s fastest developing refugee emergency. The terms ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’ are also carefully being proposed. Lacking consensus in the Security Council, the UN General Assembly in December 2017 passed a (non-binding) resolution urging Myanmar to end the military campaign, to allow access to aid workers, and to assure the return of refugees. It fell on deaf ears. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley last week called Myanmar’s denial of its ethnic cleansing campaign ‘preposterous’, increasing the pressure on China and Russia to refrain from using their veto on the issue.

Human rights investigations and increased pressure from the US and France might at some point reach critical mass and induce more forceful action. Timor Leste had to wait for 25 years for the UNSC to finally do something about Indonesia’s occupation of the territory. In Sierra Leone and Liberia, videos of child soldiers and of warlords eating their victim’s hearts shamed the United States and the United Kingdom, respectively, to call upon the UN’s responsibility to protect large scale human suffering. Democratic governments are indeed sensitive to public opinion.

More forceful action is however unlikely to include a UN peacekeeping mission. Neither the Burmese government nor the UNSC has any interest in sending soldiers to Rakhine. It would also be difficult to find sufficient personnel. Peacekeepers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Indonesia, among Asia’s largest providers of UN blue helmets, would never be admitted to Myanmar because of their Islamic background. Western countries might be willing to send observers and expert panels, but have a sorry track-record of fulfilling their responsibility to protect civilians in conflict-zones. Failures in Somalia, Srebrenica (Bosnia), and Rwanda, where western blue helmets shied away after violent attacks rather than doubling-up their effort, signal a lack of appetite to defend civilians at all cost. Better to look for less intrusive alternatives.

Taking into account the reality on the ground and the bleak prospects for more forceful action, the best thing the UN can do for now is to keep pushing for a humanitarian mission and access to human rights investigators, while sustaining the dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s military leadership. It is not unlikely that later this year the regime will grudgingly concede to allowing human rights investigators to Rakhine. In order to achieve this, it is also important to reach a consensus with Russia and China, as their political sway over the regime is critical. Moscow and Beijing might for now defend the regime, but Myanmar is not as geopolitically vital to them as are Ukraine or Taiwan. Further escalation of the crisis is not in their interest either. A humanitarian mission would thus be a good first step. It’s a shame that the Rohingya probably first have to suffer a well-documented ethnic cleansing campaign before this can happen.


Drs. Thomas Kruiper

IE University

Department of International Relations