by Henry Siegman
It is well over half a century since the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust were tried in Nuremburg, and a decade and a half since the International Criminal Court was launched following the crimes committed in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia. Yet today the international community is still failing to confront barbarism and genocide, this time by the government of Myanmar against the Rohingya of Rakhine state, and is failing to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The crimes committed by the government of Myanmar have been described by the United Nations Security Council as “shocking for their horrifying nature and ubiquity,” amounting to “the gravest crimes in international law.” Nearly 400 Rohingya villages have been burned to the ground. Almost a million Rohingya have been forced to flee, and thousands of those who did not, including infants, have been raped and slaughtered.
Over one million Rohingya refugees now languish in the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh, a poor country which has done its best to accommodate this immense human suffering with limited international support. In Myanmar, many displaced Rohingya now face even more deplorable conditions.
While the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh have repeatedly sought to organize a return of refugees to Myanmar, this cannot be done and should not be done until Myanmar creates the conditions for safe, voluntary, and dignified repatriation. But Myanmar authorities continue to undermine the legal status of the Rohingya and to fuel their legitimate security concerns. There are still no official processes in place for reconciliation or compensation, let alone accountability for the atrocities that caused the Rohingya to flee in the first place.
United Nations experts have found that the areas which Myanmar authorities claim to have prepared for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have been bulldozed, with not a tree left standing. Rohingya villages have been razed to the ground and replaced with police and military installations, undoubtedly manned by some of the same police and military personnel who joined in the initial rape and slaughter of the Rohingya. No wonder the Rohingya in Bangladesh believe that to return to Rakhine is to return to their deaths.
But the Rohingya do not just require a safe return to their homes; they deserve justice. Despite numerous reports detailing the horrific crimes committed against the Rohingya, the United Nations Security Council has yet to commence any serious effort to bring those responsible for these atrocities to account.
During the Bosnian-Serbian war, when the Serbs were brutally attacking Sarajevo—a city that had been one of the world’s foremost models of peaceful co-existence for different ethnic and religious populations—a British officer who had just witnessed how Serbian sharp shooters who were killing Muslims from the safety of their elevated redoubts had been shredding a young Muslim girl was reported to have said “I prayed she would die quickly.” Facing what seemed at the time the world’s indifference to that attempted genocide, the American Jewish Congress placed an advertisement in the New York Times addressing America’s and the world’s leaders, asking “Shall we now pray that all of Sarajevo’s Muslims die quickly?”
It is a question the world leaders who will be at the upcoming meeting of the UN General Assembly and the Security Council should be asked with regard to the Rohingya. It should also be considered by the numerous Holocaust museums that see themselves as keepers of “Never Again,” the sacred pledge that what the world allowed to happen to Europe’s Jews would not ever be allowed to happen again to any people.
The following actions need to be taken by the United Nations:
- Ensure accountability for those accused of the most serious crimes under international law (crimes against humanity, war crimes and/or genocide) before an appropriate international criminal tribunal
- Either refer the Myanmar situation to the International Criminal Court under the Rome Statute or establish a special ad hoc international criminal tribunal on Myanmar, similar to the tribunals on former Yugoslavia and Rwanda
- Call for the International Court of Justice to take action against Myanmar under the Genocide Convention
- Require States to pursue criminal proceedings against alleged perpetrators of crimes under international law in Myanmar as an exercise of universal jurisdiction for those crimes
- Impose targeted sanctions against the Myanmar generals named in the FFM’s report and against the Myanmar military (the Tatmadaw) and companies and businesses established by the Tatmadaw or associates of the Tatmadaw, predominantly owned by the Tatmadaw or associates of the Tatmadaw or connected to the Tatmadaw
Rohingya’s Muslims may not be facing the same fate the Nazis inflicted on the millions of Jews of Europe. But that is no justification for the world’s indifference. Moreover, there should be no doubt that if the international community cannot or will not act to prevent the threatened genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, there is no reason to expect it to act any differently in preventing another Holocaust.
Henry Siegman is President Emeritus of the U.S./Middle East Project and a past Senior Fellow on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was a Visiting Research Professor at SOAS, and formerly headed the American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America.