Realpolitik vs. Human Rights’ Protection: The Rohingya Crisis and The Failure of the Responsibility to Protect

Diletta Alparone, University of Leiden, the Netherlands

Diletta graduated with a 1st class degree from the University of Exeter (UK), and is now doing an MSc in International Relations Diplomacy at the University of Leiden. She is also interning at the OPCW department of the Mexican Embassy in the Netherlands.


After the massacres of Rwanda and Srebrenica, the international community claimed a solemn “Never Again” – never again it will permit such overt human suffering without doing anything to stop it. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was adopted in 2005, as a response to Kofi Annan’s call for justice and humanity. Nevertheless, while R2P presented successful cases like Kenya (2008) and Cote D’Ivoire (2011), the Rohingya case in Myanmar exemplifies the deep inconsistencies of its application. The Rohingya people have been suffering from state-sponsored destruction and a slow-burning genocide, evidencing a form of laissez-passer from the international community. This paper looks at the factors which have led to the international community’s failure to apply the Responsibility to Protect in Myanmar, claiming that the over-dependence on the UNSC consensus, as well as the presence of broader political and economic considerations, have weakened the demand for R2P in Myanmar.


“We cannot let the evil of ethnic cleansing stand. [. . . ] If we let an evil dictator range unchallenged, we will have to spill infinitely more blood and treasure to stop him later. . . ” (Blair, 1999).

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was born as a reaction to the systematic violation of human rights in Rwanda and Srebrenica and embodied the international community’s commitment to “never again” stand in front of gross human suffering without doing anything to halt it. The R2P was unanimously accepted by 150 heads of states at the 2005 United Nations (UN) World Summit, but despite its adoption, the R2P has been applied inconsistently (Paris, 2014, p. 570). R2P presents successes such as Kenya in 2008 and Cote d’Ivoire in 2011, but also failures such as Sri Lanka in 2009, Syria since 2011 (Evans, 2015, p. 7) and Myanmar, where the Rohingya population has been subject to state-sponsored destruction and slow-burning genocide, as reported by Zarni and Cowley (2014, p. 681).

This paper focuses on the application of R2P concerning the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. More specifically, it looks at the multidimensional reasons behind the laissez-passer of the international community in the face of overt human suffering. The paper thus examines the factors which led to the international community’s failure to apply the Responsibility to Protect in Myanmar. It argues that the international community failed to apply R2P for two main reasons; first, China’s veto and the United Nation’s over-dependence on Security Council consensus for action; and second, the presence of broader political and economic considerations which diluted the need for R2P-related action.

This paper is split into four sections. First, I introduce the theory and debate around the Responsibility to Protect. Second, I provide the historical background of the Rohingya crisis and examine how the Rohingya case is suitable for R2P application. Third, I analyse, in two separate sections, the reasons which obstructed R2P’s application. Finally, I discuss the main results, suggest how to get over this impasse and draw my conclusions.

The Responsibility to Protect

The R2P was created as a response to the failure of the international community to respond to the civil wars and humanitarian crises in the 1990s (Ibrahim and Nordin, 2015, p. 2). The UN was divided between states claiming that “nothing should authorise intervention in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state” (UN Charter art. 2, par. 7, 1945), and those who argued that it is possible to use force “to maintain or restore international peace and security” (U.N. Charter art. 42, 1945). Seeking to reconcile the principles of sovereignty and human rights, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) published its 2001 report which formed the basis of the Responsibility to Protect norm (ICISS, 2001, vii).

Following its endorsement at the 2005 World Summit, former UN-Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, defined the R2P as consisting of three pillars (UN General Assembly, 2009): pillar one being that states have “the primary responsibility to protect their population from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing”; pillar two that the international community should “assist states in fulfilling their protection obligations”; and pillar three that “when a state fails to protect its population or is, in fact, the perpetrator of these crimes, the international community has a responsibility to take collective action in a timely and decisive manner . . . ” (UN General Assembly, 2009). R2P has since been endorsed as a “core principle” by states during the yearly R2P debates at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) – even after the military intervention in Libya – signalling the establishment of R2P as an international norm (Evans, 2015, pp. 3-4). R2P supporters are accused of glorifying R2P as a legitimate and fundamental principle to solve a country’s structural problems (van Mulken, 2018, p. 11). They emphasise atrocity prevention rather than reaction, since R2P’s primary means are a case-by-case combination of diplomatic, economic and political efforts, as stated in Chapter VI and VIII of the UN Charter (ibid

