No end in sight to the suffering of the Rohingya
While the world has been in lockdown as a result of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), and the media focused on the economic and social effects of the pandemic, the Rohingya continue to suffer under a ruthless regime in their homeland, Myanmar, and in cramped refugee camps in Bangladesh.
The coronavirus simply added to their existing misery. Even the risky prospect of attempting to escape on treacherous rough seas in search of a better life is no longer an option.
In a statement to the 44th session of the Human Rights Council last week, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) Michelle Bachelet said: “The Rohingya refugee crisis has effectively become protracted, with no solution in sight.”
The human rights situation the Rohingya are facing in Rakhine State, Myanmar, has not improved, and the conditions required for their safe, dignified and sustainable return home from Bangladesh are not in place, she added. In addition, restrictions placed on humanitarian access and freedom of movement as a result of the pandemic have exacerbated the situation.
Hundreds of people have attempted to escape to other nations in rickety boats, only to be turned away by authorities in destination countries out of fear that the refugees might spread the coronavirus, leaving them stranded at sea for months.
In the squalid refugee camps at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, meanwhile, the threat posed by the virus is increased by the unsanitary and overcrowded living conditions. Social distancing is almost impossible. Families live at close quarters in flimsy bamboo shacks. They have to use communal toilets and water facilities that are not always clean or available. Even the most basic items, such as soap, are scarce.
In other words, the Rohingya are doomed wherever they go.
While the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is working in the camps to protect people from COVID-19 and treat the infected, an internet ban imposed by the Bangladeshi government “for security reasons” has added to the distress of refugees. It has left them cut off from the outside world with no access to news or reliable information about the pandemic. As a result, rumors spread quickly.
The rising number of confirmed cases is putting growing pressure on the UN refugee agency’s ability to provide enough equipment and isolation facilities, medication, food and water, and to conduct medical tests. It is running out of funding and human resources.
Meanwhile, Bangladeshi authorities intercepted a boat carrying hundreds of refugees and escorted it to a remote island, apparently in an effort to reduce the risk of them spreading the virus in Cox’s Bazar.
Bangladesh is doing what it can, with limited resources, to help the refugees. However it is struggling to cope with high numbers of coronavirus cases across the country and the loss of many healthcare workers.
In Rakhine State, where the majority of Rohingya live, they continue to bear the brunt of an intensifying armed conflict between the military, called the Tatmadaw, and the Arakan Army, an insurgent group that supports efforts by Rakhine Buddhists to seek greater self-governance and wider development. The government considers it a terrorist group.
During a so-called “clearance operation” launched by the Tatmadaw, residents were told to leave their homes and that “anybody left behind would be considered Arakan Army.” Tens of thousands fled as a result of the heavy fighting.
According to the UNHCHR, a pattern has emerged of serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including airstrikes on and shelling of civilian areas, and the destruction and burning of villages.
Last month, the Tatmadaw reportedly burned large areas of Buthidaung township. About 700,000 Rohingya were forced to flee from the area to Bangladesh in 2017 following a brutal crackdown by the military, which the UN said was carried out with “genocidal intent.” Eyewitness accounts and satellite images suggest dozens of Rohingya villages were burned to the ground.
The importance of this lies not only in the fact that these villages contained homes to which Rohingya refugees hoped they might one day return. They also contained evidence of what transpired in 2017. Five months before they were burned down, in fact, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued an order prohibiting the destruction of evidence supporting allegations of genocide.
In 2019, The Gambia took up the Rohingya case on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The African nation brought the genocide allegations to the ICJ and sought provisional measures to end the killings, protect and preserve evidence, and punish those responsible.
On Jan. 23 this year the ICJ announced a landmark decision on those provisional measures. Unanimously endorsed by all 17 judges, the binding ruling ordered Myanmar to: take prompt action to prevent further abuses and violations of the human rights of the Rohingya people; prevent the destruction of or damage to evidence related to the case; and report regularly to the ICJ on the action being taken to ensure these orders are followed.
Myanmar continues to strongly deny any genocidal intent, while refusing to cooperate with UN special rapporteur on Myanmar or comply with the ICJ orders.
The root causes of the violations and abuses endured by the Rohingya in Myanmar have not gone away. These include the discrimination and exclusion enshrined in the laws and policies of the government, such as the revocation of citizenship rights in 1982, which rendered them stateless and restricted their access to basic human rights, services and free movement.
There must be a way for the international community to help resolve this crisis, and other cases involving blatant violations of international law and human rights.
A 2017 resolution by the UN’s Human Rights Council called for a comprehensive solution to the Rohingya crisis within three years. Two and a half years later, their situation is as bad as it was, if not worse.
There must be a way for the international community to help resolve this crisis, and other cases involving blatant violations of international law and human rights, otherwise the credibility and standards of international organizations are in doubt.
But then, we are already all-too familiar with other protracted crises, such as the Palestinian issue and the Kashmir issue, in which the will of an individual country continues to override that of the international community.
- Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. Twitter: @MahaAkeel1