The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) yesterday adopted its first resolution on Myanmar in more than seven decades, expressing “deep concern” at the situation that has engulfed the country since the military coup of February 2021. The resolution was adopted with 12 of the 15 members of the UNSC in favor, while India, China, and Russia abstained.
The British-drafted resolution expresses “deep concern” at the “ongoing state of emergency imposed by the military in Myanmar on 1 February 2021 and its grave impact on the people of Myanmar.” It condemns the military’s execution of pro-democracy activists, urges the military to “immediately release all arbitrarily detained prisoners,” including deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and demands an “immediate end to all forms of violence throughout the country.”
It also urges “concrete and immediate actions” to implement a peace plan agreed upon by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and calls for the military administration to “uphold democratic institutions and processes and to pursue constructive dialogue and reconciliation in accordance with the will and interests of the people”.
“Today we’ve sent a firm message to the military that they should be in no doubt – we expect this resolution to be implemented in full,” the United Kingdom’s U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward said after the vote, Reuters reported. “We’ve also sent a clear message to the people of Myanmar that we seek progress in line with their rights, their wishes and their interests.”
The achievement of passing this resolution – or any resolution – on Myanmar should not be underestimated. The last and only time that the UNSC has adopted a resolution on Myanmar was in 1948, when it recommended that the U.N. General Assembly admit the country to the global body.
The London-based rights group Amnesty International said in a statement that the Council had “finally taken a small but important step to acknowledge the dire situation in Myanmar,” while Human Rights Watch described it as a “historic censure.”
Over the decades, Myanmar’s military has dedicated considerable resources to avoiding the passage of a resolution in the UNSC, very often relying on China to exercise the veto that it enjoys as a permanent member of the body. In 2007, the UNSC failed to adopt a draft resolution on Myanmar due to Chinese and Russian vetoes. In late 2018, following the Myanmar military’s violent assaults on the Rohingya communities in the west of the country, the U.K. made another attempt to pass a resolution, but China and Russia refused to engage in the resolution, and it decided not to table the draft for a vote.
Indeed, gaining support for the adoption of yesterday’s resolution required some compromises. According to the Security Council Report, several members – including eventual abstainers China, India, and Russia – “apparently voiced a strong preference for a presidential statement rather than a resolution,” but nonetheless were willing to support the resolution pending some amendments to the text.
The draft text reportedly “included language on the Council’s determination to consider all measures at its disposal” in the event of the junta’s non-compliance, including the muscular measures authorized under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. Reuters, which obtained an early draft of the resolution, reported that the specific language urged an end to the transfer of arms to Myanmar and the imposition of U.N. sanctions on the coup government
While China opted not to oppose the resolution, it “still has concerns” about the resolution, China’s U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun told the council after the vote, adding that there was “no quick fix” to Myanmar’s conflict. “Whether or not it can be properly resolved in the end, depends fundamentally, and only, on Myanmar itself,” he said.
Such compromises were probably inevitable. The Security Council Report stated that some council members, including the European members and the United States, were “disappointed at some of the concessions that have been made, but still see a resolution as a strong signal from the Council that it is watching this issue closely.”
While human rights groups applauded the adoption of the resolution, they expressed misgivings about its limitations. Amnesty said that the UNSC needed to “enforce its demands with additional resolutions under Chapter VII.” Khin Ohmar, the founder and chairperson of the research and advocacy group Progressive Voice, said that her group was “deeply disappointed that the long-awaited resolution falls short of substantive measures.” She added, “There must be stronger action to stop the junta from intensifying its war and terror campaign against the people of Myanmar and committing atrocity crimes with blanket impunity.”
Indeed, despite the historic nature of the achievement, it is unclear exactly what impact it will have on the ground. UNSC resolutions carry considerable weight within the U.N. system and will no doubt feature prominently in U.N. debates over Myanmar, but without a greater degree of enforcement power, the material impact that these debates will be indirect at best. There is virtually no chance that the military junta will abide by the resolution, and given Chinese, Russian, and Indian misgivings, there is also little chance that the Council will adopt Chapter VII measures that would impose a substantial cost on the military regime.
Of course, for those suffering in Myanmar under the junta’s jackboots, the adoption of the resolution will no doubt mark a welcome break from the precedent of defeat – and mark the junta’s next incremental step into international opprobrium.