Idle in the Face of Catastrophe: The Coup and the Need for Structural Reform within the UNSC

Aung Soe explores the implications of the United Nations Security Council’s response to Myanmar’s 2021 coup.

Introduction

The 2021 coup in Myanmar spotlighted the inability of the United Nations Security Council (hereafter UNSC) to uphold its primary responsibility, “the maintenance of international peace and security,” which entails mass atrocity prevention. For months after the coup, I joined millions of peaceful protesters across Myanmar, taking to the streets and calling on the UNSC to invoke itsResponsibility to Protect’—“a political commitment to end the worst forms of violence and persecution” that was unanimously adopted by United Nations (UN) member states at the 2005 World Summit. With respect to invoking this Responsibility to Protect (R2P), expectations from the resistance movement primarily revolved around humanitarian intervention or at least coordinated sanctions and embargoes. A tyrannical crackdown by Myanmar’s military and countless atrocities later, the situation has escalated from a coup into a full-blown humanitarian crisis. But much to the dismay of protesters, the UNSC has yet to go beyond a statement of condemnation when it comes to addressing the deteriorating situation in my country. The reason for this inaction transcends intent—it is a direct consequence of UNSC’s structure, and UNSC reform is, therefore, the remedy.

Since its first meeting on January 17, 1946, the UNSC has evolved little despite seismic shifts in geopolitical realities. Structurally unchanged since its inception, the Council is comprised of 15 seats: 10 nonpermanent seats whose appointees are elected for two-year terms, and five permanent seats held by the United States of America, the Russian Federation, the People’s Republic of China, the French Republic, and the United Kingdom. The permanent seats wield veto power, allowing them to block UNSC resolutions regardless of the degree of support from the rest of the Council. Criticisms of the UNSC by international actors and proposals to change its institutional design have echoed across the globe since the end of the Cold War. The bulk of such scrutiny is directed towards the UNSC’s tendency to give unequal weight to differently positioned member states’ national interests and let the political interests of individual member states get in the way of resolving humanitarian crises. Accordingly, calls for reform are primarily connected to the “antiquated” concept of the veto held by the permanent five seats (the P5) and its inability to “reflect 21st-century realities.”

The UNSC’s efforts to resolve humanitarian crises in the 21st century have been mostly ineffective. This is because vetoes and a fundamentally unequal electoral system for seats are conducive to hegemony, or the inflexibility or inability to adapt to change, due to the dominance of a select few member states.  Though the membership structure was initially established with the hope it would allow competing geopolitical superpowers to keep each other in check, it has recently achieved the opposite by allowing actions that go against the founding ethos of the Council to go unchecked. The structure of the UNSC needs reform to address the needs of and contribute to a new world that has developed with the coming of the 21st century: an arguably more egalitarian world order that places emphasis on holding those in power accountable for their actions.

The UN Charter obligates the UNSC to respond to the crisis in Myanmar, but the UNSC nevertheless cannot respond to the ongoing catastrophic situation because of its organizational structure. The UNSC has ‘failed’ Myanmar and consequently its founding ethos by showing what internally prevented the Council from responding. Structural reform could prevent future inactions.

A Neorealist Look at the Security Council

To understand why the UNSC’s structure is inefficacious, one must first establish why the Council holds an obligation under the UN Charter to respond to humanitarian crises: for this, the UNSC response to the Myanmar crisis serves as an ideal case study. The UNSC is given under Chapter V, Article 24 of the Charter of the UN, “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.” It is also responsible—under Chapter I, Article I—for “the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace.” The actions of the State Administration Council and its military wing, the Tatmadaw, following the February 1 coup in Myanmar can objectively be interpreted not only as threats to and breaches of the peace but also acts of aggression. Appropriately, the demands of Myanmar’s protesters have centered around invoking the aforementioned UN Charter articles—in addition to the Responsibility to Protect agreement—in relation to the actions of the Tatmadaw.

