The UN and the politics of the word “genocide” have a long and complex history. The prevention of future genocides in the wake of the Holocaust was one of the founding aims of the supra-national body.
Yet ever since its establishment, and the enshrinement of the duty of the international community to intervene in cases of genocide into international law, individual member nations and the assembly as a whole have systematically resisted characterising humanitarian crises as ‘genocide’ in order to avoid their moral duty to intervene – and the associated costs.
Yet even despite this historical, systematic bias, and their characteristic caution, UN officials now describe the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar as bearing “the hallmarks of genocide”.Yanghee Lee, the Korean UN special envoy on human rights in Myanmar, has held back from making a categorical declaration ‘until a credible international tribunal or court had weighed the evidence’, presumably for the usual political reasons, but the reality of the facts on the ground is becoming increasingly difficult to skirt around with euphemisms or legally watered down terms such as ‘ethnic cleansing’.
If the fact that two thirds of the Rohingya population of Myanmar has been pushed over the border into Bangladesh since just August last year were not enough, evidence is now emerging about a number of previously unreported mass graves around Rakhine state.
And the details are also telling. According to the Associated Press reports, the bodies were deliberately and systematically disfigured, so as to not be recognisable. As if mass murder was not sinister enough, the attackers seem intent on also destroying the identity and memory of those they have killed.
And of course, nobody in the Myanmar state apparatus has heard anything about mass graves. But just to be sure that no evil shall be seen or heard, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar has been barred from the country, just as previously every humanitarian NGO involved in the Rohingya situation has been.
Diplomatic “politeness” aside, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Myanmar has gone back to being a rogue stateAzeem Ibrahim
A rogue state
Diplomatic “politeness” aside, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Myanmar has gone back to being a rogue state. It pursues a systematic policy of genocide within its borders and completely stonewalls any attempt, however feeble, by the international community to establish the facts of the situation and impose some degree of accountability for what is happening in Rakhine state.
That Myanmar would choose to pursue such a course of action is not completely surprising. It is deeply disappointing after the hard work it has put into re-engaging with the international community in the past ten years with a putative transition to democracy and the emergence of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi as the democratically elected leader of the civilian government in the country.
But given how much power and influence the old military leadership retains in the country, and how much of the Burmese Buddhist population, including the leadership of the civilian government, have absorbed the decades of dehumanizing anti-Rohingya propaganda, it was never obvious that the transition to democracy would also translate into an improvement in the humanitarian situation in the country.
What is revealed by this episode however, is more fundamental and disturbing. It is the ineffectiveness of the UN, the hollowness of international humanitarian law, and the moral vacuity of the international community in the age of Trump. Everyone at the UN and in capitals around the world know that what is going on in Rakhine state is a genocide. And it is inevitable that the situation will officially get that legal status.
But it is equally certain that the world’s political leaders will contrive to postpone assigning that status until the complete removal of the Rohingya from Myanmar is fait accompli – just as they did in Rwanda. And it is not even obvious that the state of Myanmar, or any individuals within it, will face any legal consequences for it in the aftermath.
This episode paints a bleak picture of the years ahead of us. Human rights are a keystone of global stability and security. The world’s leaders undermine them at their own peril – and unfortunately, at our own peril as well.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.