Is the UN fit for purpose?

Humanity looks to the United Nations for one thing above all else: to prevent atrocities. But it failed to stop the massacre of the Rohingya in Myanmar, just as it failed in Sri Lank, Bosnia and Rwanda.
December 9, 2020

In the last days of August 2017, Myanmar’s westernmost coastal region erupted in a frenzied fit of killing and burning. Nearly 400 Rohingya villages were encircled and razed to the ground by soldiers, who often opened fire from beyond the village perimeter, spraying bullets through the latticed wooden walls of houses. 

The speed of the exodus that followed was staggering. Within three weeks, 300,000 refugees had fled to Bangladesh; by 1st October 2017, the number had passed half a million. In time, that figure climbed to nearly three quarters of a million. One 25-year-old woman, whom I interviewed in the camp in Bangladesh, came from a village called Chut Pyin. She told me how, on the morning of 27th August, she had been taken from her house by soldiers, placed in a nearby house, bound with rope, blindfolded and raped. Three hundred and fifty of a total of 1,400 people in the village were killed, more than 100 of whom were under five. “There were five of us in that house,” she recalled. “Three were pregnant. They were raped and killed.” The following year, UN investigators stated that the actions of the military “undoubtedly amounted to the gravest crimes under international law.” 

The violence shocked. But for those who had watched Myanmar over the preceding five years, it was perhaps not surprising. The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim group who have been denied citizenship since the 1980s and have long been considered vulnerable. Well before the violence of 2017, they were subjected to tight restrictions on their movement and access to healthcare and education. 

Aside from the actions of Myanmar’s military, a second story had a bearing on the horrors of 2017, namely the actions—and especially inactions—of international agencies in the years leading up to the violence. The United Nations in particular became the focus of claims that it had downplayed warning signs of atrocities. Questions soon began to be asked of its conduct in the years leading up to what a UN fact-finding mission later said amounted to a genocide.  

The vast majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya population—estimated at around 1.3m prior to 2017—live in Rakhine State, among Myanmar’s least developed regions and the site of longstanding tensions between Rohingya and the local majority ethnic group in the state, the Rakhine. In 2012, after a wave of violence between Rohingya and Rakhine, some 140,000 Rohingya were confined to a network of camps where they became dependent on aid. For those who remained in their villages, movement was heavily restricted. Human rights investigators, as well as scores of UN staff inside Myanmar, saw the camps as a critical shift in conditions. Legal experts from the London-based International State Crime Initiative argued that this was a purposeful attempt to weaken the Rohingya—a recognised stage in a campaign of genocide. 

Click to enlarge: Rakhine State (red) within Myanmar. The Rohingya are found mostly in the north of the state on the border with Bangladesh—which has since seen an influx of refugees from the region

But still, few within the UN and diplomatic community in Myanmar were willing to raise the alarm. In 2019, a UN inquiry acknowledged “systemic and structural failures” that ran from the ground level in Myanmar up to the UN headquarters in New York. This was part of a long history of the organisation’s passivity in the face of coming atrocities. In 2009, the UN was criticised for not reacting forcefully to evidence that the Sri Lankan government was targeting civilians in its final assault on the Tamil Tigers; long before that, in 1994, the Security Council refused to strengthen the UN peacekeeping mandate in Rwanda, even as the genocide unfolded; and in 1993, it designated Srebrenica a “safe zone” to be protected by “all necessary means,” only for Bosnian Serb troops to overrun the town just two years later and kill 8,000 civilians. 

Every instance of failure is followed by a renewed pledge to strengthen the UN’s atrocity prevention strategies, but each subsequent debacle prompts the same searching questions about its ability to steward world crises with the courage that its architects had envisioned three-quarters of a century ago. The UN’s response to the violence visited upon the Rohingya demonstrates the human cost of its chaotic internal workings—the lack of co-ordination and central command; the counterproductive competition between UN agencies; and the divergent views over how to deal with hostile governments. The repeated failures prompt an uncomfortable question: are global institutions like the UN capable of preventing the gravest of state crimes? 

