Nearly 800,000 Rohingya refugees, currently living in Bangladesh, are trying to heal from wounds inflicted by what the UN deemed as genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. It’s been more than a year since those mass atrocities took place in Burma, yet the U.S. government still has not issued a determination on the crimes committed.
There is no shortage of testimony, evidence, and investigation corroborating that genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes occurred. But in its report, ‘Documentation of Atrocities in Northern Rakhine State,’ the U.S. stopped short of applying those terms. Instead, the administration continues to call what happened ethnic cleansing – a phrase employed by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the immediate aftermath of August 2017.
The current designation falls far short of reality.
Authorities already exist for the U.S. government to issue a determination and, in fact, it is in the administration’s interests to do so. No legal investigation is necessary: the data is already there, and the Secretary of State has the prerogative to issue a designation at any place and time.
Secretary Pompeo should do so for many reasons. Here are five that are particularly important.
1) A designation counters the narrative that the U.S. doesn’t care about human rights. Some in the international community are questioning the U.S. commitment to advancing human rights. Designating crimes committed against Rohingya as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes can counter that narrative by demonstrating that the U.S. responds to atrocities. Atrocities committed against Rohingya are among the most significant human rights abuses committed during the Trump presidency. A strong U.S. response would telegraph to other countries that the U.S. continues to support freedom and human rights. Failure to do so has the potential to embolden bad actors who will believe that there are no negative consequences for their diplomatic relationship with the U.S. for violating human rights.
2) A designation demonstrates U.S. commitment to preventing atrocities. The Obama administration designated ISIS actions against Yazidis, Christians and Shi’a Muslims as genocide. After Secretary Kerry issued the genocide determination in March 2016, the administration took minimal follow-on action. However, the Trump administration, through its Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Program, which allocated nearly $300 million toward assisting victims of ISIS genocide in Iraq, acted on the Obama administration’s ISIS genocide determination. Such determinations transcend administrations and ensure that survivors receive the help they need. Should the Trump administration issue a determination of its own on the Rohingya, it would demonstrate moral and political leadership and serve as an opportunity for the administration to highlight its burgeoning atrocity prevention policy. It is also an opportunity to recast the nearly $400 million in assistance the U.S. already provided to the Rohingya as direct assistance to victims of atrocity crimes.
3) A designation is likely to increase burden-sharing among countries. Credit should be given where credit is due. The U.S. provides more aid to the Rohingya than any other country. Now, more than a year since the crisis escalated, donor fatigue is setting in. A designation may serve as a catalyst for other countries to provide aid.
4) A designation will put the U.S. “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy into action. The Trump administration’s Asia strategy is predicated on promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific. The U.S. has long sought to establish a foundation for a free and open Burma – principally through its support for a democratic reform process that is currently stalled. An authentic democratic reform process requires the acknowledgement of atrocities and a commitment to remedy wrongs committed. Perhaps most fundamentally, a country cannot be democratic if it fails to protect the basic rights of its citizens, which includes the Rohingya. Those who promote democratic reform should be supportive of a genocide determination because it is a necessary step toward reform.
5) A designation is an opportunity for the U.S to reset its policy toward Burma. The Trump administration has yet to establish a comprehensive strategy toward Burma. Treasury issued a limited number of Global Magnitsky sanctions against Burmese military officials known for their role in perpetrating violence against Rohingya and designated the 33rd and 99th Light Infantry Divisions. These designations stopped short of targeting the chief architect of the crimes: Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. They also stopped short of undertaking a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. policy toward Burma. The events of August 2017 were a turning point, which should trigger a reevaluation of overarching Burma policy. Many geostrategists express concern over China’s influence in Burma, but few have suggested a comprehensive U.S. policy toward Burma, one that frames U.S. strategy in a way that addresses the root of the problem: the Burmese military’s disproportionate control over the day-to-day governance. Holding the Burmese military accountable through a more robust sanctions policy has the potential to hamstring the military while granting greater authority and legitimacy to the civilian government. A determination by the U.S. that corroborates the UN’s findings on genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, will discredit the military further and contribute to a policy that supports political reform and the stability of Burma’s civilian leadership.
For these reasons and many more, the U.S. should issue a determination on crimes committed against Rohingya, continue to provide robust humanitarian assistance, issue additional targeted financial measures against those responsible for crimes committed, and undertake a comprehensive reset of U.S. policy toward Burma.
A determination is a necessary first step toward righting the wrongs committed against Rohingya. U.S. leadership is critical to galvanizing, critical, life-saving support in the aftermath of the Rohingya crisis. The U.S. should take these steps to demonstrate its enduring leadership in promoting rights and freedoms, not only in Burma, but across the globe.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/oliviaenos/2018/11/27/5-reasons-the-u-s-should-issue-a-determination-on-crimes-committed-against-rohingya/#4aa2f0c60c95