What Happened to the Rohingya Was Genocide — And It’s Time for the U.S. to Say It

COMMENTARY Asia

What Happened to the Rohingya Was Genocide — And It’s Time for the U.S. to Say It

Aug 23rd, 2019 4 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Olivia Enos

Senior Policy Analyst, Asian Studies Center

Olivia specializes in human rights and national security challenges in Asia.
Rohingya Muslim refugees disembark from a boat on the Bangladeshi side of Naf river in Teknaf on September 13, 2017. NurPhoto / Contributor / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Conservative estimates suggest that at least 10,000 were killed.

U.S. law defines genocide as “violent attacks with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.”

Issuing a genocide determination is a win for the administration.

On Aug. 25, two years will have passed since that fateful August day when the Myanmar military came to drive the Rohingya people away.

Their so-called clearing operations displaced close to 800,000 people. Conservative estimates suggest that at least 10,000 were killed.

In the intervening two years, the U.S. government has drawn no official conclusions about what happened. Some might dismiss this as a matter of bureaucratic nuance. Yet, it is anything but.

A genocide determination would properly recognize the scale and severity of atrocities committed against the Rohingya and has the potential to galvanize international aid and attention at a time when donor fatigue is setting in. Such a determination is not only the right thing to do, it is the strategic next step to take if there is to be any hope of justice for Rohingya.

We owe this to the Rohingya woman who watched as her baby was snatched from her arms by the Myanmar military to be thrown into a fire to its death right before her eyes.

We owe this to the men and boys who were lined up single file to be shot one by one while their wives, mothers and daughters were dragged off to be raped by the same soldiers.

And we owe this to the refugees who remain displaced today in squalid conditions in Bangladesh.

Would you ask them if it is necessary?

The international legal definition, as defined in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, centers on the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” by killing members of the group or causing serious bodily or mental harm; by “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”; by “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group”; and by “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

And U.S. law defines genocide in 18 U.S.C. 1091 as “violent attacks with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.”

In August 2018, a U.N. panel issued a report presenting credible evidence that genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes took place in Rakhine State. This finding is corroborated by other reputable institutions, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which does not make determinations on atrocity crimes lightly.

The finding was also echoed by the organization originally commissioned by the State Department to conduct a report on atrocity crimes in Rakhine State. The Public International Law and Policy Group (PILPG) interviewed more than 1,000 Rohingya and conducted in-depth research. The team, which included lawyers with experience of other atrocity crimes investigations in places like Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia, found that there are reasonable grounds to believe that genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed against the Rohingya.

While the State Department published the factual findings from PILPG’s investigation, it did not publish the legal findings. Instead, State published a report that did everything but issue a determination, using language that “the recent violence in northern Rakhine State was extreme, large-scale, widespread, and seemingly geared toward both terrorizing the population and driving out the Rohingya residents.” It also noted that the military’s actions were “well-planned and coordinated.”

All of these signs point to genocide. And yet no determination was made.

One common refrain is that the administration already uses the language of ethnic cleansing to describe what took place against the Rohingya, but ethnic cleansing is not an actual legal term. Another terrifying excuse: The atrocities already took place, so there is no need to label them.

If the administration won’t issue a genocide determination, then Congress can force its hand, as it did to the Obama administration in March 2016. When Congress unanimously condemned Islamic State genocide with a vote of 393-0, it also put the Obama administration on notice, requiring a deadline of March 17, 2016, to issue a determination. While Congress couldn’t force the administration to say that what took place against Yazidis, Christians and Muslims was genocide, it gave the administration no choice in saying whether it did or did not take place.

This was incredibly powerful. And it’s something that can and should be done again.

Then-Secretary of State John Kerry issued a determination that genocide took place.

Without the determination, it is unlikely that other actions would have followed. The Islamic State genocide determination demonstrates that genocide determinations transcend administrations.

Under the Trump administration, the U.S. Agency for International Development acted on congressional legislation that mandates the executive branch to prioritize assistance toward the communities adversely affected by Islamic State genocide. This resulted in the creation of the Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response program, which has so far allocated $373 million in assistance to religious minorities and survivors of genocide.

Issuing a genocide determination is a win for the administration. It would build upon efforts the Trump administration put into place as a follow-on to the Obama administration’s Islamic State genocide determination, as well as the current administration’s robust humanitarian efforts to alleviate suffering against the Rohingya. It also has the potential to diversify the donor base of countries giving to support Rohingya, especially as donations have slowed two years after the atrocities took place. The galvanizing effects of such a determination would be significant.

This piece originally appeared in The Washington Post