The UN was established in 1945 with the goal of using dialogue and diplomacy to heal the international schisms exposed by the Second World War. Though audacious, this ambition wasn’t new. The League of Nations had been established in much the same spirit after the First World War, but its scope was limited from the off by the refusal of the US to join, and later by the withdrawal of (among others) the world’s emerging aggressors, Germany, Italy and Japan. Consequently, the UN was designed with realpolitik in its bones: deference to great powers was enshrined through permanent Security Council seats, while the involvement of governments at its highest level who regularly flout international law shows there to be few strings attached to membership. The aim, remarkably and successfully achieved, has been to keep all countries in the club. 

The still-recent horrors of the Holocaust did give an early emphasis to atrocity prevention. The 1948 Genocide Convention specifically sought to cultivate an understanding of the slow-building nature of such crimes. However multiple instances of possible—and definite—genocide since its enactment have shown it to be a flawed instrument, reliant on signatory states for whom acknowledgement of the crime calls for actions that they may be reluctant to take. But nevertheless, the UN has at least continued to play a part in developing an understanding of the processes that culminate in atrocity: its former chief, Ban Ki-moon, introduced its “framework” for preventing atrocities by stressing the “histories, precursors and triggering factors which, combined, enable their commission.” Myanmar was a paradigm test case for the UN’s ability to put this insight into practice. 

MANDRU, MYANMAR - 2017/06/09: Rohingayas houses are burning  by Myanmar army. Thousands of Rohingyas still crossing the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh after the Burmese army started an operation against the Rohingyas, by burning and destroying thei MANDRU, MYANMAR - 2017/06/09: Rohingayas houses are burning by Myanmar army. Thousands of Rohingyas still crossing the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh after the Burmese army started an operation against the Rohingyas, by burning and destroying thei

Scorched earth tactics: Rohingya homes in Mandru, Myanmar, were set alight by
soldiers in 2017. © © Yousuf Tushar/LightRocket via Getty Images

The political disenfranchisement of the Rohingya began with the first military leader of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. General Ne Win, a fierce xenophobe who ruled from 1962 until 1988, considered ethnic minorities potential saboteurs of his nation-building project, one which he envisaged developing to the specific advantage of Myanmar’s Bamar ethnic majority. All minority groups, including the Rakhine, had felt the force of the military’s “Burmanisation” drive—the effort to homogenise the country under a Bamar identity. But as a Muslim minority in a region neighbouring Bangladesh, the Rohingya were considered something altogether different: interlopers who threatened to overwhelm Rakhine State and undermine the centrality of Buddhism in Myanmar. In the early 1980s, Ne Win made membership of one of the country’s recognised ethnic groups a requirement for citizenship. Rohingya—who had their national ID cards withdrawn in the 1970s, to be replaced with Foreign Registration Cards—were gradually refused citizenship on the basis of their newly established alien status. By the early 1990s, they required special permits to move between townships in northern Rakhine State. If they didn’t produce these at checkpoints, they faced fines, beatings or imprisonment. 

Ne Win’s coup, 14 years after independence from Britain in 1948, began one of the longest continuous periods of authoritarian rule of the 20th century. But in 2010, reform beckoned. The military junta, uneasy at its reliance on China as a result of western sanctions, announced elections. In time, so it claimed, a new era of western engagement and democratic politics would flourish. The long-suppressed media was liberalised, dialogue between the military and armed groups began, and the generals appeared to be open to a civilianised government. 

Yet there was little certainty over how deep the democratic experiment would go: who exactly rights would be extended to, and what shape they would take. International coverage of Myanmar in the years before the transition began tended to focus on the opposition—the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi in particular—and ethnic armed conflict in the north and east of the country. Meanwhile, the story of the Rohingya in western Myanmar remained underreported, and the depth and extent of animosity towards them underappreciated. 

After the 2010 elections, with a military-backed party in government and indications that the opposition would soon take seats, Rakhine politicians who sought greater political and economic gains for their own ethnic constituents began to warn of dire consequences if the Rohingya were enfranchised. Democratic gains were pitched as zero-sum; if Rohingya were empowered, they would weaken the relative position of the Rakhine who, like many minority groups in Myanmar, were themselves also still marginalised. After violence between Rohingya and Rakhine in 2012, the camp system became one more element in the architecture of control that had been refined over the years in Myanmar’s west. 

