Two months into one of the most vicious ethnic cleansing campaigns in recent history, the United Nations Security Council is still missing in action. For all its pledges to protect civilians, engage in preventive diplomacy, and never again allow mass atrocities to take place without a rapid response, the council has been a passive bystander while hundreds of villages in Burma were burned to ashes, thousands killed, and more than half a million ethnic Rohingya Muslims fled for their lives.
The best the Security Council could muster has been some inconsequential comments to the press, a few private meetings, and an anticlimactic public briefing from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who, to his credit, rang the alarm bell, but elicited no immediate reaction from council members. For victims, this silence was deafening.
None of the obvious tools to end or mitigate mass atrocities have been used. No Security Council delegation sent to Burma; no resolution demanding an end to the military’s abuses; and no threat of targeted sanctions and an arms embargo.
The Security Council’s abysmal failure to address an all too predictable crisis, years in the making, will doubtless be the subject of much reflection. The UN leadership in Burma has itself been accused of suppressing voices pointing to the many early warning signs. The inevitable reckoning will echo past UN failures, whether in Bosnia, Rwanda or Sri Lanka.
One country, more than any other, bears responsibility for the Security Council’s shameful silence: China. The Chinese government has decided to stand by the Burmese military, even as Burmese security forces engage in crimes against humanity. China continues to object to the council even mentioning human rights concerns. But even with China’s veto power – and Russia largely supporting the Chinese stance – other countries can and should act.
The United Kingdom and France are finally leading an effort to pass a Security Council resolution. The UK, which has traditionally led on Burma in the Security Council, has been too cautious and slow in responding to the crisis. Permanent members the United States and France have been more proactive, but their efforts have lacked urgency. Japan, which is very influential, has not helped move negotiations and remains far too unwilling to challenge Burma.
Every Security Council member should recognize how history will judge their actions – or inaction.
With a draft resolution now on the table, it is not too late for the Security Council to make a difference. Countries appalled by mass atrocities and that want to be on the right side of history should not allow China and its allies on the council to water down the resolution so that it’s meaningless. The credibility of the Security Council, and the Rohingya community’s future, hang in the balance.