Since its February coup, the Tatmadaw has been responsible for the extrajudicial killings and the torture of peaceful protesters, regime critics, and journalists. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners has confirmed that 1,139 people have been killed by the Tatmadaw and 6,891 are still detained as of September 28, though “the actual number of fatalities is likely much higher.” According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2021, the Tatmadaw’s “arbitrary arrests, detention, torture, and killings” of political dissidents was in addition to its “campaign of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity against the ethnic Rohingya.” This obligation is also present beyond the Charter due to the aforementioned R2P principle, in which the UN unanimously agreed to “halt the mass atrocity crimes of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” The mass incidence of one-sided violence and persecution perpetrated by the Tatmadaw against an indefensible population undoubtedly warrants a response by the UNSC, as it did during the Rwandan Genocide, the Kosovo War, and the Syrian Civil War.

If an international response is warranted, and the UNSC is under obligation by its founding Charter and R2P to administer it, why doesn’t the UNSC do so? The answer to this question may seem obvious, but to properly address it, we must delve into the power dynamics of the Council and the intentions of its members. We can do this by using neorealism as a lens to look at the UNSC. Neorealism contends that the system of international politics is defined by its ordering principle (anarchy), units of the system (nations), and the distribution of capabilities (the number of superpowers within the system). The international order—and the UN—is by nature a decentralized system in which nations have equal rights and use egoism to make decisions that further their national interest and maximize their relative gains in power. These relative gains are important for member states due to the security dilemma—a theory that contends that member states maximize relative gains and minimize relative losses in power to protect themselves from potential threats to their survival and economic wellbeing.

Through a neorealist lens, votes “for” or “against” UNSC resolutions can be viewed as member states’ attempts to maximize their power and ensure their geopolitical and economic survival. Resolution A/RES/75/287 on the conflict in Myanmar during the UN General Assembly’s 75th session is an example of this. The 119 member states who voted to adopt the resolution did so because they stand to benefit from condemning the military coup, whereas the vote against (by Belarus) can be seen as motivated by ideological alignment with Myanmar’s State Administration Council. The 36 abstentions can be viewed as a refusal to take a position because joining a bloc could damage these states’ pre-established economic or diplomatic ties. The General Assembly’s structure allows for a balance of power in which nations pursue interests but the majority always prevails. When this is not the case, the international system can become more unstable and less efficient.

In the UNSC, an uneven distribution of capabilities makes the decisions of certain member states far more consequential. The distribution of capabilities refers to the number of member states that possess an abundance of economic, nuclear, and military capabilities, making them superpowers. The distribution of capabilities, and accordingly, power, in the UNSC is concentrated in the P5 seats that wield veto power. From a critical perspective, the concept of permanent membership or vetoing may seem fundamentally unequal or unjust. But through neorealism, one can see how in an order where countries compete to further their interests and ensure survival, countries with the greatest capabilities hold the most power and will unequivocally exercise it. Hence, it becomes quite evident that the structure of the UNSC is a direct consequence of global power dynamics. This structure served the world well in a bipolar post-WWII era. But with the rise of China marking the dawn of a multipolar system, the UNSC structure that once reflected the balance of power may be obsolete and a deterrent to peace and security.

The Importance and Challenges to UNSC Alignment on Myanmar

UNSC alignment on the situation in Myanmar is much more crucial than alignment in the General Assembly due to the binding nature of resolutions in the UNSC. In accordance with Article 25 of the UN Charter, resolutions passed in the UNSC under Chapter VII—Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression— require member states to​​ “agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council.” In essence, in any other UN organ, a resolution is a recommendation, but in the UNSC, a resolution is a mandate of sorts. This gives the UNSC the ability to enact whatever countermeasures it desires against the State Administration Council.

