The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has been at the centre of debates concerning how to engage regimes which are either unable or unwilling to safeguard their citizens against the four specific crimes (genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and war crimes) listed in related reports and resolutions of the United Nations (UN). Although almost universally endorsed, the differences between “Asian” and “Western” understandings have led to radically different policy proposals. For Western powers, humanitarian intervention can be seen as the logical extension of the human security discourse on global governance. Declaration of violation of the R2P can be interpreted as a duty to use force to intervene humanitarianly. It is clear, however, that Asian states maintain a distinct understanding of what it implies.
The Permanent Representative of South Korea of the UN, one of the most ardent R2P supporters among Asian states stressed that “the primary responsibility lies in the individual Government while the international community bears the secondary responsibility,” that R2P is “distinctly different from humanitarian intervention since it is based on collective actions, in accordance with UN Charter,” and that “not all humanitarian tragedies or human rights violations can or should activate R2P.” For Japan, “while R2P recognizes the necessity for enforcement in certain circumstances, human security rules it out in every occasion,” therefore the Japanese focus is one of prevention thereby reducing the need for intervention. Asian states have generally championed the need for economic development before focusing on human rights. The ongoing crisis involving Rohingya people fleeing insecurity in Myanmar has highlighted these different perspectives.
The UN’s human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein has noted that genocide cannot be ruled out. The Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yeehang Lee claims that the situation “bears the hallmarks of genocide.” But genocide is difficult to prove, and, if we were to take the most rigorous definition that a population must be target in whole for extermination, rather than in part, it is probably not occurring in this instance. According to al-Hussein, to Andrew Gilmour, the UN’s Assistant Secretary-General for human rights, to the US, Malaysia, and Amnesty International, this is, however, a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.” For Human Rights Watch, the atrocities committed by security forces, including mass killings, sexual violence, and widespread arson amount to crimes against humanity. Finally, systemic rape is recognized as a war crime, and there is increased evidence that such is occurring in Myanmar.
The US has followed a traditional Western perspective on the crisis noting that the Government of Myanmar needs to respect the rule of law, stop the violence and end the displacement of civilians. The Canadian government has reaffirmed a commitment “to advancing our core values in the pursuit of democracy, human rights, freedoms, and the rule of law,” imposed targeted sanctions against Major-General Maung Maung Soe, and advocated steps be taken “to encourage the International Criminal Court to consider an investigation on the issue of forcible deportation.” On the other hand, China has followed the traditional Asian line calling on the international community to “support the efforts of Myanmar in safeguarding the stability of its national development.”
The combination of Western interventionary pressures, with Asian non-judgmental engagement, however, perhaps creates the best conditions to facilitate governance transformation within a target state. Pressure from the West creates incentives not only for the target state to accept help, but also for Asian actors to offer it; while Asian offers of assistance are more readily accepted due to their anti-interventionary legacy. This is precisely what happened during a previous instance of perceived governance failure in Myanmar after the devastating impact of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Western commentators and statemen called for an “aid invasion,” and in doing so, pressured the government to accept more moderate offers of assistance from “friendly” Asian states. It is to be hoped that a combination of initiatives from Asia and the West can resolve this crisis.