Rohingya and Responsibility to protection

By Aman Ullah

“The Rohingya have been subject to stigmatisation, harassment, isolation, and systematic weakening. The Rohingya are faced with only two options: stay and face annihilation, or flee” : Professor Penny Green of Queen Mary University of London
The plight of Rohingya and Bangladeshi has recently made international headlines as boats packed with thousands of the migrants have attempted to reach Thai, Indonesian and Malaysian shores, while many more remain at sea in desperate conditions.

According to Dr Habib Siddiqui, “the Rohingyas have been fleeing Buddhist Burma for quite some time, largely since the 1970s as a result of a plethora of state policies that are brutal, savage and an anathema to everything we consider moral, noble, right, fair and decent in our time. Not a single of the Articles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is honored by the Buddhist government in its treatment of the Rohingya people. The Burmese government had effectively made them stateless in their own country with no rights and made them the most persecuted people on earth. As a result of such unfathomable violations of human rights, a majority of the Rohingya have ended up living as refugees or unwanted people in many parts of our world, especially, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Gulf States.”

“In utter desperation, the Rohingya have become the stranded boat people of our time. Aptly put, they are forced to brave death at sea to escape ‘open-air concentration camps’ in genocidal Burma.”

Over the past three years, Muslim communities across Burma have suffered horrific violence, whipped up by hate speech preached by extremist Buddhist nationalists. Every aspect of their lives, including marriage, childbirth and ability to work, is severely restricted. Their right to identity and citizenship is officially denied. They have been systematically uprooted, with 200,000 held in internal displacement camps and unknown thousands have taken to sea as refugees. The UNHCR estimates that more than 120,000 people have left the area by boat from the Bay of Bengal since June 2012. The government even denies humanitarian agencies unfettered access in their internal displacement camps.  Their homes, businesses, and mosques have been destroyed. Amid the destruction, many Rohingyas have been unfairly imprisoned, with some tortured to death while behind bars.

Since then, the Rohingya have been backed into a corner, their lives made so intolerable that tens of thousands have fled by sea, seeking safety and a sense of dignity elsewhere. Surviving the perilous journey to Bangladesh, Thailand or Malaysia is, too often, seen as the only way to finally be free from persecution.

In order to protect the Rohingya, the principle of RtoP is the most appropriate international norm to apply to resolve the human rights violations in Myanmar because it obligates states to safeguard their populations from crimes such as ethnic cleansing and genocide. The Myanmar government is responsible under RtoP to protect the Rohingya since, despite their stateless status, “they are human beings living within the territory of Myanmar.” An international response under this framework is necessary because the Myanmar government is unwilling and unable to protect the Rohingya. Moreover, the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are adversely affecting at least four ASEAN member nations and Bangladesh. Without some intervention from of the international community, the gross human rights violations against the Rohingya will continue.

The RtoP norm grew out of events in the 1990s, such as the Rwandan genocide and the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia. In both of these cases, the international community did not effectively prevent or respond to the gross human rights violations perpetrated against populations within the two sovereign states. These unfortunate events made it apparent that state sovereignty alone should not prevent the international community from responding to humanitarian crises. The norm focuses on the “victims’ point of view and interests, rather than questionable [state-centered] motivations.”

Since the 1990s, a collection of international humanitarian law has come to legitimize the involvement of external states in the affairs of states that “massively oppress and persecute their own people violently” to protect populations, like the Rohingya, from further crimes.

This norm was expounded by the International Commission on Intervention and State Responsibility in 2001, and the RtoP principle was unanimously endorsed at the United Nations General Assembly on October 24, 2005, when world leaders committed themselves to “‘take collective action . . . should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations.’” The RtoP principle entails four pledges.

First, all states have the “responsibility to protect their own citizens from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Second, the international community must help states with this responsibility, including capacity building and assistance.

Third, the international community has the obligation to pursue peaceful means, such as diplomatic and humanitarian channels, to protect people from genocide, ethnic cleansing, and mass atrocities. Fourth, the UN Security Council will implement its powers under Chapter VII of the UN Charter should all peaceful means fail to protect the afflicted population from the mass atrocities.

