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A Call to Action on Myanmar’s Genocide Against the Rohingya

April 30th, 2020  •  Author:   Refugees International  •  7 minute read
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The State of Myanmar has committed genocide against the Rohingya people, and the world must take action.

As the threat of genocide continues, Refugees International wants to be clear: We believe that the state of Myanmar is responsible for the crime of genocide, and that the United States and all governments that are parties to the Genocide Convention or support its objectives should take actions necessary to ensure accountability and to prevent further atrocities. 

Refugees International takes note of the case brought by The Gambia in the International Court of Justice claiming that Myanmar has violated the Genocide Convention, a position which we share. We encourage the United States and other countries to strongly endorse efforts of the World Court to promote accountability. 

Refugees International is aware that the International Criminal Court (ICC) has launched an investigation into possible crimes against the Rohingya “within the ICC’s jurisdiction in the Situation in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh/Republic of the Union of Myanmar (“the situation in Bangladesh/Myanmar”).” But the current investigation is limited to crimes that can be proven to have occurred, at least in part, in an ICC member country, namely Bangladesh. We believe that the effort within the ICC must be strengthened, and that justice would be served through a formal Security Council referral of the situation to the ICC. We urge Security Council members to act now.

Finally, we urge the U.S. State Department to make its views known on these critical issues. We believe the evidence supports a finding by the United States that the crimes committed against the Rohingya—and documented by the State Department’s own survey—constitute crimes against humanity and genocide. Such a determination would of course help to hasten a genocide prosecution, and would help to rally the international community to press Myanmar to address ongoing impunity, help to create the conditions for safe return of Rohingya, and help ensure assistance to victims until such return is possible.

Recognition of the crimes committed is not only important to ensure accountability, but also to deter ongoing and future crimes. The estimated 600,000 Rohingya remaining in Myanmar face ongoing restrictions on their freedom of movement and access to education and healthcare, and are prevented from identifying as Rohingya. In fact, the UN Fact Finding Mission has warned that the Rohingya face an ongoing risk of genocide. On January 23, 2020, in a preliminary ruling, the International Court of Justice found sufficient concern to call upon Myanmar to take measures to ensure genocide is prevented and to maintain evidence as the court continues its deliberations. A first report from Myanmar to the Court on actions it is taking on this ruling is due on May 23. With this deadline looming, and with 1 million Rohingya refugees suffering in Bangladesh and the estimated 600,000 still at risk in Myanmar, now is the time to recognize the word that fits the crime and to utilize the political will and sense of urgency such recognition creates to push global action.

The Refugees International Finding of Genocide

This is not a conclusion that Refugees International reaches lightly. But the evidence of the widespread, systematic nature of the attacks on the Rohingya and the intent reflected in the rhetoric and actions of the Myanmar military leads inevitably to this conclusion.  

This genocide determination comes after careful consultation with international scholars and legal experts on genocide and with full awareness of the high standards of the legal definition of genocide. It is based on Refugees International’s interviews with dozens of Rohingya refugees as well as broader surveys carried out by independent human rights groups, the U.S. Department of State, and the UN Independent Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar.

Overwhelming Evidence of Acts of Genocide

Numerous reports have established that several of the acts of genocide recognized in the Genocide Convention have been committed by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya people. These acts include killing members of a targeted group, causing serious bodily and mental harm, and deliberate creation of the conditions of life calculated to bring about the destruction of such a protected group in whole or in part (as defined in the Genocide Convention). Thousands of Rohingya have been killed. The majority of the population has been forced from the country and is now living under trying conditions across the border in Bangladesh. 

As Refugees International testified to the U.S. Congress following an emergency mission in September 2017, interviews with Rohingya refugees revealed: 

“a litany of abuses along a common strain: soldiers surrounding villages, using various incendiary devices to set fire to homes, at times locking or throwing people inside the burning structures; young women singled out to be taken away and raped; days long flight by foot and/or boat across the border to Bangladesh, arriving with just the clothes on their backs.”

These accounts have been corroborated by numerous further reports and eyewitness testimonies. Doctors Without Borders in December 2017 conservatively estimated at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed during the attacks. A broad survey of Rohingya refugees by Physicians for Human Rights estimated a similar number of deaths and documented burning of homes and mosques, sexual violence, and violence against civilians in flight. 

The State Department survey of 1,024 Rohingya refugees found that “the vast majority of Rohingya refugees experienced or directly witnessed extreme violence and the destruction of their homes.” The Myanmar military was identified as perpetrators in most cases and nearly 40 percent of those surveyed witnessed a rape committed by Myanmar security services. The survey concluded that the violence was “extreme, large-scale, widespread, and seemingly geared toward both terrorizing the populating and driving out the Rohingya residents.” The scope and scale indicated the military operations were “well-planned and coordinated.”

Genocidal Intent 

The intent of the Myanmar military to destroy the Rohingya, a distinct ethnic group, in whole or in part is apparent in its statements and actions. Authorities in Myanmar have long targeted the Rohingya for persecution, and current military leaders have fueled racist and dehumanizing perceptions of the group. They have furthered dangerous rhetoric that identifies Rohingya as an existential threat to Myanmar’s racial and religious purity. Survivors of the attacks have cited soldiers expressing a desire to kill and rape Rohingya, using phrases like “you don’t belong here” and “we will kill you all.” And, significantly, the physical destruction of many thousands of Rohingya is combined with a public and self-conscious effort by the military leadership to deny that the Rohingya even exist. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, in a Facebook post on September 2, 2018, described the “Bengali problem” as a “long-standing one” and an “unfinished job,” stating that “the government in office is taking great care in solving the problem.” 

As concluded by the UN’s Fact Finding Mission, this history of racist and derogatory language, along with the brutality of the attacks, the widespread use of sexual violence, and the organized nature of the attacks collectively “demonstrate a pattern of conduct that infers genocidal intent on the part of the State to destroy the Rohingya, in whole or in part, as a group.” 

The inference of intent has been further argued by The Gambia in its case against Myanmar now before the International Court of Justice. In short, there is ample precedent in the case law of prior international tribunals to establish a reasonable inference of genocidal intent in the case of the Rohingya.


  • The U.S. State Department should make a determination that genocide and crimes against humanity have been committed by Myanmar authorities against the Rohingya;

  • All Parties to the Genocide Convention should strongly endorse efforts at the International Court of Justice to promote accountability;

  • UN Security Council Members should refer the situation of atrocities committed against the Rohingya to the International Criminal Court.

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