For years, members of the United Nations Security Council have offered multiple excuses for not even trying to impose targeted sanctions on the Myanmar military. The top excuse was always: “China will veto it.” Maybe that was true, but it’s time to call Beijing’s bluff.
Human Rights Watch repeatedly called for sanctions on Myanmar’s military following the 2017 campaign of mass atrocities against ethnic Rohingya. That campaign included killings, rape, and widespread arson in Rakhine State that forced more than 700,000 to flee to Bangladesh.
The military’s crimes against the Rohingya sparked international outrage. Yet Security Council members have consistently taken a low-energy approach to Myanmar to avoid upsetting the military or undermining Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who sadly became the military’s top apologist for its crimes against the Rohingya. While many countries have sanctioned the military’s leaders, they avoided pushing such steps at the UN. Britain, as the council’s “penholder” on Myanmar, and others argued that too much pressure could undermine Suu Kyi and the fragile democratization process. And there was that Chinese veto – never officially threatened but always lurking in the background.
What has this softly-softly approach accomplished? Mostly it’s reassured Myanmar’s military that it could do what it wanted without fear of serious consequences.
Now the military has launched a coup and arrested Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders, claiming that the November election that the ruling National League for Democracy won handily were fraudulent.
China, which has close ties with Myanmar and its military, has long been its protector on the Security Council. Last week the Chinese delegation, backed by Russia, initially blocked a council statement voicing concern about the coup and calling for the release of Suu Kyi and others, only allowing a diluted version to later pass.
Security Council members concerned about human rights should abandon this discredited approach. Even the ever-diplomatic UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres vowed to “do everything we can to mobilize all the key actors in the international community to put enough pressure on Myanmar to make sure that this coup fails."
Will China veto a sanctions resolution? Probably. But Russia has used its veto 16 times to block resolutions on Syria and the resolutions keep coming. Those votes put Moscow in the awkward position of having to justify its support for Syrian government atrocities.
Council members need to send a strong signal to Myanmar – and China – that the gloves are off. They should circulate a draft resolution that would impose an arms embargo on Myanmar and global travel bans and asset freezes on the entire military leadership.
If China vetoes it, they will have to answer for their actions – and the consequences.