For decades prior to 2010, UN agencies had provided vital aid for the millions displaced by conflict between ethnic armed groups and the military in Myanmar’s periphery. It knew that to forcefully criticise the military for its crimes in the border regions—scorched earth tactics, mass displacement—could see its mandate restricted further, or cancelled altogether, and so it worked within the limits allowed by the junta. 

As the transition got underway, it became clear that an era of greater security for minorities would not be forthcoming. Despite the markers of progress—liberalising media, an end to sanctions—the military had intensified violent campaigns against ethnic armed groups. The transition’s unclear trajectory created a newly fraught environment for domestic and international actors, and it was left to aid workers, activists and journalists to continually test how far they could push their work. 

By early 2014, the status of the UN and other aid agencies was precarious. The narrative—popular among Rakhine people—that Rohingya were illegal Bengali immigrants had intensified as the transition advanced. Rakhine activists began to accuse aid workers of sustaining a population that had no rights to be in the country. An incident one morning in January 2014 sharpened tensions further. Rohingya from the village of Du Chee Yar Tan had showed up at a local Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) clinic with knife, gunshot and sexual assault wounds inflicted, they said, by Rakhine civilians and security forces. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR) circulated claims that some 40 Rohingya villagers had been massacred, and the UN human rights chief demanded the government investigate. But the government claimed the allegations were false. Subsequent independent investigations questioned whether so many had been killed. MSF, which first raised the alarm, was temporarily banned from working in Rakhine State, and the UNOHCHR could no longer get visas for its staff. Two months later, in March, Rakhine civilians in the state capital, Sittwe, attacked the offices and supply depots of international NGOs, triggering a temporary withdrawal of aid workers from the town.

[su_pullquote]“The UN knew that to forcefully criticise the military for its crimes in the border regions could see its mandate restricted further, or cancelled altogether”[/su_pullquote]

Hostility towards aid organisations prompted a change in how the UN viewed its relationship with the government. It had issued several statements in 2012 and 2013 condemning the deepening segregation in Rakhine State. But after March 2014, it grew quieter. A split began to emerge within the UN in Myanmar: one camp thought there should be more robust public advocacy around the spiralling situation in Rakhine State, even if that meant taking on the government. The other, which included the Resident Coordinator—the most senior UN official in Myanmar—felt that “quiet diplomacy” would better serve the continuation of its work. Too much public criticism, this camp feared, could see it shut out altogether. 

Additional bureaucratic issues impacted on the UN’s ability to respond to a developing catastrophe. The Resident Coordinator’s office took its orders from the UN Development Programme. Its brief was development, not human rights. That had initially made sense, given the liberalisation underway in Myanmar. But it left the Resident Coordinator unfit to handle the dramatic deterioration in conditions in Rakhine State. Publicly criticising human rights abuses would, it feared, provide a pretext for the military to restrict its mandate and threaten its work. 

In its briefs to the UN headquarters, the Office of the Resident Coordinator framed violence against Rohingya in 2012 and thereafter as communal—the result of longstanding inter-group tensions, not the incitement of Rakhine political leaders. The many warnings directed against this obfuscation went unheeded and an expert report commissioned by the UN itself in late 2014 stated that Rohingya were experiencing “a human rights and livelihood emergency.” Yet it continued to frame the crisis as a humanitarian issue rather than a state-directed crime. That meant the government and military were seen as potential partners in UN efforts to ameliorate conditions, rather than the architects of those conditions. 

