Improving the Role of the United Nations in the Myanmar Conflict Working Toward Trust Building Mechanisms

Major Problem in the Current Settlement Strategy

The Myanmar crisis that started in 2017 has dramatically changed the face of the South-East Asian region. Myanmar military officials have been accused of conducting ethnic cleansing and genocide in Rakhine state. These acts, that involve grave breaches of international law including the violation of human rights, have led to the death of thousands of Rohingya people as well as their displacement in neighbouring countries, such as Bangladesh. As a result, the fate of this muslim minority brought the attention of the international community to halt violence. Countries and international organizations have advocated for the stability of the region, the security of the Rohingya people, as well as actions against the Myanmar government.

However, despite the efforts of the international community and more specifically those of the UN, the situation in Myanmar still has not settled, and Rohingya have not returned home due to insecurity. This shows that the discussions between Myanmar and the UN has proved ineffective and questions the power dynamic in this crisis. The UN system has been shown to be relatively impotent while working with the authorities of Myanmar to end the negative trends. It is worth noting that the UN entity is not the only actor in this internationally oriented conflict and, perhaps, not even the most crucial one due to previous failures to step through in past Myanmar conflicts. Nevertheless, the UN still needs to effectively impose its leadership.

In this context, it becomes essential to resolve the role of the UN within this conflict because it is the entity that has been notifying the international community of continued violence in Myanmar. The head of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar established that “Myanmar is failing in its obligations under the Genocide Convention to prevent, to investigate and to enact effective legislation criminalizing and punishing genocide.” The UN argued that crimes under international law continue to be committed and that Myanmar has not been taking action to establish peace. By contrast, Myanmar officials support that allegations of apathy and continued violence are groundless, which creates a “dialogue of the deaf.”

Reasons for the Failure of UN Initiatives

A Systemic Failure

One of the reasons why the UN has not been successful at settling the conflict is because of the system itself. While it is true that the desire to resolve the conflict within the UN is unanimous, the system’s inability to

find a common plan of action has been detrimental. The UN has been following a fragmented strategy that prevents decision makers to find the best solutions. Because the Myanmar ethnic conflict had numerous twists and turns, it has led to unplanned reactions from various actors within the UN, thus creating a less organized and focused strategy.

There has been a gap between the actions of certain UN agencies and the public intervention of UN individuals themselves. For instance, while the UN peacekeeping missions aimed at reducing both internal and external tensions, UN individuals vividly criticized the Myanmar government for its passiveness. A report mentions that “the polarisation of approaches between quiet diplomacy with the Myanmar government and public condemnation of escalating human rights abuses became more magnified.” As a result, the Myanmar government has been utilizing some of these noticeable contradictions in order to continue its own agenda while ignoring the UN’s.

UN Vs. International Community: An Obstacle to Overcome

One of the questions that we might ask ourselves is despite the UN calls on act of genocide, is the international community and more specifically great powers receptive? In fact, the UN has had difficulty to exercise a unified pressure on the Myanmar government due to the resistance of countries such as China and Russia, both having interests with the country (especially trade and energy links). For instance, the Chinese government has been strictly opposed to Western intervention in countries that it has ties with and the possibility for China to exercise its right of veto as part of the P5 has made things more complicated.

Furthermore, despite the fact that the United States has pushed for unilateral economic sanctions on Myanmar, the Trump administration has not shown interest in establishing democtratic reforms in the country. Other countries have expressed that the lack of international consensus prevented from moving forward and hold the Myanmar government fully accountable for its actions. These significant obstacles have shadowed the role of the UN and slowed down the process of conflict settlement. Perhaps, the attempts from the UN to look for absolute approval shows that it has put too much energy on trying to address the international aspect of the conflict.

The Question of Sovereignty

While the UN has been carrying a set of values and norms while working on internationalized conflicts, it encounters problems of sovereignty as the Myanmar officials have invoked the necessity to respect their inherent right for it and the principle of non-intervention. This strategy serves as a cover when a country is unable or unwilling to meet international commitments in the context of human rights. In fact, UN peacekeepers have been denied access to strategic areas where some of the remaining Rohingya reside, which limits the UN scope of action. This prevents the UN workers to establish a precise assessment of the changes in the situation – they have to rely on satellite images, which might not reveal the full spectrum of the issue.

While it can be argued that state sovereignty might be compromised if a given government is not being receptive to the numerous offers of the international community, direct intervention creates a climate of increased tension and does not allow for full cooperation and compromise, which is something highly needed here. Thus, the question at hand is how can the UN maintain some form of engagement with Myanmar where human rights are being violated and at the same time requiring the government to uphold their international commitments.