However, the recognition of R2P as an international norm has not automatically translated into the norm’s absorption by states (Cunliffe, 2017, p. 478). As claimed by Hehir (2017, p. 338), while pillar one is rooted in existing international law, pillar two and three are not entrenched in any legal framework and have the sole scope to “guide” state behaviour by providing a normative framework. Thus, unless states go through an alteration of their ideational, material and institutional practices, R2P cannot become a constitutive norm (ibid, p. 343). Consequently, if R2P’s application in one country jeopardises another state’s national interests, the “R2P signatory state” will likely act according to realpolitik, prioritising its interests and compromising its interests only if it expects greater future benefits (Khan and Ahmed, 2019). This claim can also explain R2P’s reputation of inconsistency (Orford, 2013, p. 99). While R2P is based on the generous purpose of preventing and protecting against atrocity crimes, states’ interventions are more realistically connected with power and geo-strategic interests (Paris, 2014, pp. 572-573). As a result, it can be assumed that inaction can derive from a threat to a state’s core interests, which can create an impasse; from the lack of economic-political incentives to act, or conversely, by the gains that “non-action” can produce.

States’ “mixed feelings” towards R2P are observable in their overall acceptance of Pillar I and II and their “discomfort” with the implication of Pillar III, as evident in the position of “cautious supporters” such as China and Russia (Garwood-Gowers, 2016, p. 98). Interestingly, China does not outright obstruct R2P, but rather consistently shows its resistance towards non-consensual military operations (Teitt, 2011 p. 302). China maintains that national authorities have primary protection responsibilities and that military action is an extreme “last resort”, to be considered only after the exhaustion of diplomatic, economic and political means of solution (Garwood-Gowers, 2016, p. 104). China reinvigorates its normative position asserting the primacy of sovereignty, non-coercion and non-interference in a state’s internal affairs (Teitt, 2011, p. 301). No humanitarian military action can be pursued without the consent of the host state, demonstrating the moral argument that human rights protection should not be an excuse for violating state sovereignty (van Mulken, 2018, p. 7). China’s resistance towards non-consensual intervention into another sovereign state has been displayed in its use of veto power inside the Security Council. China’s veto is leading R2P supporters to question the Security Council’s legitimacy in arbitering over human rights crises (ibid, p. 11) and to argue that the UNGA should intervene in instances of deadlocks (Khan and Ahmed, 2019, p. 16).

The Rohingya Crisis

“What can we do, Brother, they (the Rohingya) are too many? We can’t kill them all” (Thet Oo Maung, 2012, in Zarni and Cowley, 2014).

From 1978, Myanmar has been pursuing and executing national and state-level plans to exterminate the Rohingya people in Rakhine State, Myanmar (Zarni and Cowley, 2014, p. 689). The Rohingya is a Muslim ethno-regionalist group, who live in a state composed of 90 per cent Buddhist citizens (Rosenthal, 2019, p. 7). Rakhine State is the ancestral home of the Rohingya, but Myanmar sees the Rohingya as “illegal immigrants” and “Bengalis”. Consequently, the Myanmar government decided to exclude the Rohingya from the list of the 135 state-recognised ethnic groups through the 1982 Citizenship Act (Zarni and Cowley, 2014, p. 689). The 1982 Citizenship Act made the Rohingya stateless. It deprived them of their rights to education, health services, freedom of movement, ownership, marriage and procreation (Ibrahim and Nordin, 2015, p. 4). The strong anti-Muslim sentiment cemented among the Buddhist majority caused episodes of intra-communal violence, but one of the most lethal attacks took place in 2012 (Rosenthal, 2019, p. 7). This incident attracted a heavy military response which led to the destruction of villages and the internal displacement of 140,000 Rohingya (ibid).

