The world must act now to protect the Rohingya, one of its most vulnerable populationsby Schona Jolly / October 26, 2017 / Leave a comment
Rohingya refugees cross a creek to reach camps in Ukhiya, Bangladesh. Photo: NEWZULU/Suvra Kanti Das/NEWZULU/PA Images As each day passes, new reports emerge of violent, depraved atrocities committed against the Rohingya ethnic minority in Myanmar by the country’s military. Babies tossed into fires, savage gang rapes, beheadings, villages razed by fire, destroying tens of thousands of homes and cold-blooded machete massacres, including of children. Meanwhile, the outside world stumbles over what steps to take, and what name they should give this devastating violence. Is it genocide, or should the UN High Commissioner’s declaration of “ethnic cleansing” be enough to prompt an international response? The military in Myanmar cynically labels the violence “clearance operations,” pointing to attacks on police and army posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army as the trigger. But the response has been extreme and grotesquely disproportionate. The multiple accounts of events in the last eight weeks gathered by NGOs, a UN rapid response mission and journalists gathering in the camps on the Myanmar-Bangladesh borders suggest a systematic, well-planned and co-ordinated attack on an entire population. The UN High Commissioner’s Office has highlighted a strategy “to instil deep and widespread fear and trauma—physical, emotional and psychological” amongst the Rohingya population. And yet, the world has sat on its hands, waiting and watching to see what unfolds as it grapples with how to label the crisis—and how to act. A global response is required to such egregious human rights violations. Signs are beginning to emerge that the international community is being shaken out of its stupor. The US State Department issued a press statement indicating that it is ramping up its response by considering alternative mechanisms on accountability and targeted sanctions. A donor conference took place in Geneva raising a sizable, though still insufficient, sum of money. The British substantive response so far has been weak, although its aid pledge is significant. Speaking at the UN last month, Theresa May eventually stated that the UK was “going to stop all defence engagement and training of the Burmese military by the Ministry of Defence until this issue is resolved.” But what does “resolved” look like in the current reality? The number of Rohingya refugees—surpassing 600,000 since August 25th—keeps growing. Reports continue to filter through that Rohingya homes, fields, crops, fields and livestock have been targeted in northern Rakhine state, effectively making a return to their homes and livelihoods “almost impossible.” Myanmar’s stark refusal to allow access to the UN fact-finding team, investigators and journalists means it is not possible to verify the extent of the violence and destruction internally although Human Rights Watch has analysed satellite imagery in reaching its conclusion that there have been crimes against humanity committed, including murder, rape and sexual violence and forced populations transfers. “How is the world paralysed by inaction when we have declared ‘never again’ so many times?” Bangladesh has been a generous host, but it is a poor nation itself, without the capacity and expertise to cope with the scale of displacement and trauma. Nor can refugees be rightfully returned to Myanmar, even if some are willing to go. So there is no obvious resolution without a coordinated, effective international response to these atrocity crimes. How is it that the world has been sitting paralysed by inaction, when we have declared “never again” so many times in living memory? When large scale atrocity crimes occur, they tend to arrive in the context of complex historical and political tapestries, often combined with long patterns of systemic state-sponsored discrimination. Genocide, when it occurs, is the most grave result of such institutionalised discrimination to which no remedy is provided by a state unable or unwilling to protect and defend a minority population. This failure results in the widespread framing of that population as “the other” in a process of dehumamisation. So it was against the Tutsis in Rwanda, labelled as cockroaches to be exterminated. Now, in Myanmar, extremist Buddhists claim that the Rohingya are reincarnated from insects and snakes. A glance at social media shows the scale, speed and spread of such dehumanising language amongst a majority population. In Myanmar, the warning signs were there for decades. The division and intolerance dates back to the drawing of Burmese national borders in a complex picture of inter-ethnic strife and nationalist mischief. Discrimination has for decades been perpetuated against every aspect of the Rohingya civil existence. The international community, encouraged by a misplaced faith in the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has prioritised Myanmar’s fragile transition to democracy ahead of the Rohingya situation. Even as new atrocities were carried out against the Rohingya towards the end of 2016, General Min Aung Hlaing, chief of the Myanmar armed forced, was invited to many European capitals. The EU’s belated response remains hopelessly weak. Ironically, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s new Rakhine report sought to focus on some of the root causes and decades of inequality affecting Rakhine State, and the precarious position of the Rohingya. But within hours of that report being presented, on 25th August 2017, their actual existence is imperilled. Nations get tied up by the use of the word “genocide.” It compels them to act under international law and so we watch governments contort themselves to avoid a statement that genocide is taking place. The situation in Rakhine has many of the hallmarks of genocide, which is defined in the Genocide Convention as specific acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. Intent, however, can be notoriously difficult to prove—especially when crucial access by impartial, international observers is being prevented. “Nations get tied up by the use of the word ‘genocide’—It compels them to act under international law” But failing to label atrocity crimes as genocide does not let the international community off the hook. Amongst organisations on the ground in Bangladesh, there is increasing agreement that the witness evidence being collated supports charges of crimes against humanity, including persecution, which require international action. Ethnic cleansing may constitute a crime against humanity or genocide. Yet no resolution has been passed by the UN Security Council. The UK government says it wants to be Global Britain. If so, it should use its position on the Security Council to lobby for a global arms embargo on Myanmar as well as to target military leaders with financial sanctions and travel bans. Equally, it must push the Security Council to refer the situation to the international criminal court and to urge the international community to consider alternative accountability mechanisms in the meanwhile. The Security Council must demand immediate and unfettered access to all of Rakhine state for humanitarian and the UN fact-finding mission. Yesterday, Boris Johnson tweeted that a Russian veto on Syria would not prevent the UK seeking justice for victims. The same single-mindedness now should be pursued to help the Rohingya. Britain should use its diplomatic influence with neighbouring countries in the region, including India, Japan and Australia, to take effective action. The door has been opened by the US consideration finally underway and Britain, along with the EU, should seize the opportunity to send a global, coordinated response to the military in Myanmar, and to Aung San Suu Kyi herself, that their country’s atrocity crimes resulting from systemic discrimination will not be tolerated. The world must act now to protect one of its most vulnerable populations through humanitarian relief, and concrete measures. Condemnation in the strongest terms must be met by swift action to stop the ethnic cleansing and end the impunity. That should include accepting that genocide may have taken place.