Since the military coup in Myanmar on Feb. 1, 802 civilians have been killed. The majority of the people who have been killed were peaceful protesters shot by state security forces — the very people that are meant to protect them.
According to civilian casualty monitors, the number of recorded civilian fatalities in Myanmar, in little more than 100 days, is higher than all other conflicts in the world this year so far, except for Ethiopia and Nigeria. That is more than Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and other conflicts that often make the headlines.
It is not just the scale of suffering by civilians in Myanmar that is so shocking when compared with other conflicts. According to the World Health Organization, there have been 179 attacks on health care staff and facilities in Myanmar since the coup. This is 70 percent of all the attacks that the agency has documented worldwide over this period.
The Myanmar military, called the Tatmadaw, has been accused of waging a war against its own people. Crimes against humanity are being committed.
Myanmar already has some of the longest-running conflicts in world with ethnic armed groups operating in different parts of the country, and there are increasing signs of protesters linking up with them in armed resistance.
But the civil unrest from the military crackdown against the anti-coup protest movement is not yet an armed conflict as defined under international humanitarian law. This is because the protesters have not organized themselves into armed forces that can sustain military operations but are instead engaged in what would be considered internal disturbances. Does this matter?
Next week, the United Nations Security Council will hold its annual debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict on May 25. The theme will be attacks on health care. While Myanmar may get mentions in the statements of member states, some countries might not consider that the situation fits the bill as the protests are not per se an armed conflict. This would be a mistake and a missed opportunity to highlight the actions the Security Council must urgently take to halt the atrocity crimes occurring in Myanmar and to prevent conflict.
The country is on the brink of sliding into full-blown civil war and state collapse, with parallels being drawn to Syria, where protests turned into 10 years of conflict and counting. The Council has deliberated on the importance of conflict prevention, which has also been a priority of UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Immediate action is required to stop Myanmar from becoming the next Syria, Yemen or Libya.
To avert more crisis in Myanmar requires turning fine words into action. The situation in the country provides one of the first tests for the secretary-general’s call to action on human rights launched last year.
The Council has thus far been deadlocked and failed to take any action, with the threat of veto from China and Russia looming large. There are several measures that it could take under the umbrella of protecting civilians, as it has done in many other contexts.
Two hundred nongovernmental organizations recently called on the Council to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar to stem the flow of weapons to the Tatmadaw. A sanctions regime under the UN could be established, building on those already imposed by several countries, including the United States and Britain and European member states.
The situation in Myanmar could be referred to the International Criminal Court. While this might be unlikely, consideration should be given to other legal accountability mechanisms, such as prosecuting cases under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which is being promoted by the Myanmar Accountability Project.
There have also been calls for an Asean/UN civilian protection mission mandated by the Security Council to help stop the violence.
Humanitarian assistance urgently needs scaling up, as current appeals are only 12 percent funded. Aid agencies working in Myanmar have still not updated their humanitarian-response plan partly because, as the situation is not deemed an armed conflict, they don’t think it is their responsibility to respond. The protection cluster led by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has also not been activated.
At a summit on April 24, Asean agreed to a five-point consensus calling to end the violence and proposing a political dialogue led by a newly appointed Asean special envoy. The Security Council endorsed the plan and should now ensure strong UN support to the Asean process to make sure it succeeds.
Whether the violence in Myanmar fits the definition of an armed conflict matters little to the people suffering from the attacks against them by their own government. Member states and other concerned parties should seize the opportunity at the May 25 protection of civilians debate to call on the Council to take immediate action to respond to the tragedy in the country.
Damian Lilly, a Briton, is an independent consultant who until recently was based in Myanmar. He has worked with the UN for the last 15 years and is a member of the Myanmar Accountability Project (MAP).