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Ethnic Cleansing vs. Genocide: The Politics Behind Labeling the Rohingya Crisis

On November 22, after some reluctance, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson joined the United Nations and United Kingdom in calling the current Rohingya crisis an “ethnic cleansing.” Holding Myanmar’s military, security forces, and local vigilantes responsible for the crisis, Tillerson stated that the United States could pursue accountability via targeted sanctions. While some hailed Tillerson’s label of ethnic cleansing as a start, it’s worth taking a closer look at the politics behind it. First, ethnic cleansing does not elicit a legal response, whereas the labels of “crimes against humanity” or “genocide” do. Second, targeted sanctions are known to be ineffective, so threatening Myanmar with them seems unproductive.

The current humanitarian crisis began on August 25, when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army coordinated an attack on Myanmar’s police and security forces. Myanmar’s military crackdown on the Rohingya population was severe, resulting in a mass exodus that is now called the fastest growing refugee emergency in the world. Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world, is now host to at least one million Rohingya refugees, and relief agencies like the United Nations Children’s Fundare struggling to establish a health system to try to limit malnutrition and the spread of disease. Stories of burning villages, massacres, sexual violence and rape are emerging daily. So, then, why is there a global unwillingness to label the Rohingya persecution by the Myanmar government and military as genocide?

There are three main reasons why “ethnic cleansing” is preferred as a label over “genocide.”

First, labeling a crisis “ethnic cleansing” has no legal implications—and hence is easier for states to deal with. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide has declared genocide to be a crime under international law, and defines it as “the intent to destroy an ethnic, national, racial or religious group.” Ethnic cleansing, on the other hand, refers to the expulsion of a group from a certain area, but there is no treaty that determines its parameters. Even though the lines between ethnic cleansing and genocide are blurry, the former requires no domestic and international legal action. The label of ethnic cleansing, therefore, seems like a call for action but in reality is less politically charged, and is more like a “feel good” option for the international community.

Second, labeling an atrocity as ethnic cleansing is less time consuming. Historically, applying the label “genocide” takes decades. For example, the systematic killing of the Armenian people by the Ottoman Empire in 1915–1917 was first recognized as genocide by the United States in 1975 (though Alabama and Mississippi still do not recognize it). While 28 countries recognize the Armenian genocide, Turkey continues to reject the label. Similarly, the UN recognized the organized targeting and killing of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 as genocide in 2014—20 years after the atrocities. Just last week, Ratko Mladic, the “butcher of Bosnia,” was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity twenty years after committing the acts, and after a trial that took five years to conclude.

And third, ethnic cleansing opens the door for the United States to impose specific economic and military sanctions on Myanmar. The State Department is especially interested in pursuing sanctions against Myanmar’s government and military officials who are directly responsible for the atrocities. The problem is that sanctions are typically unsuccessful in changing state behavior, so even if the United States imposed specialized sanctions on Myanmar, it would do little to ease the plight of the Rohingyas. Targeted sanctions could also derail Myanmar’s already slow economic development, which is largely due to decades of oppressive military rule.

Myanmar’s government, military, and Buddhist hardliners not only continue to deny allegations of genocide but have become emboldened in their persecution of the Rohingyas. For example, Myanmar’s authorities constantly link Rohingyas, who are Muslim, to terrorism, taking advantage of the rhetoric of the Global War on Terrorthat has mostly targeted Muslims worldwide. Though there are some concerns about jihadist recruitment in the Rakhine province, there is little evidence to suggest the Rohingya as a group are a unique threat. Myanmar’s leader, the now defamed Aung San Suu Kyi, even went as far as to blame “fake news” for distorting information regarding the latest military crackdown in the province, calling it a “huge iceberg of misinformation.” Amidst pressure from Bangladesh, Myanmar signed a repatriation program, but has agreed only to take in those refugees who can present identity documents, such as government-issued “white cards.” This of course is an impossible feat for thousands who fled with almost nothing—and will most certainly be unable to produce any evidence of citizenship and/or residency.

The label of genocide, however, is important—and necessary in the Rohingya case. The most significant advantage that genocide has over any other label is that Myanmar’s authorities would come under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), a special court that investigates and prosecutes war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Even though proving genocide takes time, there is a great deal of empirical evidence in the Rohingya case. For example, Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocideoutlines five acts that constitute a genocide:

  1. Killing members of the group,

  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm,

  3. Deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the group’s physical destruction in whole or in part,

  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births, and

  5. Forcibly transferring children.

There is ample evidence of the Rohingyas being subjected to each of these heinous acts, and human rights groups are rigorously documenting the physical destruction and psychological torment being inflicted on the Rohingyas by Myanmar’s military now.

Not all labels are created equal. This is precisely why it is imperative to use the correct one. In the case of the Rohingya crisis, genocide is perhaps the only label that could give Myanmar’s government and military pause in their persecution, for fear of being tried at the ICC. As for inviting outside military intervention, the label of genocide shares the same risk as the label of ethnic cleansing. What ethnic cleansing does not provide is a legal implication, which is vital.


(c) 2017 Cato Institute

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