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Myanmar and the Responsibility to Protect

As the world looks on, seemingly helplessly, the Myanmar military – Tatmadaw – continues its campaign of violence to repress protests aimed at restoring the country’s fledgling democracy. Despite a proposed pause, with the Tatmadaw saying they will only respond to events that undermine broadly conceived security, the protests are likely to continue and the violence to escalate.

The Global Leadership Forum, led by South Africa’s F.W. de Klerk and including 45 former world leaders, have said it is now time for the United Nations to intervene under the Responsibility to Protest paradigm. Responsibility to Protect (also known as R2P) was adopted by the UN in 2005 during the last days of the US as the sole world superpower and before China had not yet risen to its current level of economic, diplomatic and strategic power.

The R2P paradigm could apply to Myanmar, particularly its provision for the prevention of war crimes. Importantly, however, R2P requires that all other measures be exhausted before there is consideration of military intervention and even that should only occur where it can be quick, decisive, reduce rather than increase loss of life and have a high prospect of success.

Critically, too, R2P requires the approval of the UN Security Council, under Chapter Seven provisions which allow it to take military and nonmilitary action to restore peace and security. A number of countries have already taken non-military action against the Tatmadaw and the generals, particularly through targeted sanctions.

However, with China as its dominant trading partner and key strategic and diplomatic supporter, such sanctions have had little practical effect. 

This then goes to the limitations of R2P. For any action to be approved by the UN Security Council it requires that all five permanent members agree with the action; only one is required for a veto. Both China and Russia have shown little interest in any concerted UN Security Council action on Myanmar, so R2P would be unlikely to start, much less succeed.

R2P is commonly confused with humanitarian intervention, in which countries acting outside the UNSC mandate act to restore peace and stability. The key difference is that the UN mandate is supposed to act as a check on the interests of individuals countries, while humanitarian intervention can be a fig-leaf to cover such interests. This is why some observers have wryly noted that there would be more likelihood of intervention in Myanmar’s crisis if that country was a major oil exporter.

As it stands, no country would seriously contemplate unilaterally invading Myanmar to help restore its fledgling democracy because there is, simply, too little in it for them. Moreover, such an intervention could easily become a strategic quagmire and, not least, prompt the Tatmadaw’s ally, China, to involve itself on the Tatmadaw’s behalf.

Even without China’s involvement, a military intervention in Myanmar would not meet the key criteria of being quick, decisive, would likely produce more loss of life and have a poor prospect of success. With China’s involvement, any such intervention would, at best, become a bloody disaster.

It is, then, a bitter prospect for the people of Myanmar and for those elsewhere who sympathise with their democratic aspirations that there will be no external intervention in Myanmar and that the Tatmadaw is unlikely to succumb to the limited pressure that has been applied. Two lessons come from this.

The first is that democracy, globally, is in decline, with events in Myanmar being a blunt reminder of this trajectory. This may not be a permanent state of affairs, but the conditions that gave rise to democracy have diminished, in terms of political economy and as an accepted moral force.

The second lesson is that China – and Russia – supporting the Tatmadaw against the people of Myanmar, reflects a sharp delineation of the new world order, between authoritarian states and liberal democratic states.

This reshaping of the world has been characterised by some as a new Cold War. The difference is that, during the old Cold War, liberal democracies were in the ascendancy. Now they are not.