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Crimes Against Humanity and the Responsibility to Protect
Crimes Against Humanity and the Responsibility to Protect
What Changed for the World’s Conflicts at the UN General Assembly?
What Changed for the World’s Conflicts at the UN General Assembly?
Speech / Global

Crimes Against Humanity and the Responsibility to Protect

Address by Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, to Crimes Against Humanity Initiative, Hague Intersessional Experts Meeting Dinner, The Hague, 11 June 2009.

Mobilising an effective international response to the scourge of crimes against humanity is, for those of us in the world of policy and ideas who spend a lot of our time trying to do just that, nearly always a matter of more than just abstract, intellectual commitment.  I have found that for the great majority of us that commitment has welled up from some personal experience that has touched us, individually, very deeply.  For many that will be bound to be scarifying family memories of the Holocaust; for others the experience of personal loss or closely knowing survivors from Rwanda or Srebrenica or any of the other mass atrocity scenes of more recent decades; for others still, perhaps, the awful sense that they could have done more, in their past official lives, to generate the kind of international response that these situations required.

For me it was my visit to Cambodia in the late 1960s. I was a young Australian making my first trip to Europe, to take up a scholarship in Oxford.  Inexhaustibly hungry for experience, like so many of my compatriots before and since, I spent six months wending my way by plane and overland through a dozen countries in Asia, and a few more in Africa and the Middle East as well. And in every one of them, I spent many hours and days on student campuses and in student hangouts, and in hard-class cross-country trains and ramshackle rural buses, getting to know in the process—usually fleetingly but quite often enduringly, in friendships that have lasted to this day—scores of some of the liveliest and brightest people of their generation.

In the years that followed, I have often come across Indonesians, Singaporeans, Malaysians, Thais, Vietnamese, Indians, Pakistanis, and others whom I either met on the road on that trip, or who were there at the time and had a store of common experiences to exchange. But among all the countries in Asia I visited then, there is just one, Cambodia, from which I never again, in later years, saw any of those students whom I had met and befriended, or anyone exactly like them—not one of those kids with whom I drank beer, ate noodles, and careered up and down the dusty road from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap in child-, chicken-, and pig-scattering share taxis.

The reason, I am sadly certain, is that every last one of them died a few years later under  Pol Pot’s murderous genocidal regime—either targeted for execution in the killing fields as a middle-class intellectual enemy of the state or dying, as more than a million did, from starvation and disease after forced displacement to labor in the countryside. The knowledge, and the memory, of what must have happened to those young men and women is something that haunts me to this day

That memory certainly was a core motivation during the long and grueling years in the late 1980s and early 1990s that I worked as Australian Foreign Minister, along with my Southeast Asian, Chinese, American, and UN colleagues, to find and implement a sustainable basis for peace in Cambodia. It was a recurring motif as I watched, impotently and from a distance, the tragic events in Central Africa and the Balkans work themselves out through the mid- to late 1990s.

It was what made me accept with alacrity the offer of the Canadian government in 2000 to jointly lead a distinguished international commission charged with the task of trying to find, once and for all, a conceptual and practical answer that would unite, rather than continuing to divide, the international community in preventing and responding to mass atrocity crimes, a task that we I think we in large measure accomplished by introducing and elaborating the concept of ‘the responsibility to protect’, the core elements of which are too well known to this audience for me to need to spell them out in detail: that the primary responsibility for protecting its people from atrocity crimes is that of the sovereign state itself; other states have a responsibility to assist it to do so; but if, as a result of either incapacity or ill-will, a state is manifestly failing to give that protection, the responsibility to take appropriate action – which might in an extreme case involve the use of coercive military force – shifts to the wider international community

It has what kept me engaged ever since - through membership of  UN panels, writing a book and constant advocacy around the world --  in the even bigger task of winning and consolidating genuine international acceptance and recognition of  this concept as a new global norm and, even more importantly, achieving its effective application in practice as new conscience-shocking situations continue to arise.

And it is what makes me intensely committed to the great enterprise on which this panel of experts is now engaged, on the initiative of the  Harris Institute at the Washington University School of Law under the admiral leadership of Professor Leila Sadat, to draft and secure the ultimate adoption of a new Convention on Crimes Against Humanity, to fill a gap which has all too obviously become apparent in the array of legal instruments available to deal with atrocity crimes, notwithstanding the emergence of the International Criminal Court --  not least the need for national courts around the world to have clear-cut jurisdiction to deal with these cases, and for there to be in place mechanisms to enable effective international cooperation in the investigation and punishment of perpetrators.