Moreover, the obligation for international intervention is also enshrined in the Genocide Convention of 1948, which states that “‘genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which [states] undertake to prevent and to punish.’” Violation of this Genocide Convention was cited as the legal authority in the international criminal tribunals for the atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Essentially, both the 2005 UN RtoP document and the long-standing 1948 Genocide Convention stipulate that the duty to protect individuals against gross human rights violations is a function of sovereignty and should be fulfilled by the state wherein the violence is occurring. Without the ability or willingness of that state to fulfill such obligations, as is the case in Myanmar, the burden of responsibility falls on external states. The international community is called to help, compel, or even coerce the offending state to provide protection.

In the meantime, Myanmar’s government under President Thein Sein is failing to meet its obligations to protect the Rohingya from continued ethnic cleansing and genocide under the RtoP principle and the 1948 Genocide Convention. While the Myanmar government has pursued policies of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya since at least the 1978 Nagamin pogrom, this analysis will focus on the country’s inadequate response to the recent crisis in Rakhine state. The state’s failure to protect the Rohingya from atrocities is evident through the active participation of state security forces in the 2012 massacres, the Myanmar government’s inadequate response and investigation into the events, and its refusal or inability to protect the Rohingya from further crimes against humanity.

The ethnic riots of 2012 triggered the initiation of genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar. The complicity of state security forces during the attacks demonstrates that the ethnic violence was not isolated from government involvement. Rather, representatives of the Myanmar state, through Rakhine state’s security forces, were participants in the destruction and murder that occurred in the Rohingya villages. The Myanmar government’s involvement in the crimes was both indirect and direct. While the violence was perpetrated primarily by mobs, the state security forces stood by and did nothing to protect the Muslim communities. In other instances, the state security forces participated directly in the violence. Reports of the violence in June and October reveal that the state security forces killed many Muslims attempting to protect their homes from fire and other damage. Human Rights Watch assessed that this action “suggests that the authorities were willing to use lethal force against Rohingya . . . who were trying to prevent a forced population transfer.”

Human Rights Watch evidence indicates that political and religious leaders in Rakhine state organized and provoked attacks against the Muslim populations to drive them from the communities which they shared with the larger Buddhist population.

First, Rakhinese political and community groups issued educational pamphlets and speeches leading up to the violence, which vilified the Rohingya ethnicity and called for their removal from the community.

Second, the Rakhinese political and religious leaders held conferences and meetings leading up to the violence during which they called for the Rohingya to leave the area.

Third, in the months leading to the October violence, local authorities thwarted the ability of the Rohingya to conduct day-to-day business in an attempt to force them to leave the area by restricting their freedom of movement, opportunities to work, and access to aid.

Thus, it is confirmed that the genocide against the Rohingya was planned, organized, and executed by the elements of Myanmar’s government that should have protected the Rohingya under the RtoP principle and Genocide Convention.

President Thein Sein’s government has not held the perpetrators of the massacres responsible for their actions and has failed to achieve a solution that will protect the Rohingya from future violence. Human Rights Watch has found no evidence that the Myanmar government is taking any legal action against the perpetrators of the atrocities.

Instead, the government exacerbated the situation as state security forces impeded justice by overseeing and ordering the digging of mass graves and dumping Rohingya bodies near Rohingya internally displaced camps. Following the June 2012 violence, President Thein Sein announced in July 2012 that the solution to the crisis was to send the Rohingya to any country that would accept them or to UNHCR refugee camps in other countries. At the time, public opinion supported his call for expatriation of the Rohingya population as an acceptable political solution. President Thein Sen also sent a commission, led by an ethnic Rakhinese man, to Rakhine state to assess the conflict from June to July 2012. Unsurprisingly, the biased commission responded that there had been no government abuses and that the humanitarian needs were being met. The central government also denied that the conflict was severe and blamed foreign media and organizations for fabricating the nature and extent of the violence.

