Myanmar, genocide and human rights: the atrocities our world allows

Today, 9 December, is the international day of commemoration of the victims of genocide. Tomorrow, 10 December, is international Human Rights Day. These two days commemorate the anniversaries of the ground-breaking UN Genocide Convention and Universal Declaration of Human Rights respectively.

This year, there is a deeper poignancy to these two anniversaries. For on 10 December, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague will hear Gambia’s application to institute proceedings against Myanmar concerning Myanmar’s compliance with the Genocide Convention. This is the highest-profile ICJ case of the year, with Aung San Suu Kyi herself leading the Myanmar delegation.

Much has been and will be written about the legal prospects of this ICJ case, proceedings of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other initiatives to hold Myanmar to account for the genocide and crimes against humanity perpetrated against the Rohingya. Amid technical debates around intent, jurisdiction and scope, there is a danger that we may lose sight of something more fundamental.

Regardless of how the ICJ, ICC and other processes play out, past atrocities cannot be undone. Our world allowed them to happen. Our world turned away because it was too difficult and inconvenient to watch. Our world carried on because there were deals to be struck and profits to be made. The dehumanisation, persecution and extreme violence inflicted on the Rohingya – not since 2017, but for over 40 years – diminishes us all.

These high-profile cases will reopen some of the most polarising arguments about the crisis. The question of what happened and how it should be classified. Is it genocide? Ethnic cleansing? Crimes against humanity? Persecution? Systemic harm? Discrimination? Ethnic conflict? Communal tension? Sporadic acts of violence? Self-inflicted and completely blown out of proportion? Random accidents?

That there can be such a range of positions is both incredible and damning. If Myanmar’s version is to be believed, this is the story of a responsible but under-resourced state that is committed to democracy and the rule of law, striving to minimise inter-communal tension, while at the same time cracking down on terrorism, quelling random arson attacks and combatting illegal immigration from neighbouring Bangladesh. That this version has ever been viewed as credible, and continues to be reinforced by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, only proves that the first victim of injustice is often the truth.

This Burmese narrative was only possible because, despite the lessons of history, the international community – encouraged by signs of democratisation and ‘opening up of space’ – gave Myanmar the benefit of the doubt time and again. There was a country to be won, a democracy to be built and an economy to be opened up. If the price of access was to not use the word ‘Rohingya’ and take a softly-softly approach to the arbitrary deprivation of nationality and resultant statelessness, marginalisation and persecution of an entire community, it was perhaps a price worth paying.

Against the grain, a handful of researchers, advocates and activists raised the alarm many years ago that crimes against humanity were being perpetrated and a genocide was ongoing, with mass-scale atrocities imminent. These people had studied the issue closely and recognised the patterns of structural discrimination and abuse designed to wear the Rohingya down, dehumanise them and ultimately push them out. Such voices were muted and tentative at first, but grew stronger and more desperate as they went unheard.

That they now represent a mainstream view and the basis for serious international litigation is a testament to the persistence of human rights defenders who pushed against the status quo – the diplomatic community and international organisations – which for reasons of caution and vested interest have been far too slow to come around. Rohingya activists among this group have been the most persistent. The world’s refusal to listen to victims has, once again, preceded a great and avoidable tragedy. In the words of Hafsar Tameesuddin, a courageous and thoughtful Rohingya activist:


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