Last night, the Democratic frontrunners took the stage in Iowa for the seventh debate in the 2020 election. Though there were a few substantial disagreements between the candidates, what was more interesting were the points of convergence.
Myanmar’s experience demonstrates that the modern struggle for sovereignty is no longer fought on the battlefield but within the administrative offices of international institutions.
“Our job,” Senator Sanders declared, “is to rebuild the United Nations, rebuild the State Department, make sure that we have the capability of bringing the world together to resolve international conflict diplomatically and stop the endless wars that we have experienced.” The Democrats made it clear last night that they not only have full faith in the UN—they want to do everything in their power to strengthen it.
But anyone lauding the United Nations as a forum for conflict resolution should pay close attention to the case of the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, which is currently being ravaged by geopolitical pressure at the UN’s International Court of Justice. Myanmar’s experience demonstrates that the modern struggle for sovereignty is no longer fought on the battlefield but within the administrative offices of international institutions.
While the United Nations has occasionally seen fit to intervene in the domestic operation of nations, it is only recently that these interventions have become decidedly politicized. From “slamming” the human rights record of Canada, to allowing Saudi Arabia to join the Commission on the Status of Women, the United Nations can no longer be treated as a neutral body. Moreover, the ICJ’s hearing of a complaint against Myanmar represents a calculated attempt to penalize Myanmar for purely political reasons.
“JUSTICE” IN THE CASE OF MYANMAR
On November 11th, 2019, the Republic of the Gambia filed an accusation of genocide against Myanmar at the International Criminal Justice courts, the judicial organ of the United Nations. Specifically, Muslim-majority Gambia accused Buddhist-majority Myanmar of organized state-violence against the Rohingya, one of Myanmar’s Muslim ethnic minorities.
With heavy support from Saudi Arabia and suspected ties to ISIS, Harakah al-Yaqin has been responsible for the wholesale slaughter of Hindus and Buddhists in Myanmar’s wartorn Rakhine state.
In their filing, Gambia offered a terrifying account of senseless abuse. The 46-page document made it seem as though Myanmar, as a whole, was targeting and exterminating a vulnerable population—for no other reason than religious differences. “These acts, which include killing, causing serious bodily and mental harm, inflicting conditions that are calculated to bring about physical destruction, imposing measures to prevent births, and forcible transfers, are genocidal in character because they are intended to destroy the Rohingya group in whole or in part.”
Unsurprisingly, the filing included no information whatsoever about the violent civil war Myanmar has been embroiled in for over 70 years–one which has impacted all 135 of Myanmar’s ethnic and religious groups.
It failed to note that the Rohingya, like many other ethnic groups in Myanmar, formed their own insurgency decades ago in an attempt to advance their religious and cultural interests. Harakah al-Yaqin, commonly referred to as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, is an Islamic paramilitary force that claims to represent the Muslim minority. With heavy support from Saudi Arabia and suspected ties to ISIS, Harakah al-Yaqin has been responsible for the wholesale slaughter of Hindus and Buddhists in Myanmar’s wartorn Rakhine state. The massacres were so significant in number that they caught the attention of Amnesty International: “A Rohingya armed group brandishing guns and swords is responsible for at least one, and potentially a second, massacre of up to 99 Hindu women, men, and children as well as additional unlawful killings and abductions of Hindu villagers in August 2017,” Amnesty International reported after carrying out a detailed investigation inside Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
The one-sided nature of Gambia’s account to the ICJ was by design. Gambia’s charge against Myanmar was backed by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an organization staging themselves as “the collective voice of the Muslim world.” The OIC “endeavors to safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world,” and has a permanent delegation to the United Nations. The OIC also has a history of refusing to name violent acts of terrorism committed in the name of Islam—while calling Islamophobia “the worst form of terrorism.”
The most ironic aspect of Gambia’s decision to accuse Myanmar of human rights abuses is that the west African nation has its own fraught legacy of such abuses.
In defense of her country at the International Courts, Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, effectively had to instruct the world on the complex and convoluted history of Myanmar’s civil war. Myanmar, Suu Kyi said, is “dealing with an internal armed conflict, started by coordinated and comprehensive attacks” by militants. “If war crimes have been committed by members of Myanmar’s defense services, they will be prosecuted through our military justice system, in accordance with Myanmar’s constitution.”
Shortly after the hearings at the ICJ concluded, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution condemning Myanmar for human rights abuses. While other ethnic groups affected by the civil war were mentioned in passing—no doubt to maintain the illusion that the UN grasps Myanmar’s complex situation—the focus was overwhelmingly on protecting the Rohingya Muslims. And while the ruling is officially independent of the ICJ, the degree to which the deck was stacked against Suu Kyi and Myanmar was made abundantly clear; the world has judged Myanmar’s actions as criminal.
The most ironic aspect of Gambia’s decision to accuse Myanmar of human rights abuses is that the west African nation has its own fraught legacy of such abuses. According to the Thompson Reuters Foundation, nearly 75% of Gambian women have suffered genital mutilation, while 80% of the population believes domestic violence to be morally acceptable. Child marriage, outlawed only three years ago, is a widespread social practice across the country. Ex-Dictator Yahya Jemmeh, rising to power after a violent coup, defrauded AIDS patients, raped multiple young women, slaughtered migrants who crossed into Gambia from other African nations, and has been linked to the mass tortures of suspected “witches.”
But even with limited knowledge of Myanmar’s domestic policy, culture, or historical context—and an abhorrent human rights record of its own—Gambia was able to have their complaint taken seriously by the United Nations.
If successful, the charges brought before the ICJ will undermine Myanmar’s sovereignty, a nation which freed itself from a military dictatorship only nine years ago. At the ICJ, if a defendant does not comply with the terms of the ruling, the UN’s Security Council is authorized to intervene and enforce the decision.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
In contrast to the situation in Myanmar, China, with its immense human rights abuse record, has never faced this kind of treatment by the United Nations—not even for its for its treatment of the Falun Gong or Uyghurs. These abuses, unlike with the Rohingya, are well-verified, isolated in target, and sanctioned by the Chinese Government, including the mass-slaughter of Falun Gong practitioners and the illegal harvesting of body organs. The United Nations has politely requested China provide a report on the accusations lodged against them, something they’ve yet to deliver. Myanmar was not allowed to complete its own independent inquiry into the Rohingya situation prior to UN intervention.
The United Nations rhetoric surrounding Myanmar’s actions prior to the advancement of any grievance shows that judgment had been passed before any trial was conducted.
The United Nations’ rhetoric surrounding Myanmar’s actions prior to the advancement of any grievance shows that judgment had been passed before any trial was conducted. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose 15-year pacifist rebellion against Myanmar’s military junta won her a Nobel Peace Prize, is the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero Bogyoke Aung San. She certainly knows her own country better than any foreign diplomat or journalist. But before Myanmar’s own independent inquiry into its Rakhine-area conflict could even be completed, the United Nations has seen fit to intervene.
Ultimately, Myanmar’s ordeal reveals the systemic hypocrisy of the United Nations. It’s time for the world community to seriously consider whether it should support a geopolitical body that entertains and encourages the moral grandstanding of human rights abusers.