Failure to prevent genocide of Rohingya Muslims must never be repeated

28th Sep 2018
Failure to prevent genocide of Rohingya Muslims must never be repeated

(Photo: DFID – UK Department for International Development)

Genocide is the most serious charge that can be made against any government or ruler. It is an accusation rarely made by UN investigators. Yet in Myanmar, there is compelling evidence to justify that its leaders be prosecuted for what ‘undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law.’

According to the UN Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, Genocide occurs when a person commits a prohibited act with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such. The Rohingya are a protected group under this definition. Their treatment by the Myanmar security forces, acting in concert with certain civilians, includes conduct which amounts to four of the five defined prohibited acts; (a) killing, (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm, (c) inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction of the group in whole or in part, and (d) imposing measures intending to prevent births.’

No punches were pulled in the report that concluded the critical element of the crime committed has ‘genocidal intent’. The Mission assessed the body of information “in light of the jurisprudence of international tribunals regarding the reasonable inference of such intent.” The crimes committed against Muslims and other minorities in Rakhine State, and the manner in which they were perpetrated, are judged to be ‘similar in nature, gravity and scope to those that have allowed genocidal intent to be established in other contexts.’

Factors demonstrating such intent include ‘the broader oppressive context and hate rhetoric; specific utterances of commanders and direct perpetrators; exclusionary policies, including to alter the demographic composition of Rakhine State; the level of organisation indicating a plan for destruction; and the extreme scale and brutality of the violence.” Having given careful consideration to other possible inferences regarding intent, the report said that “these can be discounted as unreasonable.’

The estimate of 10,000 Rohingya Muslims killed last year was found to be ‘conservative’. Approximately 500,000 newly orphaned children, fled alone to Bangladesh. At least 392 villages (40% of all settlements in northern Rakhine) have been partially or totally destroyed. ‘Rape, gang-rape, sexual slavery, forced nudity, sexual humiliation, mutilation and sexual assault are frequently followed by the killing of victims. The scale, brutality and systematic nature of these violations indicate that rape and sexual violence are part of a deliberate strategy to intimidate, terrorise or punish a civilian population, and are used as a tactic of war. This level of normalisation is only possible in a climate of long-standing impunity.’

Such is the gruesome and wholesale indictment that it should be impossible for members of the international community to ignore. ‘In the face of such serious allegations, no country that considers itself humane can stand back and do nothing,’ Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, told the British Parliament. “Ethnic cleansing, in whatever shape or form, wherever it happens, should never go unpunished, and that the perpetrators of these appalling crimes must be brought to justice,” he said. But the minister warned that it was still not clear that there would be a consensus in the Security Council for a referral to the International Criminal Court.

Yet as the mission points out the latest catastrophe was waiting to happen. ‘Justice has remained elusive for victims in Myanmar for decades, with the authorities systematically failing to condemn, investigate and prosecute perpetrators. Impunity for gross human rights violations has significantly and demonstrably contributed to the validation of deeply oppressive and discriminatory conduct, enabled recurrence of human rights violations and atrocity crimes, and emboldened perpetrators and silenced victims. Unless impunity is addressed, and all ranks within the security forces are held accountable for their past, current and future actions, similar outbreaks of violence and associated atrocity crimes can be expected to continue, with further devastating domestic and regional impact.’

Impunity is so deeply entrenched in Myanmar’s political and legal system, effectively placing the Tatmadaw (military) above the law and beyond civilian oversight. The military can independently adjudicate itself. The mission was also strongly critical of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father ironically founded the modern army.

The Mission concludes she has failed to use ‘her de facto position as Head of Government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events, or seek alternative avenues to meet a responsibility to protect the civilian population. On the contrary, the civilian authorities have spread false narratives; denied the Tatmadaw’s wrongdoing; blocked independent investigations, including of the Fact-Finding Mission; and overseen destruction of evidence. Through their acts and omissions, the civilian authorities have contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes.’

Watching from the sidelines ‘for nearly three decades’ and failing to implement five consecutive Special Rapporteurs recommendations , the international community is also complicit in the harrowing situation in Myanmar.

The report also calls for an urgent ‘comprehensive, independent inquiry into the UN’s involvement in Myanmar since 2011, with a view to establishing whether everything possible to prevent or mitigate the unfolding crises was done. Lessons need to be identified and learned, including on accountability; and enabling effective and good practice in the future. It said it was up to the international community, through the United Nations, to use “all diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to assist Myanmar in meeting its responsibility to protect its people from genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.’

Collective action in accordance with the UN Charter must urgently be made. There can be no further prevarication. The UK Government needs to do more than just address the atrocities. It should immediately re-impose sanctions, which until now, it has refused to do so.

The international community must ensure the safe repatriation of all Rohingya refugees as well as the voluntary and dignified return of hundreds of thousands internally displaced persons. In place must be explicit human rights protections, including citizenship. And we need to ensure that ethnic cleansing of not only Rohingya Muslims but also other minorities in Myanmar and elsewhere should never be repeated.

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