I congratulate Leila Sadat, Cherif Bassiouni, Richard Goldstone and the other distinguished members of the Steering Committee for this project, and all those other experts who have contributed so constructively and creatively to the enterprise so far, and have every confidence that it will bear real fruit.

The beginning of wisdom for me on this subject was the realisation, very early on, that for all its compelling general moral authority the Genocide Convention had absolutely no legal application to the killing fields of Cambodia, which nearly everyone still thinks of as the worst genocide of modern times. Because those doing the killing and beating and expelling were of exactly the same nationality, ethnicity, race and religion as those they were victimising – and their motives were political, ideological and class-based rather than having anything to with the characteristics described in the Genocide Convention -  the necessary elements of specific intent required for its application were simply not there.

And for all the well-intentioned attempts that have been made many times since – most obviously in Darfur – to try to argue that the “g” word, properly understood, does have application to a much wider range of crimes against humanity,  and remains the best linguistic vehicle for  energising mass support and high-level governmental support for effective action in response to newly emerging atrocity situations,  the had truth is that this approach is a lost cause. Lawyers remain lawyers, and there will always be good and compelling legal arguments why the Genocide Convention just doesn’t reach many of the cases we morally want it to – resulting in propaganda victories again and again for those who least deserve to have them as claims or charges are reduced by commissions or courts from genocide to ‘only’ crimes against humanity.

Rhetorically and politically it has always made more sense, following David Scheffer, to make “atrocity crimes” or “mass atrocity crimes” the dominant working concept, rather than becoming caught in the technical cul de sacs of defining the difference between genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, and trying to explain where ethnic cleansing – not a clearly defined crime at all  -- fits into the other three.

So now is it time, when the debate does have to turn to legal remedies, to make ‘crimes against humanity’ the dominant, resonating legal concept, the centrepiece of the argument in the media, and among policymakers, and not just a kind of afterthought category -- what one is reduced to when genocide for one technical reason or another is ruled out, or when one has to sweep up some smaller bits and pieces.

‘Crimes against humanity’ is  broad enough conceptually to embrace certainly genocide and ethnic cleansing (if not war crimes, which we will continue to have to refer to separately, but that does not seem a problem). It’s a concept with an intellectual and international law pedigree going back a century. And linguistically, the phrase ‘crimes against humanity’ is surely rich and powerful enough for it to carry the moral and emotional weight we want it to.  Quite apart from all the good technical reasons for having a new Crimes Against Humanity Convention, the  campaign to adopt it should put the concept of crimes against humanity right back on the central pedestal where it belongs.

I see this effort marching in lockstep with the continuing effort to entrench and operationalise the new norm of the responsibility to protect. They are wholly complementary exercises, in essence the legal and political faces of the same coin.  Persuading the UN General Assembly to endorse the responsibility to protect principle, as was achieved at the 2005 World Summit, was all about winning acceptance for the core idea that crimes against humanity and other mass atrocity crimes were everybody’s business, not – as they had been for centuries, and even for the first six decades of the UN’s existence, nobody’s business.

Promoting the language of ‘the responsibility to protect’, rather  than ‘the right to intervene’ which had so hopelessly divided the global north and south throughout the 1990s, was all about creating the conditions where – when another Cambodia, or Rwanda or Bosnia or Kosovo came along, as it surely would – the reflex international response would be not to retreat behind Article 2(7) of the Charter and the pretence that this was somehow a matter ‘essentially within the domestic jurisdiction’ of the state in question, but a consensus response that something had to be done, with the only argument being what and how.

For all the bumps and grinds and reverses along the way, and there have been many, I remain personally confident that the consolidation of the responsibility to protect norm, as the overall framing principle for international debate on this subject, and the basic guide to appropriate  action, is on course.

