Burma and the Competence of the UN Security Council
By Derek Tonkin
Zin Linn sets out passionately the dire situation in Burma in his article in Asian Tribune of 4 March 2007. It would indeed be very encouraging if the UN Security Council could pass a Resolution - any Resolution at all - which would help to bring peace and democracy to Burma. But China and Russia made it crystal clear even before “The Situation in Myanmar” was put on the Council’s agenda that they would oppose any draft Resolution presented to the Council.
Chinese Ambassador Wang Guanggya could not have put it plainer when he told James Traub in an interview with the New York Times published on 3 September 2006 that he had “firm instructions” to block a US Resolution condemning Burma which was even then circulating in draft form. This was at least a fortnight before the Council agreed to put formally Burma on the agenda. The US sponsored initiative to use the Council to condemn Burma was regrettably doomed from the start.
Zin Linn refers to “a five point check list to bring any country on the agenda of the Security Council.” There is, with respect, no such internationally recognised check list. The idea has seemingly been taken from the September 2005 report commissioned by Václav Havel and Desmond Tutu, but it is not enshrined in any UN document, nor endorsed by any expert in International Law, nor accepted by any of the 192 member countries of the UN. In his “Handbook of International Law”, Professor Anthony Aust - a former UK Foreign Office legal adviser - says that a determination by any country of a “threat to the peace” requiring Security Council consideration “is a political act”. In making such a determination, says Aust, “Governments in practice ask themselves essentially political questions. Does something really have to be done? If so, what? Could it really be effective? Even if it would not be effective, do we still need to be seen to be doing something?”
There are thus no internationally agreed criteria to determine a “threat to the peace”. China is as entitled to make its own assessment of the situation in Burma as is the US, and neither is required to justify its determination in any forum. The Security Council is in essence a political body and Zin Linn cannot reasonably characterise the Council as a “Supreme Court”. In the case of “The Situation in Myanmar”, China and Russia have been immensely helped because no government within a radius of 3,000 kms has complained to the Security Council or to the UN Secretary General that Burma is a threat to their security and stability, while the US and the UK have had to declare a perceived threat almost in defiance of what all the countries of the region have said.
The cases of Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Yemen, Haiti, Rwanda, Liberia and Cambodia mentioned by Zin Linn are totally different from that of Burma because in all these cases, action at the Security Council was primarily based on representations from the neighbours of these countries as well as from regional organisations, and in one case - Haiti in 1993 - even from the elected Government. In the case of Burma, neither neighbours nor the regional organisation ASEAN have made representations.
This is also precisely what South African Ministers have said. Zin Linn quotes the UK’s UN Ambassador Sir Emyr Jones Parry as questioning South Africa’s vote against the Resolution on the grounds that “the UK did not walk on the other side when it passed sanctions against the internal apartheid policies of the then South African Government.” In fact, with trade turnover (goods and services) with South Africa running at some £4 billion annually in the 1980s, for much of the time the UK did walk on the other side of trade and investment sanctions, though the UN arms and the Commonwealth sporting embargoes were strictly followed.
In contrast to Burma, it was the apartheid regime which waged war against its neighbours - Angola, Mozambique and Zambia, attacking ANC guerrilla targets in both air and land operations. The “threat to the peace” from South Africa was both very real and universally condemned, and was a matter of constant and vigorous complaint by all of South Africa’s neighbours, who suffered under the assaults of the apartheid regime. Yet it was Nelson Mandela who was later to thank both Anglo-Dutch Shell and British Petroleum personally for staying on in South Africa under apartheid, for encouraging trade unions, training South Africans of all ages and adhering rigorously to the EU’s Code of Conduct for South Africa.
Burma may indeed be a “thorny topic” for the Association of South East Asians (ASEAN), as Zin Linn rightly says, but that is a far cry from representing any “threat to the peace”. A former Thai Ambassador Asda Jayanama may well have supported Security Council action, but he has never been the Thai Foreign Minister, and both the former Thai Foreign Minister, Kantathi Suphamongkon, when in office and the present Minister, Nitya Pibulsongram, have opposed action by the Council.
Nitya was quoted in the Hong Kong Standard on 12 January 2007 shortly before the vote took place as saying: “We think the Resolution should not be proposed in New York.” The influential Malaysian parliamentarian Datuk Zaid Ibrahim is indeed Chairman of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) which supported the Havel-Tutu recommendation for a “binding” Resolution against Burma, but it was Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar, snubbed by the junta when he visited Burma last year and who has more reason than most to be upset by Burmese behaviour, who spoke for Malaysia when he was quoted in Bloomberg of 14 January 2007 as saying: “China and Russia have done the right thing on the question of principle. There have been too many abuses of the Security Council’s role by bringing matters and issues that are not security interests to the Security Council”.
While I well understand Zin Linn’s sense of outrage, I am not convinced that the interests of the people of Burma have been well served through the overzealous efforts of the US to try to force through a Resolution in the Security Council which was bound to fail, which has seriously disappointed the Burmese people and their democratically elected leaders, and which has only helped to entrench the junta in power and to delay the transition to democratically elected government. But I recognise that in the grander scheme of world politics, Burma may not be a policy priority for the US, that the country is after all in China’s backyard, and that Chinese support over Iran, North Korea and Darfur could be considerably more important to the US whose principal, if not sole interest in Burma is “human rights”. On this, the new US strategy, according to Grover Joseph Rees, the US State Department’s special representative for social issues, will be to raise its concerns at every possible international forum. Absolutely right.
The New York Times on 13 January 2007 reported US Under-Secretary for Political Affairs R Nicholas Burns as saying: “We forced this issue on to the agenda for one reason. The Security Council is the only place that can deal with human rights.” China and Russia begged to differ. They said that the Security Council is where you deal with threats to international peace and stability. At the end of the day, it is what the UN Charter says that really counts. In the words of Article 24, the Council has been given by the members of the UN “the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”. That is unlikely to change, however much the US might press for human rights to be included, and however much Zin Linn and I myself might wish this and press for this.
At the Security Council on 12 January 2007, it was China which said that it “sincerely hopes and expects that the Myanmar Government will listen to the call of its own people, learn from the good practices of others and speed up the process of dialogue and reform, so as to achieve prosperity for its nation, bring benefits to its people and contribute to peace, stability and development in South East Asia.” These words could almost have been written in Washington or London. In short, there is little difference in the assessments of Moscow, Beijing, Washington, London and Paris - the “Permanent Five” of the Security Council - that political and economic reform in Burma is essential. Where they do differ is on how this may best be achieved.
Derek Tonkin British Ambassador to Thailand 1986-89,
Deputy Head of Mission British Embassy in South Africa 1983-86
- Asian Tribune –