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 most compelling evidence against arms embargos as a tool for conflict management was the Yugoslav war between 1992 and 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.
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.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘An arms embargo on Myanmar would not save the Rohingya’.