The United Nations General Assembly, its President, the Secretary-General, and the Special Envoy to Myanmar have condemned the SAC’s coup and urged “decisive action” on the matter, but nothing tangible can be done until the UNSC is aligned. Furthermore, statements of condemnation and support do little to boost the morale of the Myanmar population that has visibly grown tired of waiting for the UN to take action. The Burma Campaign UK reflects this in its statement: “The Burmese military consists of people who are soldiers, not diplomats. They respect strength, not statements. What might be considered something of major diplomatic significance by many UN members may be perceived as insignificant by these authoritarian generals.” Since February 2, 2021, countless pleas to the UNSC echoed by millions of Myanmar protesters have gone unanswered: it is due time to start discussing structural reform to the UNSC so that action can be taken in the future.

Since the end of the Cold War, Russia and China have engaged in double-vetoing responses to humanitarian crises by citing the violation of national sovereignty and interference in internal affairs. Coincidentally, the vast majority of these vetoes initiated by Russia and followed by China have been in response to resolutions concerning conflicts that have Russian military involvement, such as the Syrian Civil War, the War in Donbas, and the Russo-Georgian War. In regards to the situation in Myanmar, the UNSC met informally in March to release a statement initiated by the United Kingdom: “Members of the Security Council expressed deep concern at the rapidly deteriorating situation and strongly condemned the use of violence against peaceful protesters and the deaths of hundreds of civilians, including women and children.”

It was evident that the veto was still used by the P5, albeit in a de facto capacity: Beijing blocked western countries from including a “readiness to consider further steps” in the statement because it alluded to a possibility of sanctions. Beijing also blocked the use of the word “killing,” suggesting “deaths” instead. Moscow tried to block the statement several times because it did not condemn the “the death of security forces.” Needless to say, Russia and China have extensive ties to Myanmar’s Tatmadaw—China supplied 48% and Russia supplied 15% of Myanmar’s total arms imports between 2016 and 2020. It indeed seems that a council created to maintain international peace and security has constantly undermined its founding principles and the resources at its disposal because a single—or sometimes two—nations exploit their vetoing rights without justification.

With its mishandling of the Myanmar crisis, the UNSC is facing mounting pressure to stop remaining idle. At the 47th Session of the United Nations Humans Rights Council, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet demanded that the UNSC not “fail the country (Myanmar) a second time”  by allowing for an “all-out attack against the civilian population” and a “multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe.” The UNSC’s inaction on Myanmar, however, not only enabled “an escalation in violence” that led to “horrific consequences for civilians,” as Bachelet said, but it also showed dictators all around the world that the international community will not hold them accountable.

In the 21st century, the UNSC needs to uphold its founding ethos and be an enforcer of international peace, given that the Council is fully able to collectively authorize the use of force if necessary. This should not apply to two-sided conflicts, and mediation is preferable when an issue is complex in nature. However, in humanitarian crises in which an indefensible population is attacked, the use of force and immediate humanitarian intervention should be on the table. To ensure prudence when administering force, however, the UNSC needs to reform such that there is a rational distribution of power and five nations with diametrically opposed ideologies do not have the final say.

Proposals for UNSC Membership Reform 

Member states previously formed alliances to call for structural reform of the UNSC by citing a need to reflect a fair distribution of power, coherency with the multipolar geopolitical landscape of the 21st century, and changes in sources of UN funding. In addition to these goals, reform could also prevent future inactions like the response towards the Myanmar coup from occurring. One type of proposal for UNSC reform is membership reform, which is amending the amount of permanent or nonpermanent seats in the councils, or who holds those seats. The objective of such a proposal is to give fair representation to member states by assigning seats in a manner that prioritizes geographic balance. The most prominent of these proposals was laid down in the five-year progress report In Larger Freedom spearheaded by Kofi Annan, and Uniting for Consensus, also called the Coffee Club, spearheaded by the Italian Republic.

