Published:  01:03 AM, 09 November 2017

Rohingya crisis: The UN at the crossroads

Rohingya crisis:  The UN at the crossroads

Paper presented at a symposium organized on the occasion of the 72nd United NationsDay by the United Nations Association of Bangladesh on 24 October 2017

The road so far traversed by the UN, if not long enough in terms of overall time-frame, is certainly long enough in the context of myriad trials and tribulations the body has gone through. It can claim the credit for sparing the world from any Armageddon of World War I and World War II types, although argumentatively it may be said that much of this credit is linked to the inherent balance in the international order.

Nevertheless, the absence of a major war does not mean that the UN has overseen this planet earth as the haven of peace. The peace of the world, as it is, remains elusive as there have been ubiquitous emergence of flash-spots not successfully dealt with by the UN, despite the fact that much of this failure is due to factors over which the UN has little or no control.

These flash-spots, as is the case with the Palestinian crisis, have remained gaping wounds always festering. Thus, peace, as is aptly said, does not mean the absence of war only; it means an environment to live in peace with human dignity. Such a conceptualisation of peace may appear to be quite idyllic, and which is conspicuously absent anywhere in the world.

Therefore, the UN role vis-a-vis peace has to be construed in a realistic and limited perspective. Moreover, the UN, although mediocre in its peace-delivering capacity and record, has certainly done enormously in uplifting humans socio-economically and culturally. The basic shortcoming that impedes the UN in its peace-delivering role is not the lack of its institutional ethos, but in how it is structured. The most relevant structural lacunae are to be found in the Security Council, the most important peace-delivering organ of the UN; and this is manifested as the Rohingya crisis is being grappled with.

The Security Council: What is Wrong?
The Security Council, as structured, is undemocratic and still carries the World War II hangover. At inception this organ, along with parent body despite rhetorical ebullitions for freeing the world from the scourge of war and ensuring overall peace, emerged, to all intents and purposes, as the institution of the smug and pretentious victors.

One glaring example of such an attribute of this supranational body is the veto power of the permanent members of the Security Council. True, such an arrangement had some logical need in the tumultuous period immediately following World War II. But does such an arrangement chime in with extant democratic ethos? Again, is the world today same as it was in the period following World War II?

Both the poignant questions beg negative answers. Democracy presupposes either consensus or majority decision not to be scuttled by any coterie intervention. The veto-power wielding permanent members of the Security Council certainly form a coterie and act as a stumbling bloc to unanimous or majority decisions to deliver peace. As is generally observed, while considering a peace-threating issue the veto-wielding powers prioritise not global stakes, but their own specific national interest, impelled as they are by geo-political and geo-economic considerations.

This tendency has come out most glaringly and shockingly in dealing with the Rohingya crisis. In this case, specifically, Russia and China do not appear to be in line with the right stance of the UN as a body. These two powers have their own specific stakes in Myanmar, which are certainly at variance with the collective ethos under which the UN is supposed to work. The Security Council, despite mounting pressure on it to match action with rhetoric, remains hamstrung by the eventuality of veto casting by any of these two or both powers in the event of a strong necessary resolution.

That the veto power is anti-peace ab initio may not be historically true. In December 1971, for example, the Soviet veto thwarted a pro-Pakistan Sino-US sponsored ceasefire resolution and helped Bangladesh delivering the finale to the debacle for the Pakistan occupation forces. But for this Soviet veto, the Liberation War would have had a different and difficult ending.

For the sake of argument, it may be said that the then Soviet Union did have stakes in the smooth emergence of Bangladesh. After all, and in the diplomatic context, Bangladesh was the friend of the Soviet Union which was the friend of India. It may also be said that the US and China, the Cold War adversaries of the Soviet Union, were friends of India's enemy Pakistan; and, therefore, they too had stakes in putting road-blocs to the emergence of Bangladesh. In a nutshell, the Cold War game was played out in the corridors of the UN. The game also demonstrated the split mindedness of the members of this precariously surviving international body.

These being said, it cannot be denied that the far-reaching consequence of the Soviet veto was a stable South Asia with India's preeminent position assured; and, in tandem was the birth of a new state on the map of the world. On the other hand, the present stance of Russia and China vis-a-vis the Rohingya crisis shows that these powers suffer from myopia. They seem to be shockingly and blissfully unaware of the fact that if the crisis is not speedily and satisfactorily resolved the future of their stakes in Myanmar would inevitably be clouded.

As genuinely apprehended, a prolonged Rohingya crisis would lead to extremism and radicalisation with ominous ramifications not only for the region, but world peace as well. In such a context, it behooves these two powers to keep in abeyance their veto weapon and support the UN were stringent measures adopted to seek Myanmar's compliance. These two powers must be made to understand that disproportionate use of violence in the name of counter-terrorism and flagrant violation of human rights must not be euphemised as the internal affairs of a despicable member of the international community.
(To be continued)

The writer is Supernumerary Professor, Department of History, University of Dhaka

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