The Rohingya situation has been evolving. And now, it seems, we can no longer avoid the conclusion we have all been dreading. This is now a genocide, and we, in the international community, must recognize it as such.
The first world leader to confront this reality has been France’s Emmanuel Macron one week ago: he condemned “this genocide which is unfolding, this ethnic cleansing”, before calling the UN to act in accordance to their obligations in such humanitarian disasters.
President Macron’s intervention shows the kind of moral courage we need our leaders to have in this world of escalating humanitarian disasters, from the still ongoing calamity in Syria, the Yemen famine, or the tragically under-reported violence across the Sahel.
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Still, “genocide” is not a word that can or should be thrown around loosely. And not even the President of France can carry such a verdict on his own. But serious analyses by some of the world’s leading legal scholars and increasingly leaning towards the conclusion that the Rohingya are the victims of genocide.
Allard K. Lowenstein of the International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, for example, has found strong evidence of genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar in his legal analysis of the human rights situation in Rakhine state as long ago as Autumn 2015. That was when there were still over 1 million Rohingya still living in Rakhine state.
Just like we did in Rwanda, just like we did in the Balkans, we are once again seeing a genocide happen before our very eyesDr. Azeem Ibrahim
Subsequent analyses, for example by the International Stata Crime Initiative group at Queen Mary University of London in 2016, have had largely the same findings. And these analyses of the human rights situation then has proved tragically prescient. After last month’s dramatic exodus of Rohingya out of Myanmar, there are now probably fewer than 600,000 left in the country of their birth.
Article II of UN’s 1948 Genocide Convention describes genocide as any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Though the Rohingya situation meets most of the above criteria for being described as a genocide under international law for a number of years now, the label has been resisted until now because we think of genocide as one huge act of frenzied violence, like we have seen in Rwanda. But Rwanda has been the exception, rather than the norm.
The Nazi genocide during WW2, for example, began slowly and had few distinctive flashes to indicate delineate where one degree of crime against humanity ended and where another began. All in all, that genocide developed and unfolded over a period of more than 10 years.
The Rohingya situation has been going on for decades, but it has certainly been in genocide territory since at least the outbursts of communal violence in 2012. Those clashes, and the ones in the subsequent years have driven 200,000 - 300,000 Rohingya out of Myanmar.
But somehow, at that rate of attrition, and against the backdrop of Myanmar’s supposed move toward democracy with the election of Aung San Suu Kyi to power in late 2015, world leaders have allowed themselves to hope that the situation could still be turned around.
Reality of an exodus
Now, the reality of an exodus of more than 609,000 people, amounting to approximately 50 percent of the total Rohingya population in Myanmar, in the space of just one month, the incontrovertible evidence of large scale burning of villages by the Myanmar military, the reports of widespread extra-judicial killings against fleeing civilians by the country’s federal security forces, have made it much more difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is nothing short of genocide.
The tragedy is that the international community will compound the situation. Despite President Macron’s call for an adequate response, the UN Security Council will decline to respond to the situation with the seriousness it deserves. If a situation is defined by the Council as a “genocide”, then the UN becomes legally bound to intervene, with peace-keeping missions and so on.
That is why Western countries will be reluctant to make the necessary commitments, and China, who is building one branch of its New Silk Road infrastructure right through Rakhine state to access the port of Sittwe, will outright veto any such proposal.
Just like we did in Rwanda, just like we did in the Balkans, we are once again seeing a genocide happen before our very eyes. And all we will do about it, once again, is to bury our heads in the sand and plead ignorance when our children will ask us why we let this happen.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide” (Hurst & Oxford University Press).