Past couple of weeks have seen a flurry of statements and op-eds demanding that the international community do something to stop the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Among the demands made of the international community was the implementation of an arms embargo by the UN Security Council.
In a report published on 17 September, Human Rights Watch requested that “The Security Council should urgently place a travel ban and asset freeze on those responsible for grave abuses and impose a comprehensive arms embargo against Burma, including prohibiting military cooperation and financial transactions with key military-owned enterprises.”
The most useful aspect of arms embargos is that they can give the perception of something being done about gross violations of international norms. But that is pretty much where their usefulness stops. The objective of arms embargos and sanctions is to set in motion a change in policy in the target state, only achieved if the threatened sanctions outweigh the benefits which the target state expects to gain from its current policy. More importantly, sanctions are only effective when the parties applying the sanctions, and their allies, work in cooperation. Otherwise, too many avenues will be left open to subvert the sanctions. A tricky scenario in this era of international discord.
The example of Yugoslavia
The most compelling evidence against arms embargos as a tool for conflict management was the Yugoslav war between 1992-1995. With the end of the Cold War, Yugoslavia was no longer of strategic importance, so there was no urgency among Western nations or Russia to immediately deal with the crisis. Their eventual response was driven by domestic pressure to “do something”, as we see with various statements on Rakhine today. And in the post-Cold War era, when international cooperation was at a high point, great emphasis was placed on the utility of sanctions as a diplomatic tool. But the fallout from the misperception that the international community was allied on enforcing the arms embargo would have drastic ramifications over the next four years. This largely had to do with the individual motivations and actions of the main international actors:
The UK was scaling down its military and had no appetite for military intervention in the country. An arms embargo was by far the cheaper option for the British, while still being able to claim that they were “doing something”.
In Germany, the recently reunited government was using the break-up of Yugoslavia for its own strategic goals to buy allies in the UN, paying lip service to the embargo in public while arming the Croats and Bosniaks in their fight against the Serbs in Bosnia.
China has significant economic investments under way in Myanmar, as part of its 'One belt, one road' policy, and has nothing to lose and everything to gain from siding with the Myanmar government.
The Russians were, at that time, extremely fearful of their own country disintegrating along ethnic lines as Yugoslavia had, and, to the contemporary scholar’s astonishment, supported initiatives to sustain Yugoslav unity, including sanctions and the arms embargo.
The Americans felt that the arms embargo favoured the Bosnian Serbs, cementing their military superiority against the breakaway groups throughout the country, but were compelled by domestic pressure to do something more than continue with empty rhetoric threatening military action. Publicly supporting the arms embargo, and perhaps, more importantly, its European allies, the Americans privately funnelled arms through the Croats and hoped that the balance of military power in Bosnia would even itself out to such a point as to bring the parties to the negotiating table, to avoid a costly military intervention.
The way that the arms embargo and sanctions in Yugoslavia were flouted was nothing short of disastrous, affecting the factions on the ground, creating discord within the international community, changing the dynamics and perpetuating the conflict for years. However, the most important aspect of the arms embargo and sanctions regime in Yugoslavia was that the alternative would have had to have been military intervention – and the members of the Security Council were united just enough in the early 1990s that that could well have been an option. We’ll never know, because it never came to that.
The China factor
In Myanmar, a more important factor is China, which was a non-factor in Yugoslavia. China has significant economic investments under way in Myanmar, as part of its “One belt, one road” policy, and has nothing to lose and everything to gain from siding with the Myanmar government. Domestically, the Chinese government would face no backlash for siding with the Myanmar government on the crisis in Rakhine, as narratives of insurgents and terrorism are easily controlled, and can draw strong parallels to China’s own “problems” with its Uighur community. Without the Chinese to enforce sanctions and an arms embargo, there would simply be no point, and would lead only to more discord internationally that would result in less cooperation to find other solutions to the crisis. A military intervention would certainly be out of the question.
Based on the above, why do we still see calls for sanctions and arms embargos? First, by showing the world and its constituents that it is “doing something” a government can waylay threats of military intervention. Second, it alleviates media pressure on the government, although this only works for a country that does not consider the crisis to be an issue for national security. This is relevant for neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, but not for the permanent members of the Security Council, which would vote on and enforce such an embargo.
Calls for arms embargos and sanctions on the government and military of Myanmar are both unreasonable and idealistic when we take a moment to assess the potential of their effectiveness. There is little hope of policy change in Myanmar if only some arms suppliers threaten to cut off trade and arm.
We are in new territory, where traditional conflict management tools are proving to be ineffective and useless. We need radical new approaches to managing conflict in a multipolar world as conflict management has not kept pace with the changing nature of international relations. Thus, despite claims of “never again” after Bosnia, after Rwanda, we have nothing in our toolbox to bring opposing sides to the negotiating table to guarantee that.
Denika Blacklock is a development and conflict analyst based in Bangkok. For the past 13 years, she has worked in numerous conflict and post-conflict contexts, including Georgia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Indonesia and Solomon Islands with UNDP and various NGOs. Originally from Canada, she has an MA international conflict analysis from the University of Kent.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.