The UN is failing Myanmar’s most vulnerable

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

Myanmar is a difficult country to work with. While finally emerging out of half a century of self-imposed isolation to the world stage it remains stuck in many of its old habits, habits that are incompatible with being a full member of the international community.

After over 50 years of military rule, characterized by routine human rights abuses that were ignored by the rest of the world, the slow transition toward democracy was supposed to alleviate the humanitarian concerns. Instead, under the patient eyes of their democratically elected, Nobel Peace Prize laureate leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, abuses continue to be rampant, and in the case of the most vulnerable minority in the country, the Rohingya Muslims, the situation has, if anything, only gotten worse.

How is the international community to respond to this? Democracy and human rights were supposed to go hand in hand. Nobel Peace Prize laureates were supposed to be self-sacrificing champions of the weak, of those who cannot defend themselves, and who nobody else would come to the defense of. Abandoning the path to democracy is not going to make the humanitarian situation in the country any better. But moving towards democracy is not having the desired effect on it either.

In cases such as this, it is up to the international community to step in and apply pressure on local politicians and institutions to stop the abuses. But how far can the international community push on this issue without risking the democratic future of Myanmar?

The country’s progress toward democracy needs to be rewarded if it is to be sustained in the future. But we cannot reward them while they continue to allow and perpetrate ‘ethnic cleansing’ against some of their own people. What is the right way forward? How can we fix this conundrum?

However sympathetic one might want to be to the difficulties the UN mission on the ground are facing, it is one thing to be faced with such a dilemma and quite another to turn a completely blind eye to one side of your moral responsibilities towards a people

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Worsening human rights

The United Nations mission to Myanmar has been crippled by the exact same dilemma. They are supposed to be the guarantors of both democracy and of human rights. They have never before faced a situation where more democracy has made a human rights issue worse. Or where there was no clear direction from which the local authorities can be approached.

Nevertheless, however sympathetic one might want to be to the difficulties the UN mission on the ground are facing, it is one thing to be faced with such a dilemma and quite another to turn a completely blind eye to one side of your moral responsibilities towards a people.

And Renata Lok-Dessallien, the outgoing leader of the UN mission to the country stands accused of having done just that. She has simply refused to engage with the humanitarian crisis in the country – one of the most serious humanitarian crises in the world at the moment at a moment in history when there is no shortage of serious crisis. Instead she brushed the issue aside to focus just on the development aspect of her mission, in the hope that this would help along the democratic transformation of the country.

If we are to be charitable to Ms Lok-Dessallien’s reasoninig, perhaps she imagines that once the country comes farther along the democratic path the humanitarian problems will start solving themselves. And perhaps that could be a defensible position if there wasn’t an entire people teetering on the brink of extinction in the land of their birth. The hope that Myanmar will become enlightened before the Rohingya have been cleansed from the land is not just naive. As things stand, it is also dangerous and stupid.

And this is a position shared by most human rights observers at the global level in the UN itself, and indeed by half of the people in the UN Myanmar mission. And Ms Lok-Dessallien’s failure to recognise this has crippled the efficiency of her mission in all its work. To say nothing of the damage to the image and moral authority of the mission’s work in the country.

Thankfully, the UN higher-ups have taken the unusual step of moving Ms Lok-Dessallien on from the mission to another position which she will be taking up in the next few months. Hopefully the mission, and its incoming leader, will have learnt the lessons of her failures and we can now give the Rohingya and the other abused groups the attention, resources and commitment they desrve. As for Myanmar’s leaders?

Democracy without human rights is meaningless. It is time the international community impressed this on the country. These two must come as a package. Myanmar will be rewarded for progress on both. But we cannot accept and legitimise a government or indeed a society which continues to systematically assault, brutalize, rape and murder its own people.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.

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