Notably, these acts of brutality occurred during “Myanmar’s democratic transition”. From 2011, Myanmar has been implementing reforms to democratise the country, modifying the constitution and establishing a quasi-civilian government, co-led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the military (Rosenthal, 2019, p. 7). Yet, Myanmar’s democratisation in no way halted the most extreme attack against the Rohingya. In August 2017, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army killed 12 members of the country’s border security, instigating a ferocious military response (Anwary, 2018, p. 96). The military security forces launched a “clearance operation”, during which 660,000 Rohingya were forced to flee, 7000 people died, and many were raped (Rosenthal, 2019, p. 9). The government pushed the remaining Rohingya to move to “security camps” and placed landmines on the borders between Bangladesh and Myanmar to stop the Rohingya from coming back (Anwary, 2018, p. 96). This episode has been described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” (Al Hussein, 2018).

The Rohingya Case and R2P

As outlined by the R2P, if national authorities are not able to protect its people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, then the international community should intervene to support these people (Arashpuor and Roustaei, 2016, p. 390). For the international community to act, it must ascertain that atrocity crimes have been committed and that the government is failing to protect its population (ibid, p. 390). As demonstrated through the definition of genocide, articulated in Art. 2 of the UN Genocide Convention (1948), the Burmese government has not just failed to protect its people, but it has taken an active part in the perpetration of violence. As explained by Arashpuoir and Roustei’s analysis (2016), the government’s crimes against humanity and intent to destroy the Rohingya is first evidenced by the 1982 Citizenship Act, which stripped them of their collective identity and cultural heritage. The authors claim that the Rohingya have been targeted and killed since 1978 (UN Genocide Convention art. II, part a) and that the group has received serious physical and mental harm due to forced labour and inadequate health rights (UN Genocide Convention art. II, part b) (Arashpuor and Roustaei, 2016, p. 391). The Rohingya have been isolated in apartheid-like “security camps” and denied instruction, deliberately inflicting a poor standard of life to achieve annihilation (UN Genocide Convention art. II, part c); and finally, they have been subject to laws which constrain their marriage and procreation rights (UN Genocide Convention art. II, part d) (Arashpuor and Roustaei, 2016, p. 391).

These acts of violence are clear warning signs which demonstrate the vulnerability of the Rohingya and the failure of its government to protect them. The international community once promised to “never again” stand in front of an act of gross human rights violation without doing anything to stop it. However, the neglect of the Rohingya genocide appears to be a contradiction which requires further examination.

Reasons behind the International Community’s failure to protect the Rohingya

The UN’s structural weakness

Despite the 2005 agreement that affirmed the UNSC’s commitment to take appropriate action when a state openly fails to protect its population, the Security Council has been largely silent on Burma (Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, 2010, p. 1). Following the “clearance operations”, diplomats representing the Security Council met with civilian representatives which provided them with satellite evidence and eyewitness reports which showed the violence committed against the Rohingya (Adams, 2019, p. 8). Similarly, Council members participated in several meetings to discuss the underlying sources of conflict in Rakhine State (Adams, 2019, p. 8). The Security Council was clearly conscious of the high degree of violence taking place in Myanmar – however, it took ten weeks for the Security Council to release a Presidential statement that only blatantly emphasised the government’s responsibility to protect its population (ibid, p. 8).

The Presidential statement was watered down by China’s refusal to negotiate any resolution (Joy, 2018, p. 2). China imposed the removal of any reference to the Rohingya’s statelessness and the UN fact-finding missions, reducing the statement’s effectiveness (ibid). China has been vetoing any resolution concerning the Rohingya crisis due to its support of the Burmese authorities and its extensive economic and geopolitical interests in the country (ibid). As expressed by China’s ideological position on humanitarian intervention, any operation supporting the peace process in Myanmar must have the approval and support of Myanmar’s government and people (United States Institute of Peace, 2018, p. 3). The Rohingya issue is considered a matter of internal affairs and any “infringement” would damage China’s foreign policy as well as bring attention to China’s own internal affairs (Joy, 2019, p. 4). Indeed, China likely equates Myanmar’s view of the Rohingya threat to its perception of the Uyghur threat in Xinjiang (United States Institute of Peace, 2018, p. 31). Thus, an R2P resolution in Myanmar would put China’s violation of human rights in the spotlight.

