The United Nations Needs to Stop Appointing Myanmar Envoys

There is a horrible sense of déjà-vu in Myanmar’s ruling junta suspending humanitarian access to Rakhine State following a devastating cyclone in May. On almost the exact date 15 years ago, the military blocked aid to Myanmar’s southernmost region following Cyclone Nargis, which left at least 138,000 people dead. The United Nations, along with the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and local and international NGOs, were able to eventually work with members of the junta for access then. No such relationship exists now. Engaging with Myanmar’s ruling State Administration Council (SAC) is a wasted effort. Any diplomatic undertaking should instead focus on diaspora groups, regional governments, and NGOs that are focused on supporting the people of Myanmar and preparing for a future without the SAC.

Myanmar has been subject to a seemingly endless stream of UN envoys that have resulted in little progress. The first high-level UN engagement on Myanmar was a one-time visit by Sadako Ogata, a Japanese scholar and diplomat, who, following the 1990 elections, was sent as an independent expert of the UN Commission on Human Rights, the predecessor of the current Human Rights Council, to make direct contact with the Myanmar government about their refusal to recognize the Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy’s electoral win. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali sent Rafeeuddin Ahmed to the country in 1994 to deliver a letter to the junta from the secretary-general.

The first UN special rapporteur, a position tasked to conduct fact-finding missions, Yozo Yokota, was appointed in 1992 and resigned in 1996, stating that he did not have the resources to fulfill his mandate. In 1996, Yokota was succeeded by Rajsoomer Lallah of Mauritius, but the Myanmar authorities denied him entry during his four-year tenure. The next special envoy, Alvaro De Soto, resigned from his four-year post in 1999 after being unable to facilitate a dialogue between the regime and other political organizations. Razali Ismail, a special envoy for the secretary-general, resigned in 2006 after being refused entry for two years. He was succeeded by Ibrahim Gambari, who had been allowed in the country and met with senior junta leaders, Aung San Suu Kyi, and a wide range of stakeholders, but ended his tenure by being humiliated by the junta, rebuffed by Aung San Suu Kyi, and stymied by UN member states. The next special rapporteur, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, curtailed his trip to Myanmar after finding a listening device under the table while interviewing a political prisoner. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s selected Vijay Nambiar in 2012 as special envoy who enjoyed relative success as his tenure was during the country’s brief semi-democratic opening. Christine Schraner Burgener was appointed by Secretary-General António Guterres in April 2018 and was succeeded by Noeleen Heyzer, who generated controversy by suggesting a power-sharing agreement with prodemocracy forces and the military. Heyzer ended her role on June 12, 2023.

These efforts have not worked and it is time for a new playbook. The United Nations needs to stop appointing envoys and rapporteurs to engage with the military and instead focus efforts on working with the political organizations and local communities. Myanmar is a complex country with dozens of ethnic identities, history of civil war among the military, anti-government groups, and armed ethnic groups, and a fractious political and prodemocracy system. The United Nations should play a convening role to build on national reconciliation, federalism, and what democracy means to the country with these groups. If the SAC were to fall tomorrow, Myanmar would still be rife with these issues and there is no time to waste in building an ecosystem to address the endemic factionalism and historical trauma.

The United Nations should work in a consistent fashion with the international community and create a commission similar to efforts focused on rebuilding Ukraine after the war ends. ASEAN, whose own appointed envoy has failed to make progress with the SAC—a convoy to provide relief to displaced persons was attacked by the military in early May—is a key stakeholder in Myanmar’s political outcome and stability. The United Nations should also engage Japan, the United States, the European Union, United Kingdom, and Norway have been involved in Myanmar’s human rights issues for decades and are home to diaspora populations in the thousands. All bring resources to bear, whether in aid and assistance, sanctions and other punitive actions, or convening power.

The United Nations should also not be afraid to lose access and speak clearly about the issues. Some envoys have been careful not to upset the SAC (and its predecessors) for fear of losing a communication channel. The SAC is not interested in talking so there is nothing to lose. Yanghee Lee was a model of this boldness in her role as special rapporteur on human rights. She repeatedly called out Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy (NLD), the military, and radical monks on their treatment of the Rohingya ethnic minority group, earning her the ire of those opposed to her truth-telling and offering hope to the affected communities.

The United Nations may want to consider a form of Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, a global political commitment by United Nations member states to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. Out of desperation in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner sought to invoke the United Nations’s R2P, claiming the then-junta was causing deliberate mass suffering and death, therefore qualifying as crimes against humanity. R2P came to life following the tragedies in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s in the hopes of adequately addressing future atrocities. It was formally adopted in 2005 and stated that should any state fail to meet the responsibility of protecting its people, the international community should act collectively. Ongoing legal debates on R2P’s parameters and fears of precedent-setting prevent the invocation of R2P. Though it did not use R2P in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, the UN Security Council did end up invoking R2P for the first time in Libya, Côte d'Ivoire, South Sudan, and Yemen in 2011. Since 2005, R2P has been invoked in more than 80 UN Security Council resolutions concerning crises in Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Libya, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

The United Nations has repeatedly failed Myanmar and should strongly consider its mission and role in protecting basic human rights and standards before it sends yet another envoy to parlay with the SAC.

Erin Murphy is deputy director and senior fellow with the Economics Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and the author of Burmese Haze: US Policy and Myanmar's Opening—and Closing (Association for Asian Studies).