YANGON, Myanmar — If Myanmar presented a test of the world’s pledge to stop atrocities and protect civilians, then it is difficult to recall a clearer failure.
The country’s military has expelled hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, a minority group, in full view of the world. The violence was preceded by months of warning signs. Myanmar, a poor country with few allies, proceeds largely unimpeded.
Critics of the international response argue that world leaders made bad choices. Defenders say those leaders had few, if any, good choices to make.
Research on atrocity prevention suggests an even grimmer truth. Global action or inaction isn’t determined by the severity of the violence or the idealism of world leaders, it finds, but by a set of conditions that have as much to do with protecting the international system as protecting civilians.
Myanmar reveals that the world’s promise of “never again” applies only sometimes. But the Rohingya are only the latest in a string of victims to learn this lesson the hard way.
Early on, Myanmar officials said they were merely responding to terrorist attacks, not pursuing ethnic cleansing.
This claim, though contradicted by reams of evidence, exploited the single biggest loophole in international laws and norms against atrocities: Sovereignty often prevails.
The idea that states have the right to act within their borders and protect their interests dates back centuries. It is in many ways the core principle around which the international system is built.
When a state invokes sovereignty, as Myanmar did by calling its actions a domestic security matter, it becomes far harder to organize action.
“We can talk about responsibility to protect, we can talk about living in an age of human rights, but this is a system of states,” said Kate Cronin-Furman, a Harvard University fellow who studies mass atrocities. “And states have privileges and rights that are baked into the international system. It’s very hard to generate the will or the momentum to impinge upon that.”
When the Philippines launched a “war on drugs” that killed thousands, foreign leaders protested but were unable or unwilling to override what President Rodrigo Duterte described as internal policing decisions.
In such cases, the world has two options. It can override sovereignty, imposing change from the outside. Or it circumvent sovereignty by persuading or pressuring actors within the country to effect change. With Myanmar, conditions are ripe for neither.
Though discussion often focuses on halting genocides and crackdowns already in full swing, the greatest and easiest successes may come in preventing them from ever occurring.
In Egypt in 2011, security forces that had spent days firing on anti-government protesters appeared on the verge of far greater violence. Instead, under international pressure, the military deposed the government, stood down security forces and promised elections.
The pressure worked by exploiting pre-existing divisions within Egypt, including among the ruling elite.
In Myanmar, however, citizens and elites appear near-universally united against the Rohingya. Kyaw Thu, who runs the Yangon-based civil society group Paung-Ku, said the crisis was “polarizing society” in support of the military and against critics, including foreign governments.
Leaders and institutions ultimately care more about pressures at home, where stakes are highest and most immediate, than those from abroad.
“State forces commit atrocities when they have strong incentives to do so,” Ms. Cronin-Furman said. “And to counteract those incentives, you have to have something pretty substantial on the other side of the balance.”
This is why, she added, “I’m not sure that even with all of the options available for exerting influence if there was something that would have prevented this.”
In Sri Lanka, this may have constrained global action against the military there, which committed extensive atrocities against ethnic Tamil civilians and rebels but enjoyed strong support from majority Singhalese leaders and citizens.
Sometimes the most effective pressure comes through personal relationships. American military officials could call up the Egyptian generals they had worked alongside for years, for instance, appealing quietly and directly.
This is a ready first option because nearly every country on earth relies on one of the great powers, which will have many points of contact and a range of issues on which it can exert leverage. Even if that great power has little concern for its partner’s abuses, it may listen to other great powers, as Russia has sometimes done when Central Asian allies appeared on the verge of atrocities.
Myanmar may be an exception because of a quirk of its transition to democracy, in process since about 2010.
It was once close to China. Its leaders, feeling abused by Beijing, opened up partly in hopes of aligning instead with the West. It is currently between great power sponsors.
Western diplomats here say they have little access to military or civilian leaders, with whom they have few longstanding relationships. With scant ongoing deals that they could use as leverage, their choices are either to say nothing or to publicly condemn, which would risk ending what little access they have.
South Sudan presented a similar dilemma. Though government-backed forces attacked civilians openly, the world had little pre-existing leverage with leaders of this young, poor and largely isolated country.
Pressuring a country from the outside can be even harder.
International action tends to work only when it’s perceived as a matter of global consensus, which in practice is determined by the great powers.
This requires the powers to all agree or at least acquiesce, as they did with 2005 sanctions on Sudan over its actions in Darfur and with the 2011 intervention in Libya. Otherwise, any one power can veto action or shield the target state.
As a result, serious pressure is often reserved for countries that have made enemies of all the great powers, as had Sudan and Libya. Myanmar has not.
Aiding the Rohingya offers little strategic benefit to the great powers. But it would risk their influence in Myanmar at a moment when both China and Western powers are worried the country will embrace the other side.
The powers may be most constrained by divisions among one another over North Korea, Syria and Ukraine, all of which rank higher on their agendas than does Myanmar.
“You could say this about a lot of human rights norms,” Ms. Cronin-Furman said. “We’re committed to them and invested in making them work as long as it’s not running up against something more important.”
This may also help explain the world’s failure to forestall humanitarian crises in Yemen, which has been devastated by bombings led by Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich nation close to the United States.
This has created what Roland Paris, a University of Ottawa political scientist, termed the “mixed-motives problem.” Because great powers pursue altruistic missions when it is in their self-interest, those missions invite charges of hypocrisy.
As a result, the powers need local or regional actors to invite them to act, giving the mission legitimacy. In Libya, for instance, intervention required the blessing of the Arab League.
This elevates regional actors into “gatekeepers” whose approval is crucial for coordinating international action, according to research by political scientists Alex J. Bellamy and Paul D. Williams.
Though a number of Myanmar’s neighbors have condemned the violence, they are wary of going much further.
India, Turkey and other nearby countries face international criticism for crackdowns against what they consider domestic terrorists. Even if these states do not believe Myanmar’s claims of rooting out terrorists, they fear setting a precedent that could be turned against them.
The Rohingya themselves may be the final point of failure. International politics, though presented as a realm of pure values and reason, is still politics.
The Rohingya, through no fault of their own, like many victims worldwide, are too poor and powerless to take part.
There is no Rohingya lobby to push their cause in world capitals or within complex foreign bureaucracies, as Kurdish groups were able to do. Nor is there an organized Rohingya diaspora that can mobilize student groups and social media campaigns.
Western governments “know that the welfare of the Rohingya is not galvanizing their respective electorates to the extent that they need to take any meaningful action,” Aidan Hehir, a scholar at University of Westminster, wrote at Duck of Minerva, a political science site.
With virtually every necessary condition for action absent — except, of course, for the atrocities themselves — Mr. Hehir concluded, “we can hardly be surprised at this latest triumph of realpolitik over human rights in Myanmar.”