Burmese police who enforced the military junta’s crackdown on protesters stopped an ambulance in March, dragged four paramedics out of the vehicle and beat at least three of them to blood, then took them to jail.
The shocking attack on paramedics is just one example we’ve seen of the junta’s brutality as it struggles to crush protests against the military on February 1. stroke and the imprisonment of the country’s democratically elected leaders. Myanmar security forces arbitrarily arrest, beat and kill more protesters and political opponents every day; and violence by the authorities is on the rise. March 27 only, security forces killed at least 114 people, among them children.
What did the United Nations Security Council do? As the most powerful organ of the United Nations, it has the power to sanction Myanmar’s military leaders and impose a global arms embargo over the country. Instead, he issued of them statements call for the release of political prisoners and an end to violence.
Council diplomats point out that the 15-nation body has spoken “with one voice” twice. But these small steps do little more than highlight the Security Council’s inability to try to do anything that would have a significant impact on the generals.
If Britain after Brexit is to show global leadership at the UN, it should start by pushing the rest of the Security Council towards substantive action on Myanmar.
The United Kingdom is the Security Council’s “pen-bearer” on Myanmar, which means that it takes the lead in all Council declarations or resolutions. Britain, the United States, France and most of the other council members have shown that they are on the side of the people of Myanmar, not the military. The best way to do this is to urgently draft and negotiate a strong resolution that would target the leadership of the military and its funding.
Of course, as permanent members of the Security Council, China or Russia – or both – could veto such a resolution. But that’s no reason not to try. Even the still-diplomatic UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said governments around the world must “put enough pressure on Myanmar to make sure this coup fails.”
Beijing has not explicitly threatened to use its veto, although council members expect it would not hesitate to do so hovering over all negotiations in Myanmar. This is the explanation generally given by diplomats for the Council’s pathetic response to the ethnic cleansing campaign carried out by the Burmese army in 2017 against the Rohingya Muslims, who brought 750,000 survivors to Bangladesh. The military threat against the Rohingya who remained in the country is so serious that the International Court of Justice has ordered Myanmar to take all necessary measures to protect the Rohingya from genocide.
The council’s inaction contrasts sharply with national responses. Britain, the United States and the European Union have all taken significant, if insufficient, unilateral steps to impose sanctions on Myanmar military leaders and military companies. Yet they avoided pushing such measures in the Security Council.
Britain tried to include a language calling for “Additional measures” against Myanmar’s military in a recent Security Council presidential statement, but it dropped that language and others after China, Russia, India and Vietnam objected.
The strategy of Britain, the United States and other members of the council has been to prioritize speaking “with one voice” in the form of innocuous statements rather than pushing for a resolution that includes substantive measures and could lead to abstentions and “no” votes.
Unity is great when it is achievable, but it shouldn’t be an end in itself. A Security Council resolution needs nine votes and no vetoes from the five permanent members to pass. Resolutions often pass without consensus, like Britain’s recent two on Somalia and Libya. A Myanmar sanctions resolution need not be an exception.
If China decides to stand with the Myanmar military rather than the people whose democratically elected government has been overthrown, it risks paying a lasting price in Myanmar and around the world.
So far, Beijing has demonstrated a will to condemn Myanmar’s long-vilified army. The Chinese government’s willingness to associate itself with the Council’s statements shows that it is also unhappy with the coup.
Could Beijing allow the adoption of UN sanctions with a simple abstention? The only way to identify China’s limits is to circulate a draft resolution calling for targeted sanctions against junta leaders and an arms embargo; and start negotiating.