Is There a responsibility to protect Myanmar?

Democracy activists are invoking a controversial international norm to demand outside intervention.

democracy demonstrations in Myanmar continue in the wake of the February 1 coup, many protesters within the country are taking to the streets and directly calling for the implementation of Responsibility to Protect, a United Nations norm that they believe could shield them from the violence of the military.

Responsibility to Protect, known colloquially as R2P, is a U.N. principle that is used when the government of a country fails to protect its own citizens from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity—in many cases the government itself is the perpetrator of those crimes. In these situations, the U.N. can take collective action through the Security Council on a case-by-case basis to protect civilians, even if the government does not consent and the action violates the country’s sovereignty.

The norm was developed after the international community failed to prevent genocides in the Balkans, Kosovo and Rwanda in the 1990s. In 2000, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan published the report “We the Peoples,” writing, “[S]urely no legal principle—not even sovereignty—can ever shield crimes against humanity. Where such crimes occur and peaceful attempts to halt them have been exhausted, the Security Council has a moral duty to act on behalf of the international community.”

Four years later, at the U.N.’s 2005 World Summit, R2P was unanimously adopted. Since then, it has been referenced in 92 Security Council resolutions and has been invoked in decisions ranging from an arms embargo in the Central African Republic to enforcing a no-fly zone followed by NATO airstrikes in Libya.

In the days after the coup in Myanmar, discussions about R2P began to circulate online, as protesters launched demonstrations against the military (known as the Tatmadaw). The calls for action increased when Dr. Sasa, the U.N. envoy for the democratically elected Burmese government in exile, (like many Burmese, he goes by a single name) wrote to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres on March 4, asking the Security Council to uphold R2P.

Across Myanmar, protesters adopted this demand, writing “R2P” on their signs and banners and marching through the streets. Experts say the citizens’ requests for R2P on this scale are unprecedented.

This raises the question of what exactly invoking R2P would mean in this case. Methods of enacting R2P are varied, and international diplomatic figures who are proponents of the principle being invoked in Myanmar are quick to emphasize it doesn’t necessarily consist of military intervention.

Gareth Evans, a former Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs who was integral in first formulating R2P, wrote in an April 8 op-ed that, “military intervention is simply not a realistic option” in Myanmar, but went on to say it’s “just one element in the R2P reaction toolbox.”

However, protesters in Myanmar are clear that when they ask for R2P, they’re asking specifically for boots on the ground.

“R2P is coming with armies that can protect the civilians,” said Ko Sa, who is from Myanmar and is currently studying for his master’s degree in the U.S. (For safety concerns, he is not using his full name.) “That is my understanding of R2P. Troops will go there and protect the people from the military shooting them.”

Miemie Winn Byrd, an Asia-Pacific security analyst and former army colonel, said that while R2P is not synonymous with military intervention, those calling for it often view it that way.

“From the very first time, the U.S. military was involved,” said Byrd. “They think that R2P means military coming in and supporting. But R2P is a broad range.”

R2P has been discussed with reference to Myanmar before. When Cyclone Nargis struck the country in 2008, killing over 130,000 and causing widespread devastation, Byrd, then serving in the Army, was on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Myanmar, and ready to deliver aid, which the Tatmadaw rejected.

At the time, the French advocated for R2P, arguing that the international community should deliver aid whether the government agreed or not, but critics argued that the norm was limited to—as written in the 2005 World Summit Outcome—“genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” and not disaster relief. The U.N. never invoked the principle.

In 2017, when the Tatmadaw committed genocide on the Rohingya people in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, some international advocates again called for R2P. The Security Council met to discuss the situation, but China and Russia blocked the release of a statement after the meeting was held.

In the end, the only official response from the Security Council was a Presidential Statement emphasizing that it was the “primary responsibility of the Myanmar government to protect its population.”

In the past decade, skepticism has grown about R2P, particularly since the 2011 intervention in Libya which left a power vacuum that ultimately destabilized the country. But in the case of Myanmar, the skepticism that R2P may give way to harmful foreign intervention is largely depleted due to the fact that the Burmese people themselves are asking for the norm.

If the Security Council does intend to invoke R2P in Myanmar, it is moving at a glacial pace to do so, despite pressure from the exiled National Unity Government, various NGOs and even other elements within the U.N. On March 28, the U.N. Special A