There remain some conceptual challenges – ensuring that the scope and limits of the doctrine are universally understood, that it is seen to be not about conflict generally or human rights generally or, even more grandly and broadly, human security generally, but about a narrow subset of extreme cases, involving the commission – or likely commission -- of mass atrocity crimes, with crimes against humanity at the core. Looked at this way there are probably no more than ten or fifteen cases at any given time where it is appropriate for the political and policy debate to be conducted in responsibility to protect terms – because large scale atrocity crimes are being committed, seem imminently about  to be committed, or are on a path to being committed in the reasonably near term if appropriate remedial action is not taken, by the state itself or others assisting it. By contrast, there are likely to be 70 or 100 or more country or regional situations where at any given time it is appropriate to talk about conflict prevention or resolution strategies,  responses to human rights abuses of various kinds, or reactions to other kinds of human security concerns.

There also remain conceptual challenges in explaining, in an environment where there is still considerable dissimulation going on as well as genuine uncertainty, which particular cases are properly characterised as responsibility to protect situations and which are not: why it is, for example, to take those cases most debated in recent times, that the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Russia’s invasion of Georgia  in 2008 were not justified in R2P terms; that the Burma-Myanmar cyclone in 2008 was not an R2P case, but could have been if the generals’ behaviour had been characterisable as so recklessly indifferent to human life as to amount to a crime against humanity, which in the event it was not; that Somalia and the Congo for many years, Darfur since 2003 and Sri Lanka in this year’s military endgame have been properly characterised as R2P cases, but where the international community’s response has been, for one reason or another, unhappily inadequate; and that Kenya in early 2008 is the clearest case we have had of an exploding situation being widely, and properly, characterised as an R2P one, and where the international community’s response – in this case diplomatic mediation – did prove to be adequate to bring it under control.

In addition to the conceptual challenges, there certainly remain institutional ones, in ensuring  for a start that well-intentioned states facing atrocity crime problems get in practice all the assistance they need – and which the 2005 UN resolution clearly encourages other states to give them – in terms of capacity building, effective policy formulation and delivery and,  if things get rough and they call for it, the necessary security support. It means also putting in place worldwide the early warning and response capability, the diplomatic and civilian response capability, the legal response mechanisms and – for extreme cases – the coercive military capability to ensure that the international community, if it has the will, can deliver the appropriate response to whatever new atrocity crime situation that comes along demanding its engagement, again as clearly authorised by the 2005 UN resolution.

One issue that arises in this context is whether, when it comes to putting in place appropriate legal response mechanisms, it is necessary or desirable for the responsibility to protect norm itself to be given some more formal legal status, for example – as David Scheffer has suggested, by incorporating appropriate provisions in the proposed Crimes Against Humanity Convention. In its present draft form this is focused on individual criminal responsibility, and limits state responsibility essentially to introducing the necessary legislative and other measures to make that real. Scheffer suggests that the Convention also contain state responsibility provisions expressly prohibiting the commission of crimes against humanity by any state-party entity itself, and requiring state-parties to act, as a matter of legal obligation, in accordance with the 2005 UN resolution.

My own instinct, for what it is worth, although I would certainly be happy to see this debated further, is that while such an exercise would certainly give new weight and prominence to the responsibility to protect norm, and that anything that reinforced the obligations of states to act constructively and not destructively in relation atrocity crimes would be hugely welcome, the risks probably outweigh the benefits. It would be nightmarishly difficult to get states to sign up to direct legal liability of the kind proposed, be a major distraction that would work against them signing up to anything else, and would in any event not make a great deal of practical difference since any enforcement action against a state itself would have to be a matter for the Security Council, and if the 2005 UN Resolution is to be taken seriously it already has that role

In addition to the conceptual and institutional challenges I have described, proponents of the responsibility to protect will always face a political challenge – to activate the real world response that is actually required to avert or halt an atrocity crime catastrophe. That means having in place mechanisms and strategies to ensure both peer group pressure, by government friends of R2P, to energise the highest levels of governmental and intergovernmental decision-making, and bottom up grass roots action to kick the decision makers into action if they are showing signs of hesitation.

Mobilising political will in any policy context whatever, national or international, requires the coming together of good information, good organization and good arguments. As to the last, it is helpful that ‘national interest’ is now a much broader concept than it used to be. It’s not quite as easy now as it was for Chamberlain in the 1930s to talk of faraway countries with people of whom we know nothing: we do know now that states that cannot or will not stop internal atrocity crimes are the kind of states that cannot or will not stop terrorism, weapons proliferation, drug and people trafficking, the spread of health pandemics and other global risks that every country in the world has a stake in ending.

