Could the Rohingya Crisis Be a Turning Point for Guterres?

UN Secretary-General António Guterres (left) addresses a meeting during the 2017 General Assembly. New York, September 22, 2017 (Rick Bajornas/UN Photo)

The pace and scale of the violence currently unfolding in Myanmar is difficult to comprehend. Since August 25 this year, 430,000 Rohingya—more than a third of the ethnic minority’s population—have fled the country and an estimated 1,000 have died in a scorched earth campaign that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

In his previous role as head of the UN’s refugee agency, Secretary-General António Guterres would no doubt have been seized with the task of responding this rapidly spiraling crisis. Perhaps this in part informed his decision to appeal directly to the UN Security Council earlier this month, imploring the body to act in the face of a mounting crisis. Guterres’ official letter, the first sent from a secretary-general to the Council in nearly 30 years, amounted to a rare, if implicit, exercise of Article 99 of the UN Charter, which gives the secretary-general the authority to “bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”

The Rohingya, often referred to as the world’s most persecuted minority, have faced decades of oppression and discrimination in Myanmar. The current crisis began when a group of Rakhine State insurgents launched attacks on security forces, killing approximately a dozen people. The attacks came just a day after former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan delivered the final report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. Myanmar’s security forces responded with indiscriminate “clearance operations,” razing hundreds of villages.

Because the government strictly limits access to Rakhine State, details of the extensive destruction come from the hundreds of thousands streaming over the border into Bangladesh, though satellite images confirm that thousands of homes have been burned. Facing scathing criticism for her failure to take action, Nobel Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi skipped this year’s UN General Assembly high-level meetings, but in a major speech on the crisis, she equivocated on the role of the armed services, saying there had been “allegations and counter-allegations.”

The Rohingya crisis has sparked a change of tone from Guterres, who has been criticized for failing to shine a light on human rights abuses and atrocities, relying instead on quiet diplomacy to forge peace. He has spoken several times with Suu Kyi, imploring her to act. He has also made a series of escalating public calls for action, including during a recent press conference, where he highlighted the crisis as an issue at the top of global concerns. When asked whether he thought the violence amounted to ethnic cleansing, Guterres responded, “When one-third of the Rohingya population had to flee the country, can you find a better word to describe it?” Fed up with a lack of action by Myanmar authorities, a frustrated Guterres lamented that the government “has been completely deaf to our requests.” He also drew attention to the crisis in his first General Assembly address as secretary-general.

Guterres’ official letter called for the Security Council to send a strong political message both to halt the current crisis and to support a strategy to “help end the vicious cycle in Rakhine.” He warned that it “risks degenerating into a humanitarian catastrophe with implications for peace and security that could continue to expand beyond the borders of Myanmar.” Though the letter did not directly reference Article 99, the secretary-general noted in a later press conference that it was an exercise of exactly these powers. Guterres himself noted that his letter was the first such official appeal to the Council since 1989, when then Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar asked it to meet to discuss Lebanon. The letter was one of the earliest instances that a secretary-general had ever used such powers, either officially or informally, during their tenure. Moreover, as Loraine Sievers and Sam Daws note, Guterres went beyond previous invocations of Article 99 in that he implored the Council to act rather than simply to meet.

Appealing directly to the Council is not without risk: Myanmar is a complex agenda item. China has long shielded the country from the Security Council’s spotlight, arguing that its security challenges are internal issues and therefore do not fall within the Council’s purview. By imploring the Council to act on Myanmar, Guterres risks drawing the ire of one of the Council’s permanent members early in his tenure. This comes not long after he warned that China would occupy any space the United States created by a global retreat in an “America First” era.

In taking this action, the secretary-general is fulfilling commitments that he made in his campaign for the role. In the process to select Ban Ki-moon’s successor, Guterres focused on the importance of prevention, pledging to use all opportunities to bring matters of international peace and security to the Security Council’s attention. The more open selection process revealed that, at least rhetorically, many member states sought a strong leader for an institution that appeared paralyzed in the face of intractable challenges, from the devastating war in Syria to famine risk in the horn of Africa. After carefully cultivating productive working relationships with member states, most notably with the US, since his election, Guterres was hoping to expend this political capital as many of his bosses descended on Turtle Bay for high-level meetings of the General Assembly.

Political momentum for action, spurred in part by Guterres’s letter, appears to be building, even if it still pales in comparison to the scale of the crisis. On September 13, after briefings from Guterres and his under-secretary-general for political affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, the Security Council agreed in a closed meeting to release a press statement condemning the violence. Although many observers had hoped for a stronger statement, it was the first time in nine years that the Council had come together to issue one on Myanmar.

The crisis also commanded leaders’ attention during the opening week of the General Assembly, including during two high-level events and in a number of member statements seeking to shine a light on this crisis. Seven members of the Security Council have requested a public briefing from Guterres on the crisis, and several council members have also suggested openness to further action if the situation continues to deteriorate. Here, China’s attitude is likely to determine the extent and pace of such progress.

None of this activity immediately ameliorates the dire conditions of the Rohingya living in temporary camps in Bangladesh, or those displaced within Myanmar who are not receiving any international support. And observers are right to criticize the UN’s outdated toolbox for responding to such crises. But amidst the tragedy, it is at least encouraging that the secretary-general has dusted off a long-underused instrument for focusing international attention on the plight of the Rohingya.

Megan M. Roberts is Associate Director, International Institutions and Global Governance, at the Council on Foreign Relations.