Following the second outbreak of violence, Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a press release on December 6, 2012, which denied any government responsibility for the mass violence. The press release also referenced the Rohingya as “Bengalis,” which reflects the government’s continued refusal to provide Myanmar citizenship or state protection for the Rohingya. In response to a non-binding resolution issued by the UN General Assembly on November 26, 2012, which urged the Myanmar government to improve the living situation for the Rohingya and to protect their human rights, the Myanmar delegation accepted the resolution in principle but rejected the existence of the Rohingya as an ethnic group in Myanmar. The government strongly denied that there was any form of ethnic cleansing occurring in Rakhine state.

Government officials blamed the violence on communal conflict between the Rakhine ethnic group and the Rohingya “as a result of underdevelopment in the region and [a] lack of international assistance.”

In response to continued international condemnation of Thein Sein’s handling of the conflict, the Myanmar government introduced several programs to advance social relations in the region, which included initiatives geared towards improving law enforcement, infrastructure, and labor intensive industries in Rakhine state.

Unfortunately, the programs were half-hearted and did not improve conditions for the Rohingya. Moreover, these steps fell far short of addressing the core issue of citizenship rights for them. As a result, the government’s response was unsuccessful in preventing continued violence against the Rohingya.

Hence, in January 2014, ethnic tensions once again exploded between the Rohingya Muslims and the Rakhine Buddhists in the village of Du Char Yar Tan in Rakhine state. According to The Washington Post, “at least 48 people were killed in two separate incidents when Buddhist mobs went on a rampage against Rohingya Muslims.” Furthermore, the Myanmar government ordered Doctors Without Borders, which led an extensive program providing medical services to approximately 700,000 people in Rakhine state, to cease all operations in the state in response to the organization’s announcement that it had treated 22 victims of the January violence. By the result there, in Rakhine state, the severe health crisis were occurred that exemplifying the Myanmar government’s unwillingness to protect the Rohingya.

After the violence in 2012, nearly 140,000 Muslims (primarily Rohingya) remain displaced in Rakhine state. The Myanmar government has not equipped the Rohingya IDP camps with basic human needs, such as sufficient food, water, shelter, and latrines. In contrast, the Myanmar government has supplied Rakhine IDP camps with sufficient resources and is actively working to return Rakhine IDPs to their villages. This disproportional response to the needs of the Rohingya and of the Rakhine communities indicates that the Myanmar government is unwilling to protect the Rohingya from continued human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s national elections, scheduled for 2015, make it politically difficult for the nation’s leaders to address the Rohingya issue because fears of “Islamization” are rampant among the majority Buddhist population in central Myanmar. The Myanmar government understands that the Rohingya conflict threatens positive relations with the West, but the pursuit of democratic votes prevents the government from properly addressing the conflict. The small step of government allowance for Myanmar’s minority Muslim population to identify themselves as Rohingya in the country’s first national census in March 2014 caused a mob of Rakhine Buddhists to attack the offices and the homes of foreign aid workers. In that month alone, nearly 700 aid workers were evacuated due to the violence. Constitutional reform, which is necessary to resolve the core issue of Rohingya statelessness, does not appear to be feasible in Myanmar’s current political climate.

Even opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been widely criticized for her restrained response to the violence. On November 8, 2012, Myanmar’s parliament Rule of Law committee, headed by Suu Kyi, issued a statement that called for respect for human rights, but also identified the root causes of the communal strife as illegal migration and border security. These statements appear to be calculated political responses so as to not alienate her party, the NLD, from the majority Buddhist population. Moreover, she has presidential aspirations and needs the support of the Buddhist leaders. Suu Kyi’s actions reflect the political reality in Myanmar that the government is unwilling and unable to fulfill its responsibility to protect the Rohingya.

Since Myanmar has failed to prevent continuing human rights violations against the Rohingya, the international community has the responsibility under the RtoP to pursue all peaceful means to resolve the plight of the Rohingya and to provide Myanmar with sufficient capacity building and assistance to end the ethnic and religious conflict.

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