World stays silent over Myanmar
Despite UN’s genocide warnings, the Rohingya are still left to their fate
A stark warning from the UN in mid-December that genocide may be taking place in Myanmar has been met by an awkward silence around the world, indicating a limited appetite for forceful humanitarian intervention, even in extreme cases.
The persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority is beginning to resemble the slaughter of the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994. The international community vowed the Rwanda tragedy would never happen again. Now, it seems, the nightmare is back.
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, UN high commissioner for human rights, has described systematic attacks on the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military and civilian militias as ethnic cleansing. But in a BBC interview last month, he went a big step further. “You cannot rule out the possibility that acts of genocide have been committed … It wouldn’t surprise me in the future if the court were to make such a finding on the basis of what we see.”
The embarrassed silence that followed reflects the fact there is zero support for direct action in Myanmar. The concept of forceful humanitarian intervention, formulated in a speech in 1999 by Tony Blair – and implemented in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and East Timor – is blown. The disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, justified on moral and humanitarian grounds after the WMD argument imploded, discredited the “Blair doctrine”.
Now the pendulum has swung the other way. Myanmar’s generals are not alone in their impunity. In Yemen, Saudi forces are accused of causing large-scale civilian casualties, and of illegally blocking aid as a weapon of war. A similar situation exists in Syria. Bashar al-Assad has been widely accused of war crimes. But after six years of mayhem he still sits tight in Damascus.
Lack of political will is only one reason why the international community appears powerless to halt mass killings. Hussein’s prediction that Myanmar’s nominal leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and its top general, Min Aung Hlaing, could end up before a court was presumably a reference to the international criminal court, charged with investigating and prosecuting individuals responsible for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. But Myanmar, like Syria and Yemen, is not a party to the ICC and lies outside its jurisdiction.
The ICC has enjoyed limited success, in large part because major powers such as the US, China, Russia and India reject its jurisdiction, ostensibly on grounds of national sovereignty – although the US supports the court when it suits its purposes. Shamed by the failures in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s, a UN world summit meeting in 2005 agreed that the principle of state sovereignty carried with it the obligation of the state to protect its own citizens. If a state was unable or unwilling to do so, the international community was empowered to act.
In Myanmar, where 870,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh and up to 10,000 people have been killed so far, their government has not only failed to protect them. It also appears directly culpable. This is the sort of situation the 2005 UN declaration was intended to prevent. And it promised that member states would take “timely and decisive action”. All over the world, this solemn promise is being broken every day.
Exiled … Rohingya reach out for food at a camp in Bangladesh Dar Yasin