The U.N. Needs New Thinking on How to Prevent Civil Wars

Artículo
World Politics Review, 15.10.2021
Charli Carpenter, profesora de ciencia política y estudios legales 
(U. de Massachusetts-Amherst)

Up until the spring, the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar was mainly expressing its opposition to the military junta that seized power in February through peaceful protests. But over the summer, in reaction to the junta’s violent and often lethal response, hundreds of small, armed, civilian resistance groups popped up and begun to carry out ambushes on military convoys around the country. As Betcy Jose and Peace Medie have shown, this is typical of how civilians begin to protect themselves with force when faced with violence from their own government, and in the absence of adequate outside help.

And when peaceful protesters begin to turn violent, military regimes typically respond with an even worse crackdown, causing the violence to escalate and the political contestation to slide into civil war. Yet, the AP reports this week that the United Nations sees itself as hamstrung in the situation. Although the organization’s Credentials Committee is stalling a decision on whether to recognize the junta, “the UN is unlikely to take any meaningful action against Myanmar’s new rulers because they have the support of China and Russia.”

It is true that the U.N. remains notoriously poor at intervening in civil wars before they break out, or forestalling campaigns targeting civilians in their early stages. But criticisms of the U.N. for inaction in Myanmar are not quite fair. Some critics of the U.N.’s passivity would understand “meaningful action” to mean only humanitarian intervention. And clearly, a Chapter VII intervention is institutionally impossible given the array of great power interests. But that’s how the U.N. is supposed to work. And the idea that the U.N. cannot or will not “meaningfully” act overestimates the power of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, underestimates the U.N. as an institution and misreads the source of the U.N.’s political impotence.

First, in cases where humanitarian intervention is truly called for, the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, doctrine is flexible enough to leave open the possibility of one without the approval of the Security Council. To be sure, this approach has its downsides as well, as Russia and China like to argue. After all, human rights can be used as a smoke-screen for self-interested invasions, which potentially makes for a slippery slope to undermining the U.N. Charter.

But to some extent this can be mitigated by the emergent norm in international customary law that to be “humanitarian,” an intervention must be genuinely multilateral. The NATO intervention in Kosovo fit this description without a Security Council resolution, in the same way the intervention in Libya arguably did with one. By contrast, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and the United States’ equally self-serving invasion of Iraq both involved humanitarian justifications, but these were widely—and correctly—viewed as unwarranted violations of the U.N. Charter. In theory, however, atrocity prevention does not hinge on the Security Council.

Second, while the Responsibility to Protect doctrine is often associated with the idea of military intervention, the doctrine calls for significantly more factors to be taken into consideration than just whether atrocities have reached a threshold justifying the use of force to stop them. Among other things, there must be a proportionality analysis: Can more civilian lives be saved by acting than will be lost by the inevitable fallout of war? Will the humanitarian good of regime change or atrocity prevention outweigh the potential humanitarian cost of an escalating regional war, for example, should two nuclear-armed great power rivals fall afoul? In Syria, for example, the argument for humanitarian intervention was much stronger in 2011, when then-U.S. President Barack Obama first proposed it, or even earlier, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was dropping “mere” barrel bombs on civilians but had not yet escalated to using chemical weapons. By the time the Islamic State showed up and Russia was on the scene, however, the risk-to-benefit proportionality analysis became much more complicated and prohibitive.

Third, two other very important pillars of R2P are often unappreciated. One is the responsibility of states themselves to protect populations on their own territory. This is manifestly not happening in Myanmar, but in some respects that is equally true in other places, including China and the U.S., with regard to the former’s treatment of Uyghur and other ethnic minority populations in Xinjiang and the latter’s treatment of refugees at the southern border. One lesson, then, is to use evidence from places like Myanmar to look for and address human rights abuses at home.

The other unappreciated pillar of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine is the international community’s obligation to encourage and assist individual states in meeting that responsibility and building state capacity to do so. And on this second pillar, the international community is doing considerable meaningful work with regard to Myanmar, but also elsewhere. Arguably, this is precisely what China and the U.S. were doing in working together to delay recognition of the Myanmar junta by the Credentials Committee, as well as what several countries have attempted by withholding aid from Afghanistan unless the Taliban agree to educate girls. And it’s what is being done by the “other U.N.”—the civilian agencies like UNICEF, the U.N. Development Program and the U.N. Development Fund for Women—in myriad places where development aid is combined with security assistance to support weak or failing states in building structures of governance and a culture of human rights.

But here, as Severine Autesserre’s new book “The Frontlines of Peace” shows, the U.N. overinvests in top-down, elite-run peacebuilding measures and underinvests in supporting everyday efforts by ordinary civilians to build and keep the peace at local levels. Moreover, this second pillar is not always enough to protect civilians against violence, as democratization itself can be destabilizing.

If there is a gap in international norms and institutions on conflict prevention, it is the lack of a norm on providing support and protection for nonviolent resistance movements that do not take up arms against their own government. In fact, it is often easier for armed groups to find military support from the international community than it is for their nonviolent counterparts to receive protection and assistance. And the best way for armed groups to provoke the kind of crackdown that will draw humanitarian intervention is to begin attacking the security forces of the state. Combined, these factors almost incentivize nonviolent groups to take up arms.

What this shows is that it may again be time to innovate in atrocity prevention. If the international community wants to simultaneously promote democracy, reward nonviolence and prevent civil wars, it needs a formula for light-footprint interventions in situations that fall short of war, but where an intervention can meaningfully protect civilians engaged in nonviolent opposition. This could have the simultaneous benefit of protecting civilians from the humanitarian impact of the crippling sanctions often imposed on dictatorships and military regimes as an alternative to the use of force. Coupled with a very high threshold for intervention once civilians begin taking up arms, this could incentivize nonviolence, ratchet down atrocities before they break out and protect civilians earlier when they do.

In Myanmar, the country is in the early stages of what may metastasize into a civil war. But the civilian side of this brewing conflict was not long ago—and to a large degree still is—a nonviolent resistance movement. Suppose this movement had been supported with a no-fly/no-go zone to ensure safe haven for its activities, combined with a humanitarian airlift of aid into the protected zone to protect nonviolent protesters from the humanitarian effects of a sanctions regime against the junta? This is the least invasive form of military intervention, one that worked well, for example, in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991.

If these approaches seem too coercive, there are other tools at the disposal of third-party states to protect civilians when the early warning signs of violence have not yet escalated to mass atrocities. One is to fulfill their own obligations collectively under the international refugee regime. Countries contiguous to conflicts often bear the brunt of refugee flows, but the humanitarian evacuation from Afghanistan demonstrates what the international community can do with a refugee crisis if it chooses to enable civilians to flee by air to a broader geographic array of third-party countries.

The evacuation of Kabul, like Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, may have been the province of retreating occupiers. But there is no reason such operations could not also be organized by the U.N., as occurred to some extent in Bosnia, or by civilian NGOs with the support of governments, as the NGO Refugee Air attempted during the early days of the Syrian refugee crisis. Such efforts are only as humanitarian as the states that receive these refugees, however. So this option requires a recommitment to refugee norms worldwide, but especially in the Global North, and a mechanism for resolving the collective action problem that prevents the majority of the world’s countries from taking in their share of refugees.

Of course, such a set of norms and practices would include their own externalities and dilemmas, in some ways enabling and incentivizing tyrants to create conditions that effectively “cleanse” opposition movements out of the country. Nevertheless, much more could be done by the international community to support nonviolent movements and give them a voice in preventive diplomacy efforts, before situations rise to the level requiring humanitarian war. And this is where the international community is truly missing its chance in Myanmar.

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