Over the weekend, Pope Francis spoke about the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma (also known as Myanmar). Pope Francis is also planning a visit to Burma later this year. His speech was followed by statements from the United Nations and state officials about recent developments in Burma and the worsening situation of the Rohingya Muslims. The question is: what is happening to Rohingya Muslims in Burma?
This August 29, 2017, photo shows an elderly Rohingya refugee holding her sleeping grandson in her lap at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhiya after crossing the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh. (Photo credit: EMRUL KAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Rohingyas are the people indigenous to the western Rakhine State of Burma. They are predominately Muslims. Despite their indigenous status, the Burmese government refuses to recognise their identity as Rohingyas, labelling them as illegal immigrantsfrom Bangladesh. The effect on their rights within Burma has been profound.
The lives of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma have never been without challenges, their immigration status especially so. Their situation deteriorated rapidly after the events on October 9, 2016, when nine Burmese police officers were killed by an armed militia. It is a given that any armed insurgency or terror activities have to be adequately addressed by the state to ensure the safety of the people. However, the response to the killings of the Burmese police officers was reportedly violent, leading to widespread and systematic indiscriminate attacks against Rohingya Muslim civilians. The events of October 2016 put Burma firmly onto the United Nations' radar.
On February 3, 2017, the OHCHR Mission to Bangladeshreleased a report based on interviews with Rohingyas who fled Burma since the events of October 9, 2016. The report was commissioned as a result of reports that over 66,000 Rohingyas had fled Burma to Bangladesh since October 9, 2016. The OHCHR Mission to Bangladesh interviewed 240 people who informed the preparation of the report, including 204 in-depth interviews. The OHCHR Mission to Bangladesh summarised that the interviewed Rohingyas reported the following atrocities:
Extrajudicial executions or other killings, including by random shooting; enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention; rape, including gang rape, and other forms of sexual violence; physical assault including beatings; torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; looting and occupation of property; destruction of property; and ethnic and religious discrimination and persecution.
The OHCHR Mission to Bangladesh raised its concerns that the atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslims amounted to ‘persecution against a particular ethnic and religious group.’ The report further indicated that as of January 20, 2017, over 22,000 Rohingyas remained internally displaced in Burma. The report suggested that crimes against humanity or even ethnic cleansing were taking place.
Rohingyas who escaped from unrest brush their teeth at a temporary shelter in Sittwe, Rakhine State on August 31, 2017. (Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images)
In March 2017, as a result of the deteriorating situation, and in response to the report of the OHCHR Mission to Bangladesh, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution establishing an independent international fact-finding mission to collect information about the alleged human rights violations in Burma, and focusing mainly on the Rakhine State. The resolution condemned the violence in Burma and called for peaceful resolutions. The ethno-religious character of the conflict in Burma was also recognised in the March 2017 resolution of the Human Rights Council when it:
Strongly encourage[d] the Government of Myanmar to take the measures necessary to address discrimination and prejudice against women, children and members of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities across the country, and to take further action to publicly condemn and speak out against any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, and to adopt measures to criminalize incitement to imminent violence based on nationality, race or religion or belief…
Following the passage of the March 2017 resolution, the UN Human Rights Council appointed two of the members of the fact finding mission in May 2017, namely, Ms Radhika Coomaraswamy and Mr Christopher Dominic Sidoti. The Chair of the fact finding mission, Mr Marzuki Darusman, was announced in July 2017. Despite the fact that the fact finding mission is ready to fulfil its obligations to explore the human rights violations in Burma, the Burmese government refused to cooperate and allow the fact finding mission into the country. Hence, despite the establishment of the fact-finding mission, it is prevented from conducting its work from the field and clarifying the situation in Burma. Instead, it is forced to continue its work remotely and will present an update on the situation in Burma during the upcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council.
In August 2017, the Burmese government released a report into the alleged crimes against humanity and the Rohingya Muslims. The report concluded that no such crimes had taken place.
Despite Burma’s increased scrutiny by the United Nations, the plight of the Rohingya Muslims has deteriorated further over the past few days sparking international condemnation and criticism. Media reports confirm that hundreds of people were slaughtered in clashes between Burmese forces and Rohingya insurgents. The fatalities reportedly included civilians. Many buildings were destroyed in the fighting and thousands of Rohingya Muslims were forced to flee to Bangladesh. The Burmese government blames Rohingya insurgents for the killings and property destruction. However, some reportssuggested that it was the Burmese army that was burning down villages and shooting civilians.
In response to the ever growing crisis in Burma, on August 29, 2017, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein made a statement condemning the dire situation of Rohingya Muslims in Burma. He noted that since the recent clashes, over 8,700 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh. He called for peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Crimes against humanity or genocide?
The atrocities perpetrated against Rohingya Muslims have also been flagged as possible crimes against humanity and 'the precursor of other egregious international crimes' by UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng.
Despite the fact that the word 'genocide' in relation to the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma has not been used by any international institutions yet, not surprisingly considering the re-occurring reluctance to do so, it must be examined whether the atrocities have met the threshold of genocide.
For mass atrocities to be classified as genocide, all particulars of Article II of the UN Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide have to be fulfilled. Genocide occurs when the Article II litany of offences is perpetrated against one of the protected groups (either national, ethnic, religious or racial) with the specific intent to destroy the group in whole or in part.
It was made very clear from the report of the OHCHR Mission to Bangladesh, the conflict has an ethno-religious character. Rohingya Muslims, as a religious and also an ethnic minority in Burma, are a protected group under Article II.
The atrocities allegedly perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslims, which still require an adequate investigation, fall within the listed in Article II methods to bring about genocide.
The question is then whether it is possible to establish the specific intent to destroy the group in whole or in part. This is what differentiates genocide from other mass atrocities. The specific intent does not have to be explicit as in the case of Daesh who made numerous statements expressing its aims of destroying religious pluralism in Syria and Iraq, targeting Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities. This specific intent may be inferred from the atrocities themselves, as was confirmed in one of the cases of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, ICTR v Akayesu. In the absence of any clear expression of any such specific intent, the patterns of the mass atrocities and their impact on the Rohingya Muslim population in Burma must be considered in favour of establishing such an intent.
Lastly, this genocide, if in fact, it is genocide, does not have to materialise fully before the international community responds. Indeed the notion of an attempted genocide is rarely used. However, to make the best of the mechanisms to prevent genocide, an attempt of the ‘crime of offences’ must be recognised accordingly.
The situation of Rohingya Muslims requires an urgent and comprehensive response: to stop the ongoing violence and to help the victims with all their needs before the ethnoreligious remnant disappears from Burma. The response must include an adequate investigation of the alleged crimes against Rohingya Muslims.
(c) 2017 Forbes