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A police officer stands in front of anti-coup protesters in Yangon, Myanmar, February 19, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo

(New York) – The United Nations Security Council should immediately impose a global arms embargo on Myanmar, Human Rights Watch and over 200 other nongovernmental organizations from around the world said today in a public appeal to council members. The Security Council should act swiftly to pressure the junta to stop violating the human rights of people protesting the February 1, 2021, coup and military rule.

“The UN Security Council’s failure to even discuss an arms embargo against the junta is an appalling abdication of its responsibilities toward the people of Myanmar,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch. “The council’s occasional statements of concern in the face of the military’s violent repression of largely peaceful protesters is the diplomatic equivalent of shrugging their shoulders and walking away.”

The groups said that the United Kingdom, the council’s designated drafter of Myanmar texts, should immediately open negotiations at the Security Council on a draft resolution authorizing an arms embargo. The UK has been reluctant to do so, prioritizing consensus statements supported by all council members over a resolution with substantive measures that China, Russia, and other members might initially oppose.

“No government should sell a single bullet to the junta under these circumstances,” the groups said in their appeal. “Imposing a global arms embargo on Myanmar is the minimum necessary step the Security Council should take in response to the military’s escalating violence. Arms and materiel provided to Myanmar’s security forces are likely to be used by the security forces to commit abuses in violation of international human rights and humanitarian law.”

Myanmar’s military nullified the country’s November 2020 election results and imposed a manufactured “state of emergency.” State security forces have killed over 760 people since the coup and arbitrarily detained more than 3,600, including journalists, medical personnel, teachers, students, and others in violation of international human rights law. Hundreds may have been forcibly disappeared.

A number of individual governments and the European Union have imposed sanctions on senior leaders of the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, and companies controlled by the military; but the Security Council has only issued three statements since the military takeover. Those statements have called on the military to halt the excessive use of force against protesters and release political prisoners, including former President Win Myint, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and other officials elected in the November 8, 2020, election. 

The groups’ appeal for an arms embargo echoes and broadens a February 24 declaration by 137 nongovernmental organizations, which urged the Security Council to act swiftly to halt the flow of weapons to the junta.

“The time for statements has passed,” the groups said. “The Security Council should take its consensus on Myanmar to a new level and agree on immediate and substantive action. An arms embargo would be the centerpiece of a global effort to protect the people of Myanmar from further atrocities and help bring an end to impunity for crimes under international law.”

The organizations also said they were disappointed with the April 24 summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its failure “to take more robust action to protect Myanmar’s people.” The junta has ignored ASEAN’s call for an end to the violence.

In February, UN Secretary-General António Guterres pledged to “do everything we can to mobilize all the key actors and international community to put enough pressure on Myanmar to make sure that this coup fails.” The UN special rapporteur for Myanmar, Tom Andrews, has repeatedly called for an arms embargo and sanctions. Guterres’ special envoy, Christine Schraner Burgener, has also called for targeted sanctions.

The Security Council’s unwillingness to discuss a sanctions resolution represents a collective failure to heed the many calls to action from around the world. Human Rights Watch has said that the Security Council should also impose targeted sanctions, global travel bans, and asset freezes on the leadership of the junta and military-owned conglomerates.

The junta leader, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and several other military officials have been implicated in crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by the Tatmadaw in Rakhine, Kachin, Shan, and Chin States. Until the Security Council acts, individual UN member states should continue to adopt measures at the national and regional levels to block sales and other transfers of weapons and materiel to Myanmar, with the goal of creating a de facto global arms embargo, Human Rights Watch said.

Governments should also demand that Security Council members that care about protecting the human rights of Myanmar’s people set aside concerns about resistance from the permanent members Russia and China, and circulate a draft resolution that council members can discuss and vote on. A Security Council resolution needs nine votes in favor and no vetoes from the five permanent members to pass.

“The Security Council has an unfortunate history of inaction on human rights in Myanmar, barely uttering a peep when the military carried out an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya in 2017,” Charbonneau said. “The Security Council should call China and Russia’s bluff and put a sanctions resolution to a vote. If Moscow and Beijing side with a military already accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, they will have to pay for the rising political cost of their obstruction.”

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