Condemnations are not enough as UN recognizes Rohingya ‘genocide’
The latest report by the UN finally used the word “genocide” in condemning the atrocities committed by the Myanmar government against the Rohingya Muslim minority. The scathing UN Fact-Finding Mission report released last Monday accused the country’s military of acting with “genocidal intent” during its brutal campaign against the Rohingya, which has driven more than 700,000 refugees into neighboring Bangladesh in the past year. The investigators concluded that Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, committed atrocities that “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law” and called for top commanders, by name, to be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court (ICC) or at an alternative tribunal.
As expected, the Myanmar government strongly rebuffed the report, disputed the accusations and rejected the conclusions of the UN Human Rights Council. The main disappointment is in the mystifying silence of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the country, over the crimes committed and the fact she made no attempt to stop them. In fact, in her public statements she even refused to say the word “Rohingya” and instead defended the military. The UN report noted that Suu Kyi had “not used her de facto position as head of government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events.” This clearly puts her within the circle of responsibility.
Until now, UN officials and world leaders had labeled the horrific acts that unfolded in August 2017 as “ethnic cleansing” or “crimes against humanity,” which, unlike “war crimes” and “genocide,” have not been specifically defined under international law and therefore are not prosecuted. Last Tuesday, a day after the report was released, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said at a briefing to the organization’s Security Council that the Fact-Finding Mission’s report deserves “serious consideration,” while Sweden and the Netherlands called on the Security Council to refer Myanmar to the ICC.
Following up on prosecuting the accused in the report is critical for the credibility of the UN body and the international community, and would send a strong message to those who act with impunity in contempt for human life and international law.
Myanmar kept the Rakhine region out of reach, sight and sound of the world while it conducted its “clearance operation” of the Rohingya. It repeatedly denied visas to the three-member Fact-Finding Mission after it was established in March 2017, and did not respond to requests by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to visit. Instead, the government commissioned a series of internal probes that have exonerated the military or otherwise disintegrated.
Prosecuting the accused in the Rohingya genocide report is critical for the credibility of the UN and would send a strong message to those who act with contempt for human life and international law.
Interestingly, the UN report came out the same day two Reuters journalists, who were arrested last year while investigating soldiers’ participation in the Rohingya massacre, were expected to be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison, but the ruling was postponed for a week. Such silencing and intimidation of the media, as well as the complete exclusion of the press from Rakhine, raises questions and concerns about what has and is happening there and the extent of the massacre. Satellite images have shown whole Rohingya villages wiped out and razed to the ground in the aftermath of the attack on Aug. 25 last year.
On the other hand, Myanmar has used social media to spread its own views of the situation, considering the Rohingya as “illegal Bengalis” who invaded their land and do not belong there, even though their families have lived in the country for generations. Their citizenship had been revoked in 1982 and they have since been rendered stateless. The UN report called Facebook “a useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate,” which prompted the company to delete dozens of accounts run by Myanmar’s military leaders.
After being denied access, the UN team relied on interviews with more than 870 victims and eyewitnesses and a large collection of videos and photos to corroborate accounts of the atrocities. They estimated that at least 10,000 people had died in the most recent violence in Rakhine and found that soldiers carried out “large-scale gang rape.”
An OIC delegation also heard accounts from victims during a visit to the refugee camps in the border area of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands had fled. Being part of that delegation, it was difficult to hear a sobbing father describe how his child was snatched from his arms and thrown into the fire of their burning home; or the traumatized young woman talk about being brutally gang raped by the military and left to die in the forest; and another woman who saw her husband and son shot in front of her eyes.
The release of the report coincided with the first anniversary of this latest nightmare for the Rohingya, who have suffered repeated incidents of violence and abuse and denial of their basic human rights, with no end in sight to their suffering.
What is also worrying is the trend of similar targeting of Muslim minority groups in neighboring countries such as Sri Lanka, China and even India, whether in the form of reported cases of violence and abuse or restrictions on movement and worship or stripping of their citizenship.
It is time to hold the perpetrators of the atrocities in Myanmar to account and ensure that no further abuses or violence are carried out. Meanwhile, Bangladesh continues to need the support of the international community to take care of the almost 1 million refugees in its territory. It is also necessary to have the assistance of international organizations in the repatriation of the Rohingya to their homes and villages in Myanmar based on the agreement signed between the two countries, which must be done under international supervision to guarantee the returning refugees’ safety and the reinstatement of their citizenship.
- Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer. She is based in Jeddah. Twitter: @MahaAkeel1