A recent report of the UN Human Rights Council suggested that Myanmar’s armed forces committed genocide and other crimes against humanity against the Rohingya. In Yemen, a schoolbus was destroyed by an American bomb dropped from a Saudi aircraft acting as part of a UK-backed coalition, killing 40 children. In Syria and Cameroon the world waits anxiously to see if further atrocities will follow those which have already occurred.
Meanwhile, the failure of the countries on the Security Council to uphold their responsibility to protect populations in any of these cases is yet again causing people to doubt the relevance of the UN to such situations and its ability to maintain global peace and security. This is compounded by the fact that China is the only permanent member of the Council not to have been recently complicit in the bombing of a hospital, although China too has worked to block action to address atrocities in countries such as Myanmar and Syria.
As UNA-UK argued in evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, the failure of the Security Council to act in such cases means that other parts of the UN system (such as the General Assembly) must step up, and use tools such as “Uniting for Peace” to participate in proceedings.
But while states bear the primary responsibility for these failures, the Human Rights Council report on Myanmar highlighted a number of failures by the UN system too, including some of the same structural issues that were highlighted by the 2012 report on UN action in Sri Lanka. Many of the Secretary-General’s reform proposals, including changes to the country teams, are likely to help in the longer-term, but more needs to be done now to prevent recurrence of these horrific crimes (see here).
Sri Lanka itself, meanwhile, has indicated that it will use its speech at the UN General Assembly to ask the UN to drop demands for accountability against the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the final stages of their civil war in 2009. This demand is as incoherent as it is offensive. The accountability mechanism in question was agreed to by the Sri Lankan Government in collaboration with the Human Rights Council. The Sri Lankan Government will have to explain to its people and to the Council why it has failed to keep the promises it has made regardless of any discussion that takes place in the General Assembly.
In the UK, a recent report of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee suggested that Britain’s approach to atrocities highlighted that “there is an urgent need to develop a specific atrocity prevention strategy within the UK Government.” At times the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has made statements which suggest its policies do not fully appreciate the difference between atrocity prevention and conflict prevention – which are overlapping but distinct issues. The Committee recommended the Government devise a comprehensive atrocity prevention strategy as a matter of urgency, suggesting April 2019 as a deadline.