Then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan presented the In Larger Freedom report on March 21, 2005 to the General Assembly. It contained four sections that Annan thought were of concern to the Assembly: Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear, Freedom to Live in Dignity, and Strengthening the United Nations. The final section—Strengthening the United Nations—was a recommendation to revitalise the UNSC by expanding the number of members from 15 to 24 so that it would be more “broadly representative of the international community” and “reflect the geopolitical realities of today.” Annan laid out two plans to achieve this: Model A and Model B. Model A would create six permanent and three nonpermanent seats. By contrast, Model B would create eight new “four-year renewable seats” and one more nonpermanent seat. Uniting for Consensus, on the other hand, was a movement founded in 1995 by Italy, Pakistan, Mexico, and Egypt to counter the bid for permanent seat expansion made by the G4 nations. The Coffee Club proposed that the UNSC should be expanded with nonpermanent members. They made a formal proposition at the 59th Session of the General Assembly in 2005 to expand the number of nonpermanent members from 10 to 20, also citing the need for a more “equitable geographical distribution.” Neither suggestion for UNSC reform was enacted.

These proposals for membership reform could have allowed for a more stable UNSC, by creating a more equal distribution of power via a greater number of either nonpermanent, permanent, or renewable seats. In particular, Annan’s Model A could have allowed for less P5 hegemony due to the granting of permanent seats, and thus veto power, to six non-P5 member states. However, both these proposals fail to address the single issue that has repeatedly impaired the Council’s ability to administer humanitarian intervention during crises: the veto. Membership expansion does not allow the Council to annul a veto due to the conditions of Article 27 (3) of the UN Charter, no matter how much Consensus exists against a veto by other member states. A veto issued by China or Russia against humanitarian intervention in Myanmar would trump any wider consensus if there were a formal resolution on the matter. Due to China and Russia’s ideological alignment with the State Administration Council and many other draconian regimes, they are also likely to veto resolutions encouraging humanitarian intervention. Thus, for the UNSC not to fail Myanmar and nations with similar crises in the future, reform must occur to regulate the veto in reference to the principles of the Charter, or the veto should be abolished altogether.

Veto Reform: Abolition or Regulation?

In its annual report, Amnesty International’s Secretary-General Salil Shetty accused the veto as being a means for P5 member states to promote their political self-interest or geopolitical interest above the interest of “protecting civilians.” Similarly, at the 73rd General Assembly Session, Indian delegate Syed Akbaruddin—backed by the G4—declared that “Naysayers cannot be allowed to cast a dark shadow over the entire membership and hold the overwhelming majority back.” Both these individuals draw attention to a sophism: in the 21st century, the veto contradicts the fundamental precepts of international relations. Given that nations are inclined to oppose measures that could impede their national interests regardless of their international consequences, why must we pretend that certain nations are moral authorities, befitting an ability to single-handedly trump the majority? Why is the vote of a sole diplomat so consequential as to enable the killings of ethnic minorities and protesters in Myanmar? Any discussion of UNSC reform must include the question of the veto, for equal representation means nothing if the UN is unable to uphold its promises of peace and security.

Calls for the abolition of the veto have long been echoed by non-P5 member states during General Assembly sessions. Kuwait, representing the Arab Group, condemned the arbitrary use of veto power by claiming “use of the veto reflects the purely political interests of permanent Council members.” Sierra Leone, representing the African Group, is “opposed in principle to the veto,” outlining a need to progress towards “effective democratic multilateralism.” Italy, representing the aforementioned Coffee Club, is open to “abolishing veto power” in addition to its proposal of membership expansion. Mongolia, Singapore, Argentina, Colombia, Turkey, Indonesia, Iran, and Malaysia—in addition to the aforementioned African and Arab groups—also vehemently oppose the use of veto power. The opposition to the veto generally stems from perceiving it as hegemonic, undemocratic, and a “contradiction” of the UN Charter, whose preamble states that the UN affirms the “equal rights” of “nations large and small.” However, a significant number of nations also advocate for the abolition or regulation of the veto not due to inequality but its inefficacy during crises.