There is still a long way to go before we can be confident that the automatic consensual reflex of which I spoke earlier will cut in at the time it should and in the way it should in every new case that arises, and longer still before we can credibly claim that the responsibility to protect principle in all its dimensions has evolved into a rule of customary international law. But the evidence, particularly over the last year, is of advance rather than reverse particularly with the large measure of consensus which seems to have emerged around the UN Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of the responsibility to protect, prepared after long consultations by his special adviser Edward Luck, and although still not debated by the UN General Assembly, expected to be formally received with little or no dissent.

The importance of the report is that it does not retreat in any way on the basic principles as they were adopted in 2005, and focuses very constructively on what states need to do for themselves, what others need to do to assist them, and the kinds of prevention, reaction and rebuilding measures that may need to be employed if a state is unreceptive to self-help or assistance and atrocity crime alarm bells are ringing. And what is intriguing is that some of the states who were last to join the consensus in 2005, and have been most resistant since in expressing support for the concept, have now very definitely changed course, with India’s Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, for example, saying publicly in April this year that the Government of Sri Lanka had a clear ‘responsibility to protect’ its civilians at extreme risk in the final operations of the military against the Tamil Tigers.

Maybe my confidence is a little premature, but one of the things that has most sustained me over forty years of public life, more than twenty of them working in international affairs, is a fairly unquenchable sense of optimism: a belief that even the most horrible and intractable problems are soluble; that rational solutions for which there are good, principled arguments do eventually prevail; and that good people, good governments, and good governance will eventually prevail over bad.

When it comes to international relations, and in particular the great issues of war and peace, violence, and catastrophic human rights violations with which we are concerned here, there is a well-established view that anyone who approaches things in this kind of generally optimistic frame of mind must be incorrigibly naïve, if not outright demented.  Certainly in the case of genocide and atrocity crimes—either directly committed by a government against its own people, or allowed to happen by a government unable or unwilling to stop it—it is hard for even the incorrigibly naïve to remain optimistic.

In this world we inhabit—full of cynicism, double standards, crude assertions of national interest, high-level realpolitik, and low-level maneuvering for political advantage—it is very easy to believe that ideas do not matter very much. But I believe as passionately now as I ever have in my long career—starting and finishing in the world of nongovernmental organizations, but with much time between in politics and government—that ideas matter enormously, for good and for ill. For all the difficulties of acceptance and application that lie ahead, there are —I have come optimistically, but firmly, to believe—not many ideas that have the potential to matter more for good, not only in theory but in practice, than that of the responsibility to protect.

And in the cause of advancing that responsibility there can be few more constructive contributions to be made than strengthening the direct normative constraints against committing crimes against humanity – sharpening the applicable law, trying to universalise its application, and ensure its effective enforcement through worldwide cooperation. In all of this nothing less than our common humanity is at stake, and this group can be collectively very proud of what it is doing to advance it.

Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 27, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid
Q&A / Global

What Changed for the World’s Conflicts at the UN General Assembly?

The annual United Nations General Assembly high-level session in the last week of September offered leaders and diplomats the chance to address today’s gravest crises. UN Director Richard Gowan and Senior Analyst Ashish Pradhan reflect on what happened and its potential impact on crisis diplomacy.

What were the most important trends observable at the General Assembly?

The main priority for many participants appeared to be de-escalating crises in the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of the 14 September attacks on Saudi oil installations. There was a huge amount of speculation at the start of the week over whether U.S. President Donald Trump would meet his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani. While that proved impossible – Iran refused a meeting without guarantees on sanctions relief, and the U.S. was unwilling to offer them prior to the meeting – some lower-profile discussions took place on how to solve active conflicts in the region.

Both the Huthis and the Saudis have signalled that they want to de-escalate a conflict that could trigger a broader regional confrontation.

There was notable diplomatic activity around Yemen and Libya. The UK, Kuwait and Sweden convened a new “small group” on Yemen, which also included the permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, in an effort to coordinate diplomatic support to UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths’ peacemaking efforts. The participants envisage expanding the group to include some of the powers directly involved in the Yemeni civil war, potentially including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in future meetings of this group. Both the Huthis and the Saudis have signalled that they want to de-escalate a conflict that could trigger a broader regional confrontation. This could lead to mutual de-escalation steps that could support the start of a meaningful UN process.

