It is hard to overstate just how badly the international community has failed, and continues to fail, to stand up for the rights of the Rohingya. As the penholder on Burma at the United Nations Security Council and traditional lead country on Burma at the European Union, the British government bears a particular responsibility.
It is not simply a question of genuine misjudgements and lack of opportunities for leverage. It is a deliberate and wilful failure that took place between 2012 and 2017, and has continued since the large scale military offensive in 2017.
It was a failure to stand up for the rights of the Rohingya after the first violence in June 2012. A deliberate misrepresentation of what took place then and in October 2012 as repressed tensions being released and a problem of lack of police training.
It was a failure to stand up for Rohingya rights as the military-backed government systematically stepped up repression against them, blocking humanitarian aid, excluding them from the census, excluding them from the 2015 election, and numerous other small and large climb-downs which sent the message that the Rohingya were considered expendable for the so-called greater good. It was a failure of diplomats not even using the name Rohingya because racist officials in government told them not to.
It was a failure to take any significant response after the October 2016 military offensive. To actually have military commander Min Aung Hlaing given red carpet treatment and speaking to assembled EU military heads even as his soldiers burned Rohingya villages and raped Rohingya women. For Germany and Austria to invite Min Aung Hlaing and sell him military equipment in 2017 even after the first UN reports of what the military did in October 2016.
It was a failure whereby they consciously decided to ignore repeated warnings from numerous human rights organisations and legal experts, and continued with the policies which they were being warned were contributing to the crisis.
It was a failure to react in August 2017 even as it was obvious that the government and military were whipping up tensions and violence was likely.
A failure to take any significant action against the military once the military offensive had begun.
The positive step of establishing the United Nation Fact-Finding Mission was followed by the failure of a single government anywhere in the world to implement its recommendations where it was within their power to do so.
The failure of a single government to publicly state that it supports a UN mandated global arms embargo on Burma.
The failure of the United Nations Security Council to refer Burma to the International Criminal Court, with not even the two countries which used to be stronger on human rights in Burma at the UNSC, the UK and USA, publicly supporting a referral.
The failure to sanction military companies, an important source of revenue, most of which depend on foreign equipment and expertise.
The failure even to provide enough aid for the establishment of decent conditions for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
The failure of the USA designating Min Aung Hlaing as responsible for gross human rights violations, but then following through with only banning him from taking holidays in the USA.
The failure of the EU not even doing that, only banning just over a dozen military and security personnel from holidaying in EU countries, but not including Min Aung Hlaing and other senior commanders.
The failures do not just apply to the treatment of the military. There has been a failure to apply any significant pressure on the government of Burma, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, over her discriminatory policies towards the Rohingya, which violate international law and are part of the genocide taking place against them.
The failure to take action over the restrictions on humanitarian aid she applies to the Rohingya, whilst at the same time providing aid in various forms to the government and Parliament.
The failure of calling for safe, voluntary and dignified return, but doing almost nothing to help create the conditions needed for that to happen.
The effective endorsement of the NVC process, for which there is no legal requirement, and which instead of taking the Rohingya closer to citizenship requires them to state they are foreigners and not entitled to full citizenship.
The failure, time and time again, to call out the numerous committees and enquiries established by the government and military for the shams they are, instead always adopting a wait and see approach as deadline after deadline is pushed back.
The failures of governments to review and acknowledge, in light of the genocide which took place, that they might have got their policies wrong.
A failure, over and over again, to listen to the Rohingya themselves.
The government and military of Burma may be unhappy with the level of criticism levelled at them, and by the frequent high level discussions at various international bodies, including at the UN Security Council, but especially in the case of the government, this has not had an impact that has changed their calculations on what policies they can follow whilst still enjoying political and financial support from the international community. In short, neither the government, nor the military, have paid any real price for the policies they are pursing against the Rohingya. Until they do, their calculations will not change. They will continue with those policies.
The Rohingya crisis will continue to fester, undermining the same ‘democratic transition’ which the international community has prioritised over the rights of the Rohingya. Every stated priority for Burma by members of the international community is being undermined by the government and military’s treatment of the Rohingya, and yet they still refuse to take what action they can to try to address the crisis.
It is only a question of time before there is another round of large-scale violence against the Rohingya in some form, even though there are not enough Rohingya left in Burma for a repeat of the scale of what took place in 2017.
There is no single measure the international community can take to start to address this crisis, but what is clear is that a continuation of the existing failed approach is not credible.
People who have spent a lot of time trying to get into positions of power then spend a lot of time claiming they are powerless as an excuse for their inaction.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, some people try to argue that there are few opportunities for leverage over the Burmese government and military. It may well be that even when all tools of leverage are tried the impact is limited, and doesn’t achieve everything that is hoped for. That would still be a big improvement on the situation now. To have tried and failed is better than having failed to try.
It is time for every tool that can be used to be used. Political, diplomatic, legal and economic pressure combined. In short, everything that can be done should be done.
There is not a single government in the world right now which can credibly say that it is doing everything it can. Anything less than that simply isn’t good enough.
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