On Monday, the United Nations behaving like Popeye the Sailor after a spinach drink, fired from all cylinders at Myanmar. A damning report by a UN probe team recommended that Myanmar’s military chief Min Aung Hlaing and several other military leaders should be investigated for genocide, and that the case be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Give a big applause to the UN probe team, which included familiar figures like human rights lawyer Marzuki Darsuman of Indonesia, and our own Radhika Coomaraswamy, for a job well done.
A day later, UN officials said that they would soon release another report holding different parties responsible for war crimes in Yemen.
The two reports give the impression that the UN has suddenly become emboldened to take on war criminals. But UN reports see little follow-up action, especially in cases where the perpetrator is protected by a powerful nation. Just because the UN has chided Myanmar, the regime is not going to stop its ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims. Just because of an incriminatory UN report, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Houthis will not resolve, henceforth, to abide by international conventions on warfare and international humanitarian laws. To hell with the UN system, the perpetrators, with the backing of powerful states, will carry on with their crimes. In Myanmar, the Rohingyas will continue to be persecuted. In Yemen, children will continue to be victims -- like those who died in the school bus bombing last month -- and vital ports will continue to be under siege preventing food and medicine from reaching the sick and the starving.
Yet, the UN reports seem to be the best way out for the world body to absolve itself of the sins being committed under its very nose. In terms of follow-up action, the UN as an organisation lacks teeth. For instance, in 2016, the then UN chief Ban Ki-moon blacklisted Saudi Arabia for committing war crimes against children in Yemen. But within days, he removed Saudi Arabia from the list, under “unacceptable pressure”. Saudis, it is said, threatened to slash funds to UN programmes.
This was not the only occasion that the UN has buckled under undue pressure. In 2009, a UN fact-finding mission headed by South African jurist Richard Goldstone in a report accused Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas of war crimes during the Gaza war and recommended the case be referred to the ICC. But under pressure from the US and Zionist Lobbies, Goldstone recanted the report in 2011, though the other members of the panel stood by every word of it.
It is easy to appoint fact-finding missions and prepare damning reports. But what is challenging is genocide prevention. The UN will be worth its salt as the primary organisation tasked with maintaining world peace and security, only if it acts fast with the very first sign that something dreadful is going to happen.
Unlike an earthquake, genocide does not take place all of a sudden. It is predictable and preventable. Yet it takes place in full view of the international community. The system needs to be strengthened, if the UN’s primary interest is to serve and save humanity. Otherwise, the UN conventions may seem empty words or routine while post-genocide UN resolutions and declarations will be akin to last rites over a dead body.
That the Responsibility-to-Protect concept came into the UN system only in 2005, some 60 whole years after the Nazi Holocaust, is a damning indictment of the international community’s lack of urgency in reinforcing the system.
At the core of this failure is big power politics. Often humanitarian intervention or non-intervention is tagged to a political agenda of a powerful state. War criminals are protected by a powerful ally in the UN Security Council. Millions of Palestinians have died without breathing the air of freedom, due to the US protection given to Israel, the oppressor and occupying power. In Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, it is the US made bombs that are largely responsible for the deaths of children. Then in the case of Myanmar, China, as usual, has come to its rescue. It has said Monday’s UN report is not helpful in resolving the problem. Also backing Myanmar is Russia. Analysts say the report offers China another opportunity to drag Myanmar into its orbit, at a time when the new regime in Naypyidaw is, in a balancing act, improving its ties with the US.
Not again another Holocaust was the cry when the UN General Assembly, on December 9, 1948, adopted the Genocide Prevention Convention. Yet genocides keep happening. Three years before the convention was adopted, it happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Though the convention urges member-states to prevent genocide also in war and in peacetime, it happened during the Korean War, a war authorised by the UN. Some 3 million Koreans were killed within three years – two thirds of them civilians. In terms of the civilian-to-combatant ratio, the Korean War was far deadlier than World War II.
In the Vietnam War in the 1960s and the ’70s, some 3.8 million people died. It is only those who say that everything is fair in love and war would not call the Vietnam War’s civilian deaths genocide. Then, in the Cambodian killing fields from 1975 to 1979, more than a million civilians were massacred by the Khmer Rouge regime which had the backing of China and the US.
The worst -- after the 1948 convention was adopted -- was the Rwandan genocide. Nearly a million people were massacred by Hutu gangs and government forces in a pogrom from April 7 to mid-July 1994. The world simply stood by and did nothing when the streets of Rwanda began to fill with Tutsi corpses. The UN had a peacekeeping mission in Rwanda but US and Britain ignored its calls for intervention.
Even after the failure of the international community in Rwanda, massacres and war crimes still take place. It happened in Srebrenica, with the UN soldiers remaining passive when the Serb forces led the Bosnian men and boys to their graves.
In another clear case of UN failure is the last stages of the separatist war in Sri Lanka in 2009. An internal UN report in 2012 said, “Events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN.” Questioning the UN officials’ withdrawal from the warzone, the report implied that civilian lives would have been saved if the UN had acted differently. It said that following this “systematic failure”, the UN should in future “be able to meet a much higher standard in fulfilling its protection and humanitarian responsibilities”.
But, alas, hundreds of thousands of civilians have perished since then and continue to perish in conflicts largely due to the politicisation of the UN system. As nations, including big powers, call for a rule-based international order, they should first focus on making the UN system rule-based by freeing the Security Council from the dictatorship of the veto-wielding permanent five. This is a way to prevent genocide and war crimes.