Use of the veto power has come under scrutiny in regards to the conditions that ensued subsequent to the Myanmar coup: namely “mass atrocity,” “crimes against humanity,” “war crimes,”  and “genocide.” Estonia and even P5 member UK seem to be in favor of the withholding of veto power in such conditions. This position against veto use stems from a belief that humanitarian crises should be dealt with in a manner that is independent of the interests of individual member states. If the Council worked this way, a formal resolution of a binding nature taking decisive action to alleviate the crisis in Myanmar could have easily made its way into the chambers of the UNSC—because the prospects of such wouldn’t be interdicted by Chinese or Russian de facto vetoes in preliminary discussions. This is evident because resolution A/RES/75/287 in the General Assembly condemning the SAC was adopted with a majority voting for, showing that if the UNSC did equitably represent the collective interests of member states—or in the absence of the veto—a resolution on Myanmar could have passed in the UNSC too.

A proposal by the President of the French Republic in 2013 suggests an alternative to altogether abolishing the veto: the regulation of veto issuance. France proposes that P5 members should voluntarily self-regulate by not issuing vetos in the event of “mass atrocities.” This could pave the way for the UNSC to act on issues like the murder of over 800 civilians and airstrikes on villages in Myanmar, as “crimes against humanity and large-scale war crimes” are considered to be in the same class of crises as “mass atrocities” by France. This may seem like a pragmatic and efficient solution to the question of responding to humanitarian crises, but this opens up the possibility for ambiguity in the interpretation of “mass atrocities.” Because the proposition is for self-regulation, Russia or China could simply refuse to acknowledge the existence of “massacres” by deeming the conflict to be of a two-sided nature or declare a blatant coup to be a mere “cabinet reshuffle” as they did in the past. If any sort of regulation were to be brought about in the UNSC to keep veto power in check, it needs to scrutinize a veto on a case-by-case basis so that P5 nations can be held accountable by the wider Council. This would certainly allow the SC to respond to humanitarian crises, as arbitrary vetoes could be objectively deemed impermissible by a collectively more prudent Council.

Conclusion

Myanmar’s crisis is well-positioned to be a feasible opportunity for multilateral cooperation. Domestically, the crimes against humanity are blatantly one-sided and the democratic resistance movement is clearly aligned with UN values, thus streamlining the possibility of UNSC alignment. In addition, the Myanmar crisis has also shown that attempts to engage in track one diplomacy or condemnations by the UN do not work against a regime whose only real interest is self-preservation.

The crisis has also added an extra dimension to the question of structural reform of the United Nations Security Council. Firstly, the cases of mass murder, torture, rape, and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar have shown the world the consequences of idleness. The UNSC is fully authorized under Article 42 of the UN Charter “to use force to maintain or restore international peace and security,” but their inability to do so was what exactly enabled the escalation of the situation in Myanmar into a mass atrocity. A resolution calling for humanitarian intervention or the coordination of targeted sanctions may have served to decrease the incidence of crimes against humanity, but because the prospects of such a resolution have been struck down, an indefensible population has been forced to defend themselves and a full-fledged civil war is taking shape.

Secondly, it ensures perpetrators of crimes against humanity across the world that they will not be held accountable as long as they have diplomatic ties to a nation with a P5 seat. Moscow indirectly enabled the Tatmadaw’s General Min Aung Hlaing to carry out mass killings unencumbered consequent to their military ties, as it did before with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Learning from Myanmar, the UN should recognize that states with veto power are inclined to block interventionist resolutions if they perceive them as threats to the expansion of their relative power in the international system and that the presence of the veto is always going to withhold any active response to humanitarian crises. The UNSC was supposed to represent the best of humanity when it was founded after the Second World War, now it is time for the Council to honor the founding ethos. The Council should take an active role in the prevention of atrocities by either holding P5 nations accountable for arbitrary veto issuances or abolishing the veto altogether.

(Featured image by Patrick Gruban, Flickr)


Aung Soe (pseudonym) is an independent researcher based in Yangon who is currently conducting research on consensus-building in high-stakes humanitarian crises and parallel governance structures.