Rohingya need more than words of sympathy and support

Rohingya need more than words of sympathy and support

The House of Commons of Canada last week voted unanimously to declare the crimes committed by the military authorities of Myanmar against the Rohingya community as “genocide.”

In March, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar also concluded that the government’s campaign, which included mass expulsions, killings, rape and the razing of entire villages, bears all the “hallmarks” of this most heinous of crimes against humanity.

The US and many other countries around the world have also strongly condemned the brutality of the campaign and expressed grave concerns about the ensuing refugee crisis. More than 700,000 Rohingya have been displaced, most of whom are living in makeshift refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. Although international institutions that aim to foster stability, prosperity and cooperation among nations have made major strides since their creation, the crisis — and suffering — of the Rohingya is a reminder that serious challenges remain.

This seemingly obvious attempt at the ethnic cleansing of a religious and ethnic minority will be, as it was in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, another test of the effectiveness of international institutions such as the UN and the International Criminal Court (ICC). The challenges are formidable. On the one hand, there is the necessity to hold those responsible for these atrocities accountable. On the other, there is an even more pressing need to help the thousands of refugees in Bangladesh.

The conditions in which they are now living, and the equally horrific marginalization and discrimination they faced while still in Myanmar, will once again test the international community’s commitment to ending crimes against humanity, while carefully navigating the difficult waters surrounding a pillar of international relations: State sovereignty.

Last week, a fact-finding mission submitted a 440-page report on the situation in Myanmar to the UN Human Rights Council. The horrific details it contained of mass killings, torture and sexual violence are so heinous that the chairman of the mission, Marzuki Darusman, said: “I have never been confronted by crimes as horrendous and on such a scale as these.”

Although denied entry to Myanmar, the group interviewed hundreds of refugees in Bangladesh, all of whom recounted similar experiences. While documenting these atrocities is crucial, the mission said that those responsible for these policies must be held accountable. It also called for the military to be brought under civilian control and even demanded the prosecution of specific officials, including the commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, for “genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.” The report also said that rape and sexual violence were a “particularly egregious and recurrent feature” of the military’s conduct.

The Myanmar government continues to deny the accusations. Much like the governments of Syria and Iran, officials in Myanmar persist in propagating a narrative that is contradicted by overwhelming evidence. Much like Syria, they justify the atrocities under the guise of necessary security measures.

More than 700,000 Rohingya have been displaced, most of whom are living in makeshift refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh

Fahad Nazer

While some Rohingya militants did resort to violence by attacking police in Rakhine State, where the majority of the Rohingya live, the response has been grossly disproportionate. It is also consistent with a long-established policy of marginalization. According to many credible reports, the Rohingya have been denied their most basic rights, including citizenship.

Nevertheless, international institutions are trying to hold those responsible accountable. In addition to the calls from the fact-finding mission, the chief prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, announced last week that she was launching a preliminary investigation. While Myanmar is not a signatory to the ICC, its judges have issued a significant ruling concluding that it does have jurisdiction because the alleged crimes directly affect Bangladesh, which is a party to the court’s Rome Statute.

A delegation of senior officials representing member states of the UN Security Council also paid a visit to the refugee camps in Bangladesh this year. While they all expressed concern about the conditions in the camps, which are overcrowded and vulnerable to flooding during monsoon season, some also expressed frustration. The UK Ambassador to the UN, Karen Pierce, said: “It shows the scale of the challenge as we try, as a Security Council, to find some way through that enables these poor people to go home.” She added: “The sad thing is there’s nothing we can do right today that will make their distress any less.”

As the evidence corroborating the reports of the Myanmar military’s atrocities against unarmed civilians, seemingly based on their ethnicity and religious affiliation, mounts, this beleaguered community of Rohingya cannot be allowed to become yet another example of the ineffectiveness — or worse yet, the lack of resolve — of the international institutions created to prevent just such crimes against humanity.

  • Fahad Nazer is a political consultant to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington and an International Fellow at the National Council on US Arab Relations. He does not represent or speak on behalf of either organization. Twitter: @fanazer
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