Last Wednesday an international court found Ratko Mladić, the notorious “butcher of Bosnia,” guilty of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. As Commander of the Bosnian Serb Army during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, Mladić’s troops forced thousands of civilians to flee from “ethnic cleansing” – a cruel euphemism that will forever be associated with the wars in the former Yugoslavia. At the time Mladić appeared all-powerful and untouchable, presiding over the genocide at Srebrenica and wantonly committing war crimes. He will now die in prison.
It took decades for international justice to catch up with Mladić. And while the verdict is a welcome warning to other perpetrators, it also poses the uncomfortable question of whether the international community is doing enough to hold those responsible for atrocities today accountable for their crimes?
Last month, at a meeting held at the United Nations in New York, I argued that “democracy in Myanmar cannot be built on the bones of the Rohingya.” Sitting between the former Foreign Minister of Bangladesh and the UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, those were my concluding remarks regarding the quickest and most brutal episode of ethnic cleansing of our times. They were made to a room crowded with diplomats, UN bureaucrats and human rights activists who were gathered because since 25 August more than 622,000 Rohingya have crossed the border from Myanmar (Burma) into Bangladesh.
The Rohingya are fleeing so-called “clearance operations” carried out by the Myanmar military in Rakhine State, including widespread killings, rape, and the burning of more than 280 villages. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has described these attacks as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
The Rohingya, a distinct Muslim ethnic group in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, have been persecuted for generations. Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law does not recognize the estimated 1 million Rohingya as one of the country’s “national races,” rendering them stateless. Other discriminatory laws restrict their freedom of movement and access to employment and education. In short, the conditions under which the Rohingya minority live in Myanmar constitute a uniquely Southeast Asian form of apartheid.
The military’s operations began as collective punishment for a coordinated attack on police and army barracks by Rohingya militants armed mainly with knives. One week later, the Commander of Myanmar’s military, General Min Aung Hlaing, described the “Bengali problem” (he refuses to use the term Rohingya) as an “unfinished job” that previous governments had failed to complete. Atrocities committed against the Rohingya population since then constitute crimes against humanity under international law. They may ultimately prove to be genocidal in intent.
The response of the UN Security Council has been tepid at best. It took ten weeks for the Council just to issue a Presidential statement condemning the atrocities. The reason for the delay is that China is a powerful ally of the Generals who still dominate Myanmar. China is also Myanmar’s largest supplier of arms. But facing global outrage, China eventually agreed to a unanimous Presidential statement rather than a legally-binding resolution. Words, but no action.
Despite the Security Council’s inertia, the flow of Rohingya refugees has ebbed. This is not because atrocities were halted, but because Myanmar’s military has largely finished its job. Possibly as much as 80% of the Rohingya population have fled. And no one knows how many more are dead or displaced inside Myanmar. Unfinished business, indeed.
My comment at the UN regarding the bones of the Rohingya was a response to those who see these atrocities as unconscionable, but ultimately, as a lesser priority than the political preservation of Myanmar’s frail democracy under Aung San Suu Kyi. The greatest threat to Myanmar’s democracy today, however, is the impunity of its Generals. What kind of a country will Myanmar be if they are allowed to successfully impose their scorched earth policy on Rakhine State? They will certainly have no incentive to respect the human rights of the other 135 ethnic groups who live within Myanmar’s borders.
But there is an alternative. First, the international community should suspend all bilateral ties with Myanmar’s military. All senior officers with command responsibility for ethnic cleansing should also face targeted sanctions. And all international trade, aid and investment programs in Rakhine State should be scrupulously reviewed. The local authorities and the Myanmar military must not be allowed to profit from the seizure of Rohingya crops, livestock and land.
The United States, Canada, European Union and others have already imposed some of these measures, but all UN member states should do so.
Secondly, influential international friends of Aung San Suu Kyi need to continue to lobby her to implement the recommendations of the Rakhine Commission. Led by Kofi Annan, the Commission has offered practical suggestions to end the persecution of the Rohingya and ease conflict in Rakhine. Not by coincidence, its final report was released on 24 August, the day before the current conflagration began. Expeditiously implementing the Commission’s recommendations would weaken those inside Myanmar’s military who still prefer to conduct domestic policy with bayonets and bullets.
Finally, we need to recognize that the international community has utterly failed the Rohingya. Despite years of warnings about the risk of mass atrocities, including by my own organization, a number of governments took refuge in the idea that quiet diplomacy – including acquiescing to Myanmar’s insistence on not publicly mentioning the Rohingya – would create space for gentle reform. Instead it had the reverse affect, encouraging those generals who desired a final solution in Rakhine State and wanted to test the limits of Aung San Suu Kyi’s moral authority.
Unlike Ratko Mladić’s victims, Rohingya refugees should not have to wait two decades for justice. It is time to amplify the voices of those calling for the Myanmar authorities to uphold their responsibility to protect the Rohingya. This will require more than hand wringing. It will necessitate holding General Min Aung Hlaing and all those responsible for ethnic cleansing in Myanmar accountable for their actions. What is at stake is not just the fate of the Rohingya, but the very idea of an international community that is prepared to defend universal rights.