France and Italy pulled together a similar discussion on restarting the UN-led peace process in Libya. That process fell apart after General Khalifa Haftar (who controls the east of the country) tried to seize the capital Tripoli earlier this year, sparking a war between his forces and those nominally loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). The Security Council has been divided over how to act on Libya since then, so this was a chance to reboot the UN approach. Significantly, the Franco-Italian meeting involved not only Egypt and the UAE, which support Haftar, but also Turkey, which backs the GNA.

These meetings at the UN are not decisive in themselves, but send signals about powers’ willingness to cooperate on fixing a crisis. In principle, the fact that France and Italy co-convened talks on Libya was positive, as Paris has ties to Haftar while Rome favours the GNA. It probably wasn’t a coincidence that Haftar announced his willingness to engage in UN-led talks last Thursday, the same day as the meeting. But the stagecraft wasn’t perfect. GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj used his speech to the General Assembly to brand the General a “war criminal”.

There was also a glimmer of hope on Syria, as Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the formation of a Constitutional Committee.

There was also a glimmer of hope on Syria, as Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the formation of a Constitutional Committee – involving both supporters and opponents of President Bashar al-Assad – to meet in Geneva under UN auspices this autumn. The UN has been working on this idea as a means to frame a post-war settlement for almost two years, although many of Assad’s enemies fear it will be a sham. It does nothing to address the most pressing threat in Syria, a potentially brutal battle for the rebel-held enclave of Idlib in Syria’s north west. Nor are representatives of the Kurdish Syrian Defence Forces – which hold a quarter of the country – set to participate.

Still, after a long period in which the UN has been adrift over Syria, this is at least a small win for Guterres. And overall the diplomatic activity on the Middle East and North Africa – even including President Trump’s apparent openness to talking with Rouhani – suggested that both the P5 and regional powers see a common interest in lowering the temperature in the region.

Did leaders also focus on crises in Africa?

The deteriorating security situation in the Sahel [...] generated a high level of concern.

The deteriorating security situation in the Sahel, where jihadi groups are gaining territory and inter-communal bloodshed is increasing, generated a high level of concern. French President Emmanuel Macron made a pitch for strengthening both the UN peace operation in Mali and regional counter-terrorism efforts in his General Assembly speech, and Secretary-General Guterres said the world was “losing ground” in the face of violence in the region. While the General Assembly offers a good platform for leaders to raise the alarm on a regional crisis like this, Macron’s focus on a military-led response overlooks that the various military missions already operating in the Sahel have been unable to check escalating violence. As Crisis Group has argued for several years, a more coherent political strategy, potentially including dialogue with a wider array of armed groups, need to complement security operations.

There was also an unusual high-level meeting of the Peacebuilding Commission (normally a bit of an afterthought in General Assembly week) on the situation in Burkina Faso, where jihadi groups have been gaining ground this year. Discussions about humanitarian assistance and community-level conflict resolution were constructive, although some participants felt that the ideas under discussion still do not match the gravity of the brewing crisis and the level of violence on the ground.

Leaders welcomed two new African leaders – Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok of Sudan and President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

More positively, leaders welcomed two new African leaders – Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok of Sudan and President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Hamdok, who leads the transitional administration in Khartoum that is meant to pave the way to civilian rule after the fall of Omar al-Bashir earlier this year, handled the opportunity deftly. He won plaudits for signing a pledge of media freedom and agreeing to let the High Commissioner for Human Rights set up a network of offices in Sudan, including in the conflict-affected areas of Darfur, Blue Nile, South Kordofan and East Sudan. Sudan faces an enormous economic crisis, and Hamdok used his trip to New York to call for more economic aid and the end to U.S. sanctions. While his government still relies on the goodwill of the Sudanese military and security services, the Prime Minister made a convincing case for backing the transition.

Tshisekedi has also been trying to win international friends since he took office in Kinshasa at the start of this year after contested elections. His priority has been improving relations with Rwanda and Uganda in particular, with the goal of cooperating against the numerous armed groups that destabilise the eastern DRC. He continued this campaign in New York, participating in a meeting on the Great Lakes to discuss proposals – apparently originally tabled by Rwanda – to create a new regional security mechanism. This would reportedly permit Ugandan and Rwandan troops to conduct anti-militia operations on Congolese soil with the DRC’s permission, possibly supported by Angolan and Tanzanian troops.