Criticism of its complacency began to build, but this wasn’t the first time it had come under fire. In the wake of the Sri Lankan war just a few years before, the world body had commissioned an internal investigation into its own handling of the crisis. The report was authored by Charles Petrie, a conflict specialist who had served with the UN in Rwanda during the genocide. In the Sri Lankan case, Petrie dissected the UN’s fraught relationship with the country’s Prime Minister Rajapaska, who had come to power in 2005 and oversaw torture and forced disappearances of Tamils and opposition figures. As in Myanmar, the UN had then tried to work carefully with a hostile government. But, wrote Petrie, the UN had not reacted effectively to early warning signs that civilians would be killed in their tens of thousands, and deflected responsibility through its arbitrary separation of “humanitarian” and “political” issues. “The UN’s reference to what was ‘political’ seemed to encompass everything related to the root causes of the crisis and aspects of the conduct of the war… who was killing civilians, how many civilians were being killed,” the report said. Because addressing such questions would have provoked criticism from the government, some senior UN staff used the “political” pretext “to exclude [these issues] from the purview of UN monitoring or response.”

In response to the Sri Lanka debacle, then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon established the Human Rights Up Front initiative. Reiterating the UN’s definition of atrocity crimes as processes, not single acts, its focus was on prevention. It asked UN staff faced with evidence that crimes were being prepared to “be principled and act with moral courage,” and guaranteed “backing for those who do,” even if it undermined relations with the host government. 

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres (R) looks on from his car as he leaves the Kutupalong refugee camp during his visit to the Rohingya community in Bangladesh's southeastern border district of Cox's Bazar on July 2, 2018. - UN Secretary General Antonio UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres (R) looks on from his car as he leaves the Kutupalong refugee camp during his visit to the Rohingya community in Bangladesh's southeastern border district of Cox's Bazar on July 2, 2018. - UN Secretary General Antonio

Bearing witness: UN chief António Guterres visits a Rohingya refugee camp in
Bangladesh, 2018 © © MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP via Getty Images

At the heart of the UN is a complex relationship between its agencies and host governments, one that intensifies in conflict settings. The UN was designed to maintain international security, yet it comprises member states who prize self-determination and non-interference above all else. Efforts have been made to overcome the blockages this creates—for instance, the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, passed in 2005, requires that members acknowledge the UN’s powers to intervene if a state is manifestly failing to protect its population. 

But where a host government might see outspoken UN staff as obstacles to “dealing with” unwanted communities, the qualification that such doctrines place on national sovereignty is often dismissed. In Myanmar, UN aid to Rohingya was seen by Rakhine and the government as evidence of a bias: Rakhine too had suffered under military rule, but after 2012, Rohingya in camps received higher levels of aid. Rakhine argued for an equal split, and claimed that Rohingya were exaggerating their plight. Nationalist monastic groups in Rakhine State soon circulated pamphlets accusing aid agencies supplying the camps of “watering poisonous plants.”

After 2014, as hostility towards international organisations in Myanmar intensified, UN agencies that maintained a “development first” line were rewarded with continued access to the government; others, like the UNOHCHR, who took a firmer approach, were shut out. The government realised it could play UN agencies off against one another. When Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won elections in 2015 and formed a majority in parliament, that manipulative strategy continued. At least on the matter of the “alien” Rohingya, historically opposing political forces within Myanmar could agree. Meanwhile, Suu Kyi pushed the world for greater development funding and the “quiet diplomacy” camp within the UN fell into line. 

In October 2016, violence ramped up; 65,000 Rohingya were driven into Bangladesh following attacks by Rohingya militants on security posts. The military’s sweep of villages should have been read as a critical shift in an already deplorable security situation. But instead, some UN agencies still pushed the line that this was a bump in the road in the otherwise steady, if fitful, transition to democracy. The author of the landmark Sri Lanka report, Charles Petrie, who in 2012 had taken up a role co-ordinating ceasefire negotiations between the Myanmar government and armed groups in the north and east of the country, warned diplomats and UN officials of what he feared was unfolding in the years after 2012—in particular, he drew parallels with the Rwanda genocide, which he had witnessed. But he was asked to focus only on the ceasefire brief. “I was told not to get involved,” he told me. “They kept telling me that anti-Muslim sentiment was something we need to take care of, but the primary concern was the peace process.” 