China’s support of R2P in Myanmar would also jeopardize its economic benefits in the region for two reasons. First, China has been assuming a mediating role in the Rohingya issue by ignoring social grievances and claiming that economic underdevelopment is the root cause of the conflict in Rakhine (Joy, 2019, p. 3). Consequently, China has been promoting large-scale infrastructure investments as a means of conflict resolution – as evidenced by the “Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone” project, which reflects China’s ambition to gain greater access to the Indian ocean and achieve global connectivity (ibid, p. 2). Second, an application of R2P and an achievement of positive peace would downplay China’s economic gains. Indeed, China is benefiting from “neither hot war nor complete peace”: a cessation of fighting would increase its border security and foster its economic investments, however, hostilities between the central government and the Rohingya population increase Beijing’s meddling powers as “friendly neighbour” (United States Institute of Peace, 2018, p. 7). Thus, genuine peace might reduce Beijing’s influence over Naypyidaw and dangerously attract American foreign investments in the region.

As evidenced above, China’s economic and political interests in Myanmar are one of the causes of the Security Council’s impasse. The “UNSC determines whether a specific case poses a threat to international peace [. . . ] or counts as an aggression” (U.N. Charter Art. 39). Thus, as the only legitimate body tasked with the maintenance of international peace and security (Adams, 2019, p. 9), a lack of authorisation from the UNSC constrains the work of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights (Khan and Ahmed, 2019, p. 7). China’s veto on resolutions and its insistence that the Rohingya issue is Myanmar’s domestic concern created deep inertia in the UN, blocking any enforcement measure (ibid, p. 6). UNSC action was limited to rhetoric, vague statements and refrainment from any tangible diplomatic solution, which demonstrated how the unwillingness of a permanent member can create a complete paralysis in front of gross human rights violations.

Mixed Motives and Policy Misjudgements

The deadlock of the UNSC, due to China’s veto, imposed a hard stop to any concrete resolution concerning the Rohingya humanitarian crisis. China’s position towards R2P is linked to “cautious” and pragmatic behaviour, while the US and European countries are usually described as normative supporters of R2P (van Mulken, 2018, p. 16). Still, it appears that even these actors had economic and political reasons for not encouraging robust R2P related action in Myanmar. Indeed, as part of its “China containment policy”, the United States has been focused on improving its relationship with the Asian countries neighbouring China, as demonstrated by the 1.42 billion USD arms deal with Taiwan (ibid, p. 16). Consequently, introducing new economic sanctions or pressuring to implement R2P would have arguably antagonised Myanmar’s government, going against its “China containment policy” scope (ibid, p. 16). Similarly, the EU had lifted its sanctions on Myanmar, strengthening their bilateral agreements and allocating 688 million to support reforms in education, peacebuilding, governance and rural development (EEAS, 2018, p. 4). The EU preferred a development-based strategy due to its special interests in Myanmar’s regional position, natural resources and investment potentials (ibid). The EU’s approach, therefore, resembled China’s “economic promotion” as a conflict management strategy at the expense of R2P application (ibid).

As a result of Myanmar’s economic potentials for Western states, no country took a strong position in favour of an application of R2P in Myanmar. Due to an overwhelming focus on R2P’s coercive elements, supporters failed to sufficiently emphasise that one of R2P’s core elements is prevention (Kingston, 2015, p. 1164). Despite the lack of a UNSC resolution, states could still engage in atrocity prevention strategies through diplomatic means – however, the absence of a leading actor in the Myanmar case had the effect of curtailing preventive diplomacy efforts. As a fact, France’s leading role during the Central African Republic crisis in 2012 positively pushed for EU preventive action (Smith, 2018, p. 16). Comparably, the prompt response of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), under the leadership of Senegal, achieved a coordinated mobilisation of regional actors, successfully tackling the humanitarian crisis in the Gambia in 2017 (Adams, 2019, p. 11).