If diplomats came away from the General Assembly cautiously positive about the DRC, they are worried about the potential for more violence in Burundi.

Regional security cooperation is certainly needed to tackle eastern DRC’s myriad problems, but President Tshisekedi will have to proceed cautiously. Uganda and Rwanda have intervened in the past in DRC and local memories of abuses their forces committed are a major factor in local and regional tensions. Tshisekedi ought to ensure that any help from his neighbours fits into a political and security plan that makes sense for the DRC. But at least he is talking constructively with his neighbours, and also seems keen to have positive relations with the UN, in contrast to Kabila whose relations with the world body at the end of his tenure were acrimonious.

If diplomats came away from the General Assembly cautiously positive about the DRC, they are worried about the potential for more violence in Burundi – with possible spillover effects in the DRC in particular – around elections next year. The UN still has an envoy to Burundi, but many Security Council members have lost confidence in UN officials’ ability to monitor (let alone affect) the political situation. No new ideas on what to do emerged at the General Assembly.

What other crises were priorities in New York?

There was an awful lot of political theatre around Venezuela, with delegations representing both President Nicolás Maduro and his rival Juan Guaidó attending the General Assembly. But while three high-level events covered the crisis – including one involving President Trump – there was more posturing than real diplomacy over how to find a political solution. The only notable development may have been in Trump’s main speech to the General Assembly, in which he implicitly ruled out any direct U.S. intervention (he noted that Washington would “await” the fall of Maduro, rather than force it). This will have disappointed some of Guaidó’s more hardline supporters, who have continued to hope for U.S. military support. As Crisis Group has argued throughout the crisis, the best way out of the Maduro-Guaidó stand-off remains a negotiated solution involving early, internationally monitored presidential elections as well as political guarantees for both the ruling chavistas and opposition. That did not come any closer last week.

Pakistan has been working hard to keep Kashmir high on the UN agenda.

Perhaps the General Assembly’s most disturbing feature was the obvious level of Indian-Pakistani animosity over Kashmir. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan not only condemned India’s decision to remove Kashmir’s status as a state and ensuing security operations there, but raised the possibility of an all-out war involving nuclear weapons. Pakistan has been working hard to keep Kashmir high on the UN agenda, sending Security Council diplomats daily briefings on human rights abuses, while India insists that it is solely an internal issue. In that vein, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not refer to it at all in his General Assembly speech, which came shortly before Khan’s. The crisis will, at best, continue to poison relations between Islamabad and New Delhi, although the UN seems unlikely to be able to do much about it. While China demanded a Security Council meeting on Kashmir in August, the first since 1971, the majority of members appeared disinclined to irritate the Indians.

Also on the Asian front, there were a number of meetings during the General Assembly on the plight of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh, but no real sign of a viable solution. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina underlined that her country cannot bear the burden of housing the refugees indefinitely. In one potentially interesting development, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi met with officials from Bangladesh and Myanmar to discuss setting up a new trilateral working group on repatriation. Beijing has refused to let the Security Council take any serious action over the Rohingya crisis, and may be looking for ways to settle a situation that complicates its Belt and Road Initiative on its terms rather than via the UN.

China’s domestic and international behaviour came up in a number of meetings. The U.S. and UK co-convened one on the situation of the Uighurs in western China. Western diplomats also used the meeting with President Tshisekedi noted above to raise concerns about China’s growing influence in central Africa. These criticisms are indicative of a hardening of Western attitudes toward China at the UN in the last year.

The U.S. and Europeans have adopted a policy of “mutual accommodation” with Beijing in the Security Council.

As Crisis Group has noted in the past, the U.S. and Europeans have adopted a policy of “mutual accommodation” with Beijing in the Security Council, agreeing to avoid major public battles similar to those with Russia over Syria. But there are signs of this accommodation cracking. Western diplomats raised the Uighur question in the Security Council this summer, while China came close to vetoing a resolution renewing the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in September as it did not reference the benefits of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative for Afghans (Beijing eventually backed down and allowed the resolution through in return for a reference to “regional cooperation and connectivity”). These small spats are not yet significantly impeding the work of the UN. But they may be early signs that deepening Sino-American competition will eventually become a more serious obstacle to multilateral crisis diplomacy.


UN Director
Senior Analyst, UN Advocacy and Research