Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya minority has passed the threshold for action under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. As the most capable peacekeeping country in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia has an ethical duty to put intervention on the table, writes Kym Middleton.
By most definitions, except Myanmar’s, the current treatment of the Rohingya in Rakhine State is genocide. With Australia’s special position in the Asia-Pacific region, it could have intervened years ago, but it hasn’t. Australia must intervene now.
The United Nations has labelled Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. The situation has been likened to the 1995 mass killings of over 8000 Muslims in Bosnia’s Srebrenica and parallels with the Rwandan genocide were being drawn years ago.
The crisis isn’t new, although it is escalating. About 400,000 Muslim Rohingya have fled Buddhist Myanmar for Bangladesh in the last three weeks. State forces have been burning villages in response to the killing of a dozen soldiers and police officers by the insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army – who Al Qaeda want to arm. There are claims Myanmar’s security forces have been shooting children and using helicopters to gun down people running away on foot.
This is the latest in decades of reports of horrific human rights abuses against the Rohingya which include extrajudicial killings, massacres, gang rapes and arson attacks on mosques and communities. They’ve been born in the country for generations but their citizenship has been cancelled, and they’re regarded as illegal Bengali immigrants. The stateless Rohingya are often called the ‘world’s most persecuted people’.
Yet even though Australia and Myanmar are cohabiting in the same Asia-Pacific neighbourhood, our country hasn’t stepped in to help the Rohingya on a meaningful scale or applied effective pressure on the state once known as Burma. This crisis is in our backyard. Australia must do more.
A controversial option that has become necessary to consider if the situation doesn’t improve is a full-blown humanitarian military intervention. With the approval of the UN Security Council, Australia could lead this. And even though Australia is not on the UN Security Council, it’s possible an offer of support will be approved if other local and international efforts to settle the situation are ineffective.
That’s because they have a policy called Responsibility to Protect – or R2P. It holds two basic principles.
The first is that a country’s sovereignty implies responsibility for the people within its borders.
The second is that if a country refuses to, or is incapable of, protecting its people from “serious harms” like internal conflict, repression or state failure, other countries can step in as a last resort.
If these basic R2P principles are to be taken seriously, Myanmar presents a case where other countries are morally obliged to step in. Myanmar has been persecuting the Rohingya population itself for a long time. Not even Nobel Peace Prize winner and state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has been able or prepared to stand up to the military junta she defeated in democratic elections and put a stop to the ethnic cleansing.
Addressing the crisis and international condemnation Myanmar has attracted on Tuesday, she explained her government has not been in power long enough. Applying R2P means helping. Of course, this is incredibly difficult if Myanmar doesn’t want help.
Responsibility to Protect is one of the more interesting international agreements. Much like just war theory spells out the conditions for invasive defences and assaults, R2P sets out the guiding principles for military humanitarian interventions. It was created in the aftermath of the 1990s, a time when ethical tensions between doing and not doing military peacekeeping operations came to a head. That decade saw atrocities in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and Somalia.
The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) was set up to work through the ‘intervene or not’ dilemma. It was co-chaired by Australia’s Gareth Evans, who literally wrote the book on R2P.
ICISS recognised that the Rwandan genocide “laid bare the full horror” of respecting sovereignty to the point of not going in, while failures in Bosnia, Kosovo and Somalia raised serious questions about the effectiveness of interventions. These mistakes led Kofi Anan to urge the international community to work out better principles and processes around protecting people in other countries:
“…if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica – to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?”
R2P was born. It set three responsibilities for states.
The first is the responsibility to prevent: “Address both the root causes and direct causes of internal conflict and other man-made crises putting populations at risk.”
The second is the responsibility to react: “Respond to situations of compelling human need with appropriate measures, which may include coercive measures like sanctions and international prosecution, and in extreme cases military intervention.”
The third is the responsibility to rebuild: “Provide, particularly after a military intervention, full assistance with recovery, reconstruction and reconciliation.”
The responsibilities to prevent and react require non-interventionist measures be tried first – like the diplomatic statement the UN Secretary-General has made, and the sanctions, arms embargoes and travel bans Human Rights Watch is urging the UN Security Council and international community to make.
Unfortunately, the speed at which matters are escalating in Myanmar poses a huge practical problem here. What is a reasonable period of time to test the effectiveness of these non-interventionist measures? The Rohingya certainly cannot wait for a lengthy prosecution case to unfold in the International Criminal Court.
Suu Kyi’s address might calm the crisis, and individual states may still impose effective sanctions. But Australia now needs to be talking to the UN Security Council who is responsible for dealing with R2P intervention proposals in “reasonable time”. It needs to be offering peacekeeping troops and a willingness to work with other countries on a successful humanitarian intervention. There’s just not enough time to see how things go without at least preparing for the potential need.
Interventions are incredibly risky, but Australia proposing one in Myanmar is not that crazy. The UN Security Council gave Australia a special mandate to lead an international coalition of peacekeeping troops into East Timor in 1999. International Force East Timor – or INTERFET – is a good example of the leadership and stability Australia can provide to the region. Granted, East Timor is closer to home than Myanmar and the political stakes were higher for Australia during those tensions with Indonesia. Yet INTERFET shows Australia can successfully lead a delicate intervention that meets the three responsibilities above.
The crisis in Myanmar passes R2P’s “just cause threshold”. There has been a “large-scale loss of life” and “large-scale ethnic cleansing”. Years of events in Myanmar already suggest an extreme case for intervention. As the most capable nation in the Asia-Pacific to assist the Rohingya, Australia has an ethical duty to prepare for this. This is our region. We have the capacity and past efforts prove we have the ability. Hopefully it won’t come to that.