[su_pullquote]“The UN Resident Coordinator was accused of ‘deliberately de-dramatising the seriousness of events’ in briefs sent to headquarters”[/su_pullquote]

UN agencies, Petrie said, had become “like little fiefdoms” with their own competing agendas. Efforts at placating the government, military and Rakhine civilians became extreme: key agencies, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which had also pushed for the “quiet diplomacy” approach, avoided use of the word “Rohingya” in their reports, instead referring to the community as “Muslims who self-identify as Rohingya,” or “people who have been displaced.” Another independent review of the UN’s internal workings found that the Resident Coordinator and UNHCR oversaw a “high-level policy of hiding information” from other UN agencies who were demanding more robust public advocacy. The UN internal inquiry later noted that there were several instances in which the Resident Coordinator was accused of “deliberately de-dramatising the seriousness of events” in briefs sent to headquarters. 

Little changed after the forced exodus of October 2016. The following April, an internal memo was sent to Secretary-General António Guterres warning that the UN in Myanmar had become “glaringly dysfunctional,” and that its “growing irrelevance” severely weakened its peace and security mandate there. Implicit in the memo was the acknowledgement that the UN’s compliant position had undermined whatever influence it once had. The Human Rights Up Front initiative, with its call for UN staff to “speak out,” had sunk without trace. On 25th August 2017, with Rohingya civilians still confined to their villages, Rohingya militants struck again. Within hours, the military dispersed its forces across the hills and plains of northern Rakhine State, and the killings began. 

The charge of “growing irrelevance” in the face of atrocities spoke to a wider story of the UN’s declining influence on peace and security. The Security Council has always been constrained on such issues, but the global retreat from multilateralism in recent years—
signalled most emphatically by Trump’s withdrawal of the US from major international agreements—has more or less paralysed it. The Biden presidency may reverse some of this but the problem is of course not only one of American attitudes. Russia and China successfully lobbied to cut funding for both the UNOHCHR and for a senior official within the Secretary-General’s office to work on Human Rights Up Front. As of 2018, that post is empty. Put simply, when nations look inwards, international bodies lose force.

The resulting harm compounds the already chaotic internal workings of the institution that failed the Rohingya so disastrously. “World powers are showing increasing disdain for a rules-based order,” Petrie said. “And that means there is no longer the political will to use prevention mechanisms to protect communities at risk of atrocities.”

[su_pullquote]“Political figures around the world who denigrate minorities will only be emboldened by the UN’s weakness”[/su_pullquote]

So fearful is the UN of undermining its fragile relations with powerful states that it offers succour instead of pressure. Recent examples abound—the World Health Organisation, anxious to keep lines of communication with China open, continued to heap praise on Beijing’s response to Covid-19 in 2020 despite it suppressing information about the threat the virus posed. Meanwhile, Guterres’s response to the abuses of the Trump administration was one of placation rather than confrontation—he purposefully avoided naming the Trump administration in statements around, for instance, the separation of migrant children at the Mexican border. In doing so, the Secretary-General elevated the same fatal error that the UN made in Myanmar: that of refusing to pointedly condemn warning signs. Perpetrators inevitably regard such passivity as a green light to escalate violations further. 

Political figures around the world who denigrate minorities to advance their own power will only be emboldened by the UN’s weakness. They know the strategic value of pitting one population against another, and the absence of a world body that is able to sufficiently counter such callous politicking itself acts as an enabler. Tigray in Ethiopia—where thousands have been displaced as local leaders call children to arms against the national army—is one site where atrocities threaten. Soon there will be another. In the world’s most troubled spots, those targeted with violence can have little confidence that the institutions designed to deter conflict are able to protect them, let alone tell the world, plainly and unequivocally, of crises unfolding there.

As for Myanmar, those in the country’s establishment know the gains to be made from targeting a reviled minority. The National League for Democracy recently won its second term in government, and in a dynamic political context, the military will continually seek ways to assert its supremacy. The several hundred thousand Rohingya still confined to camps and villages are sitting targets. So too are civilians from other groups, including now the Rakhine. Since 2019, the military has opened a campaign against Rakhine insurgents and civilians that a UN envoy has said may qualify as crimes against humanity. But beyond words, the victims of these conflicts know there is little the UN will do to deter the military’s crimes. They have been failed once. They could be failed again.