Focus on a Single “Quiet Diplomacy” Strategy

Throughout history, Myanmar has shown a strong sense of mistrust to international actors and especially to the UN, to which it has sent a number of mixed messages. Thus, in order to guarantee a more effective dialogue between the UN and the Myanmar government, it would be necessary to focus on a unique, centralized body of decision making putting forth exclusively a quiet diplomacy strategy. To date, it remains unclear where the UN decisions and strategies come from, as there are 18 different UN agencies operating in Myanmar. This system and overextended presence in the country seems to have increased mistrust. While Myanmar needed to connect with the rest of the world through, in part, international organizations, UN staff have felt under scrutiny and intimidation by government officials. Thus, having a central body would allow the UN to reverse the fragmented strategy for a more focused one.

Furthermore, the designed UN body would have to focus on quiet diplomacy rather than trying to combine it with elements of “outspoken advocacy.” This recommendation challenges the idea that these two strategies complement each other. Indeed, focusing exclusively on quiet diplomacy would allow the UN to enhance trust with Myanmar and avoid possible contradictions in the public discourse as its government would not feel exposed to the rest of the world. This problem has been highly detrimental thus far to the process of conflict settlement. Outspoken advocacy has created more tensions with Myanmar and less prospect for conflict resolution, as the country feels under direct threat and, perhaps, humiliated. Because Myanmar has been adopting a more reserved and cautious strategy, keeping the talks internally would ultimately allow the institutions to cover more critical topics and especially the safe return of the Rohingya.

Establish Priorities

It is without doubt that institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya community represents the single most important concern not only for the UN but also for the rest of the world. It has also been established in the earlier section that it is possible that the UN has focused almost entirely its attention on the international aspect of the question by trying to bring together the international community and make the Myanmar military officials responsible for their actions in international courts. Thus, it seems that the UN has been focusing simultaneously on the humanitarian side of the conflict while also trying to resolve the legal aspect of it.

It is therefore necessary to reestablish priorities and in the first place, put all efforts toward regional stability to ensure the protection of the Muslim community by ending the ongoing persecutions. This recommendation aims to put things in better order as the logic would want to assume that once the persepcutions against the Muslim minority have ended, the region will find some more stability, which would then allow the UN to inititate a clear plan of legal action to convict the individuals responsible for crimes in Myanmar. The recommendation aims to create a more stable environment for the UN to fulfill its primary goals.

Even though the UN (and the world) has to deal with a case of human rights violation, the strategy should avoid as much as possible intrusive measures and an overall very robust advocacy as some scholars have suggested. This has been proved inefficient. Instead, advocating for a quiet diplomacy approach as suggested earlier aligns with the mitigation of human rights violation by using the “limited political space allowed.” Making clear that this aspect of the conflict is the number one priority (instead of being intertwined with other issues) implies the use of non-intrusive measures that will give greater prospect for long-term guarantees. Pursuing incremental measures will allow the UN to continue a positive engagement not only with the Rohingya community but also with neighboring countries to find the best possible solutions. This recommendation goes hand in hand with a more private diplomacy strategy as it will allow to make international humanitarian legislation be respected.

Use China’s Leverage

It has long been clear that there is no (or, at least, very little) willingness from the Myanmar government to provide the Rohingya Muslim minority full citizens’ rights and there is no incentive to do so. Thus, the efforts of the international institutions and especially those of the UN to push for an institutionalized change in Myanmar seems to be a losing battle. It is therefore necessary to act strategically and rely on actors that hold privileged ties with Myanmar. While the previous recommendation suggests that the UN should focus its attention more on the regional side of the question, this final recommendation aims to reinforce this idea by using China’s regional influence to better address the domestic conflict.

To some extent, it follows the position of the Chinese government, which suggests that the conflict does not represent a threat to international peace and should therefore be treated as a domestic issue. While China is interested in keeping its economic interests with Myanmar, it could be used as a leverage to address the humanitarian side of the conflict. More precisely, one of the long term solutions would be to find a compromise with the Chinese government so that it agrees to oversee the UN peacekeeping missions within Myanmar. Because the trust relationship between China and Myanmar is in greater shape, it would help resolve the tensions due to foreign intervention while allowing the UN to gain a greater access to some of the areas where the Rohingya live.

To this day, as a response to the growing level of violence against the Muslim minority, “calls have mounted for the deployment of peacekeeping forces, especially from Indonesia and Malaysia.” While it is good that these remain regional actors, using the influence of the regional hegemon would help to take the prospect of conflict resolution a step further. It is possible to challenge the effectiveness of these peacekeeping missions with regards to the recent deterioration of the overall situation. Even though China (as well as other countries) has continuously shielded Myanmar from the severe accusations and the UN measures, it is necessary to cooperate with China to ensure a peaceful, trustworthy and long standing return of the Rohygian in Myanmar.