The world has turned a blind eye to the plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority for decades. Even the label ‘genocide’ seems unlikely to change the status quo, Melanie O’Brien writes.
The United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar has released a report detailing its findings relating to the Rohingya crisis. It has determined that there is sufficient evidence to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior officials of the Myanmar military for genocide and crimes against humanity.
The Rohingya crisis gained widespread attention in late 2017, but in fact began decades ago. Since the 1970s, the Burmese/Myanmar government has gradually excluded the Rohingya from Burmese society.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority ethnic group in a majority Buddhist country. They’ve been denied citizenship since the 1982 citizenship law, which excluded Rohingya from participating in elections, voting in elections, being employed in the public service, and from accessing state education. Rohingya have been referred to as ‘Bengali’ – a derogatory term meaning people from Bangladesh – despite the existence of Rohingya in Rakhine State of Burma for hundreds of years.
The Myanmar government has refused to issue Rohingya children with birth certificates since 1994. In 2015, the Population Control Healthcare Bill was passed – a law allowing for the imposition of ‘birth spacing’ restrictions on women, requiring a 36-month interval between children with forced use of contraceptives in between. This law aimed to specifically restrict the reproductive freedoms of Rohingya. The Population Control Healthcare Bill was introduced as part of a package of ‘Race and Religion Protection Laws’, in response to a 2013 government report that presented the “the rapid population growth of the Bengalis [Rohingya] as an extremely serious threat”.
In addition to this, physical violence has been carried out against the Rohingya, including burning of villages and crops, killing of livestock, sexual violence, gang rapes, torture, and massacres by bombing, shooting, hacking or burning. Thousands of Rohingya fled in waves, such as in 1978 and 1991.
However, this escalated in August 2017 into ‘clearance operations’, resulting in 400,000 Rohingya fleeing Myanmar in a three-week period. Almost the entire population of the Rohingya now live outside Myanmar – well over one million living as refugees. The remainder still in Myanmar are contained in detention camps, ghettos and prison villages. All of this conduct is a clear pattern of genocide, including discrimination, exclusion, segregation, persecution and physical violence.
For many years, while the UN has been referring to ‘ethnic cleansing’, non-governmental organisations and scholars have been using another word to describe the crimes against the Rohingya by the Myanmar authorities – genocide. The reluctance by the UN to call the crimes ‘genocide’ is connected to the obligations triggered by the use of this word, obligations that arise under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide for other countries to take action against the Myanmar government to prevent and punish genocide.
The UN Fact-Finding Mission report has specifically named individuals in the Myanmar military (‘Tatmadaw’) as responsible for atrocities, and has also indicated that Nobel Laureate leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is complicit. The report has also directly implicated Facebook, which has been shown to be the main source of news for a majority of Burmese. Facebook has been slow to respond to allegations of facilitating hate speech, but a direct connection to genocide by a UN report finally motivated some action from Facebook.
Undoubtedly, then, it is significant that the UN has finally called the crimes against the Rohingya genocide. In theory, this should motivate action against the perpetrators. While it is too late for prevention, accountability is now the main focus.
There are, however, significant barriers to accountability for those responsible for the genocide committed against the Rohingya.
Firstly, the International Criminal Court (ICC) only has jurisdiction over crimes committed in the territory of countries that have ratified its statute (the equivalent of a treaty), the Rome Statute, or nationals of such a country. Needless to say, Myanmar has not ratified the Rome Statute. The ICC’s Prosecutor has taken steps to request investigation into the crime against humanity of deportation, but it remains to be seen if the ICC will follow through with this request. Even if it does, its scope is limited only to deportation into Bangladesh (which has ratified the Rome Statute), leaving crimes such as rape and murder unprosecuted.
Secondly, the UN Security Council can take action, including referring the situation in Myanmar to the ICC as it did with the situations in Darfur and Libya. However, politically, this is unlikely, as China and Russia have too many interests in Myanmar, such as China’s desire to run oil and gas pipelines through the country. As Permanent Five members of the Security Council, China and Russia have a veto over any resolution, and so far, have defeated anything relating to the Rohingya.
Thirdly, the option of any state party to the Genocide Convention to bring a case before the International Court of Justice is open but fraught with political considerations, including potential risk of damaging trade or other relations with China and Russia.
Thus, we are left wondering if this new report from the UN will shame even the P5 members China and Russia into acting, or if, after decades of genocide being ignored, the status quo at the international level will continue.