Azeem Ibrahim is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy in Washington and the author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide.”
The international community and the politics of the word “genocide” have a long and complex history. In the wake of the Holocaust, the prevention of mass atrocities was one of the founding aims of the United Nations. Yet ever since the U.N.’s establishment, and the enshrinement into international law of the duty of the international community to intervene in cases of mass slaughter, individual member nations and the U.N. assembly as a whole have systematically resisted characterizing humanitarian crises as “genocides” in order to avoid their moral and legal duty to intervene. In other words, we take the concept of genocide extremely seriously. But we tend to take a more “nuanced” approach when genocides are actually happening in the world.
Even so, French President Emmanuel Macron has now spoken of the Rohingya crisis in Burma – where, since August, two-thirds of the minority population have been pushed out of the country in a sustained campaign by the country’s military — as “genocide.” U.N. humanitarian officials describe the situation as bearing “the hallmarks of genocide.”
Meanwhile, Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special envoy on human rights in Burma, has held back from making the categorical declaration of genocide “until a credible international tribunal or court had weighed the evidence,” presumably for the usual political reasons. But given the mounting evidence, it is becoming increasingly difficult to characterize what is happening with euphemisms or legally watered-down terms such as “ethnic cleansing.”
As if the obvious fact of large-scale displacement were not enough, evidence is now emerging of a number of previously unreported mass graves around Rakhine state, the area where most Rohingya resided before the current wave of persecution began.
The details are telling. According to Associated Press reports, the bodies were deliberately and systematically disfigured to make them unrecognizable. For the attackers, massacring their enemies does not seem to have been enough; they also appear to have been intent on destroying the identity and memory of those they killed.
Needless to say, no one in the Burmese state apparatus has heard anything about mass graves. But just to be sure that no evil shall be seen or heard, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma has been barred from the country. Similarly, just about humanitarian nongovernmental organization involved with the Rohingya has been banned from Rakhine State, Médecins Sans Frontières being only the most notorious example.
Diplomatic “politeness” aside, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Burma has reverted to its previous status as 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.
That Burma would choose to pursue such a course of action is not completely surprising. But it is deeply disappointing after the hard work the country has put into re-engaging with the international community in the past 10 years. Since 2008, the former military junta has been working to implement a putative transition to democracy, which culminated with the election of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi as leader of the civilian government. Many Western observers, myself included, had hoped that this could lead to an improvement in the humanitarian record of the country.
Yet despite the so-called transition to democracy, the old military leadership retains an extraordinary amount of power and influence in the country, including complete autonomy over matters of security, defense and foreign relations. What is more, much of the Burmese Buddhist population, including the leadership of the civilian government, has absorbed the decades of dehumanizing anti-Rohingya propaganda perpetrated by previous military regimes, and the current “crackdown” does in fact have wide popular support. Most of the country is rallying around the assault on the Rohingya.
Nevertheless, the fact that democracy and genocide can go hand in hand is not even the most fundamental and disturbing aspect of this crisis. Rather more frightening is the impotence of the United Nations, the hollowness of international humanitarian law and the moral vacuity of the international community in the age of President Trump. Everyone at the United Nations and in capitals around the world knows that what is going on in Rakhine state is genocide and will one day be defined as such legally. 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 Burma is a fait accompli. At most, in a decade’s time, some lower-ranking military officials might get carted off to the Hague and scapegoated for the crimes of an entire society. And with that, we will also have washed our hands of our complicity in yet another genocide.
This tragic 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 peril, as well. But in an age of collapsing American global power under a callous and unenlightened presidential administration, realpolitik is the name of the game. The West sees nothing to be gained by standing up for the basic human rights of a Muslim population in a faraway country, and no other global power cares. But the precedent this sets for the authoritarian regimes of the world is as dangerous as it is clear. We will be reaping the consequences of our inaction for decades to come.