The preventive aspects of R2P were further limited by a significant policy misjudgement. Indeed, the international community’s approach was blinded by the international reputation of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Myanmar’s de facto leader from 2016 (Carroll, 2019). Indeed, given Myanmar’s democratic transition after decades of authoritarian military rule, the EU and the US thought that by incentivising conflict prevention and democratic promotion, the human rights’ protection in Myanmar would automatically follow (Staunton and Ralph, 2019, p. 12). However, the use of conventional “conflict prevention tools” were unable to address Rohingya’s vulnerability, since they were not involved in any active conflict despite their ongoing suffering (Staunton and Ralph, 2019, p. 12). Similarly, the focus on “democracy promotion” rather than “atrocity prevention” led the international community to exclusively identify the Rohingya crisis as a “human right challenge” that Myanmar had to tackle as soon as possible to safeguard its democratic transition (ibid). Consequently, the emphasis was not placed on the Rohingya’s suffering, but on the possible jeopardization of Myanmar’s developing democracy (ibid). The implementation of the R2P in Myanmar was therefore subsumed by larger political and economic considerations, particularly the belief that the government was a “necessary partner to bring about a successful political transition in Myanmar” (Smith, 2018, p. 12). As a result, the UN and the EU turned a blind eye in the face of Myanmar’s failure to protect its citizens because they believed that the government would have adjusted its behaviour after further democratisation efforts, thus diluting the need for any R2P-related actions.

Discussion and Conclusion

The Responsibility to Protect was created to halt mass atrocities and prevent the occurrence of humanitarian crises as atrocious as the ones which took place in Kosovo, Somalia and Srebrenica. R2P has subsequently been accepted by the international community – nevertheless, “acceptance” has not translated into the “absorption” of R2P, and it revealed how the absence of a constitutive legal framework “which forces the states to do the right thing” weakened R2P’s efficacy in Myanmar (Hehir, 2017, p. 343). The crimes inflicted on the Rohingya have been described as “a textbook example to ethnic cleansing” (Al Hussein, 2015) and “a slow-burning genocide” (Zarni and Cowley, 2014, p. 681), but the international community has decided to ignore these warning signs by turning a blind eye. While Rosenthal’s (2019) report attributes a “collective responsibility” to the international community for R2P’s failure in Myanmar, China’s unwavering veto in any resolution related to the Rohingya crisis allows pointing an accusing finger at the Asian regional power. China’s behaviour reflects the view of an R2P based on the respect of sovereignty and non-intervention, but it also demonstrates pragmatic realpolitik, a precise predilection for the pursuit of national interest and personal gains.

The deadlock created by the Chinese veto has been further worsened by the Western powers’ economic interest in Myanmar, which has both diminished their willingness to create pressure for the application of R2P, and accentuated R2P’s “inconsistency” problem in the eyes of the world (Paris, 2014, p. 570). Moreover, the absence of strong leadership, which emphasises the non-military aspects of R2P, as well as the international community’s significant policy misjudgements, have further undermined preventive diplomacy efforts in Myanmar. Overall, the West’s biggest mistake consisted in the belief that Myanmar’s government was a necessary piece of the puzzle to end the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State. For this reason, the government was hardly accepted as a perpetrator.

While R2P’s failure in Myanmar results both from mixed motives and a lack of political will, the biggest obstacle still lies in the UN’s over-dependence on the Security Council’s consensus to undertake any humanitarian action. Given the unlikelihood of China lifting its veto on Myanmar, further research should explore the possibility to apply the “Uniting for Peace” principle in Myanmar’s case. The resolution states that, as a result of the UNSC’s failure to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security due to a lack of unanimity, the General Assembly, if supported by half of its members, can take power and make appropriate recommendations for collective measures (U.N. General Assembly res. 377A, 1950). The resolution would de facto enable the UN to overcome the impasse.

While the UN has already failed once in Myanmar, completely mismanaging its humanitarian crisis, the international community has now the chance to redeem itself. What it must do is to find the willingness to use the right tools, the courage to regain public trust, and the strength to reaffirm its foundational pledge of “never again”.


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