Coup d’état in Myanmar underlines critical importance of the Secretary-General’s prevention agenda – and the continued failure of the UN to deliver on it

by Marc Limon, Executive Director of the Universal Rights Group Blog, Blog, Democracy, Human Rights Council, Human rights institutions and mechanisms, In focus: democracy, Prevention, Prevention, accountability and justice, Thematic human rights issues

The devastating news that Myanmar’s military has again seized power through a coup d’état, after detaining civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior members of her governing party, represents the culmination of a five-year cycle of failure on the part of the UN – a failure to put human rights ‘up front’ in its dealings with governments, and to effectively prevent human rights emergencies.

The last four UN Secretaries-General have each prioritised turning the notion that ‘prevention is better than the cure’ into an everyday practical reality for the Organisation. Boutros Boutros-Ghali (‘An Agenda for Peace,’ 1992), Kofi Annan (annual report to the GA, 1999; ‘Millennium Report,’ 2000; and ‘In Larger Freedom,’ 2005), and Ban Ki-moon (‘Human Rights Up Front,’ 2013) all repeatedly called upon UN member States to place prevention at the heart of their work. Likewise, immediately after assuming Office, the current Secretary-General, António Guterres, made clear that prevention ‘would not only be a priority, but the priority.’ At the same time, he acknowledged the importance of a holistic approach to prevention, one that would ‘cut across all three pillars of the UN’s work’ and would ‘mean doing everything we can to help countries to avert the outbreak of crises.’ The two main policies designed to turn these words into a new operational reality have been the ‘sustaining peace’ initiative of the General Assembly (GA) and Security Council, and the ‘prevention of human rights violations and crises’ initiative of the Human Rights Council.

Regarding the former, the reasoning behind ‘sustaining peace,’ as endorsed by the GA and the Security Council in their twin-resolutions on the subject (GA resolution 70/262 and Security Council resolution 2282 (2016)), is that the UN should adopt a more preventative approach to peace and security by moving from policies premised on responding to and managing conflict, to policies premised on ‘sustaining peace.’ In a 2019 report on the subject (2019/448), Guterres made clear that the UN’s approach to prevention, whether through the ‘sustaining peace’ initiative or any other policy, should not only focus on preventing the outbreak or escalation of violent conflict, on keeping or building peace, or on preventing recurrence, but should instead go ‘upstream’ and seek to build the resilience of all States (in order to prevent human rights violations and shocks), and prevent the emergence and escalation of crises. This, he contended, would ‘save lives and preserve development gains’ – the effective prevention of conflict alone [would] save up to $70 billion per year for the affected country and the international community combined.’ Importantly, he explained, true prevention requires ‘all three pillars [of] the UN system’ to work together ‘to ensure that […] support [to a State] is timely and focused on building national and regional resilience.’ Where there is ‘early warning’ evidence of an emerging crises, ‘improved risk […] methodologies [shall] inform regular regional prevention discussions.’

Regarding the critical role of the UN’s human rights pillar (the Human Rights Council and OHCHR) in prevention, while prevention may be there, in black and white, in GA resolution 60/251 founding the Council and setting out its mandate (specifically paragraph 5f), that mandate was largely ignored during the Council’s ‘institution-building’ negotiations in 2006-2007 and, partly as a consequence, has been almost completely ignored ever since – until, that is, September last year. At the Council’s 45th session in September, members adopted resolution 45/31 on ‘The contribution of the Council to the prevention of human rights violations,’ with a budget of over half a million US dollars.

With resolution 45/31, the Council decided to ‘improve and scale-up the system-wide delivery and financing of technical assistance and capacity-building in the field of human rights with a view to building national resilience’ (primary prevention), requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights to ‘continue to strengthen the capability of OHCHR to identify, verify, manage and analyse data and early warning signs emanating from all sources,’ and where the Office ‘identifies patterns of human rights violations that point to a heightened risk of a human rights emergency, […] to bring that information to the attention of the members and observers of the Human Rights Council in a manner that reflects the urgency of the situation and that maintains space for dialogue and cooperation with the State and region concerned, including through briefings’ (secondary prevention).

The case of Myanmar and the failure of UN prevention 

Each pillar of the UN has contributed to the Organisation’s failure to prevent the current crisis in Myanmar – as well as the related failure to prevent the atrocities committed against the Rohingya people in Rakhine State. The UN development system, in particular the UN Resident Coordinator at the time of genocide, has perhaps come in for the most stringent criticism. However, the human rights pillar’s shortcomings, in particular its inability to fulfil its prevention mandate under paragraph 5f of GA resolution 60/251, has perhaps been the most telling.

Turning first to primary or ‘upstream’ prevention, according to diplomats who followed the process, following the election of the new civilian government in Myanmar in March 2016, negotiations began between the authorities, via Myanmar’s Permanent Mission in Geneva, and the then High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, to establish a strong OHCHR presence in the country. Unfortunately, after initial progress, negotiations broke down due to the two side’s conflicting visions of the mandate and objectives of the proposed OHCHR presence. For its part, the civilian Government wanted the office to focus on long-term capacity- and resilience-building measures, such as assistance with the country’s constitutional reform process, legislative review, human rights education, and training for the country’s police and security forces. OHCHR, for its part, wanted a far stronger focus on monitoring of human rights violations, including through sub-offices in different parts of Myanmar (something the Government would not accept).

Whatever the truth of this account (records of the negotiations do not appear to be publicly available), the fact remains that the UN human rights pillar missed a crucial window of opportunity to work with the civilian government to support the implementation of the State’s human rights obligations, to help shape the constitutional reform process and strengthen democracy and rule of law, and to put in place improved protections for the country’s minority groups.

Compounding this primary prevention failure, the Office of the new High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has so-far failed to avail itself of the new ‘early warning’ powers granted to it under Council resolution 45/31. The coup d’état did not come out of the blue – it followed rising tensions ever since last November’s elections – elections won easily by the NLD. In an echo of (and perhaps inspired by) Donald Trump’s behaviour in the US, the military refused to accept the result, alleging massive voter fraud, and demanded that the country’s election commission investigate. Last week, a military spokesperson made clear that if the commission refused, a coup d’état could not be ruled out.

Former UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has also pointed to other warning signs such as the growing desperation of military leader Min Aung Hlaing, who is due to step down later this year and, according to Lee, is keen ‘to keep his economic holdings in Myanmar, and […] to stay in power because, otherwise, he will need to face charges at the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice, and other international courts.’

While these early warning signs may not be as stark or obvious as has been in case in other recent human rights crises, they are nonetheless exactly the kind of ‘smoke’ pointing towards a coming ‘fire’ that UN analysts should have been able to discern, and that OHCHR’s new powers under resolution 45/31 were specifically designed to pick up.

Why OHCHR was not able to quickly and accurately identify such ‘patterns of human rights violations that point to a heightened risk of a human rights emergency,’ and/or why that information was not brought ‘to the attention of the members and observers of the Human Rights Council in a manner that reflects the urgency of the situation,’ are questions relevant UN officials will now need to answer.

Featured image: Aung San Suu Kyi, Chairperson of the National League for Democracy in Myanmar addresses during the press conference after her visit to the International Labour Conference, Palais des Nations. Thursday 14 June 2012. Photo by Violaine Martin

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