UN Security Council's Chance to Hold Myanmar Accountable for the Rohingya Crisis

This commentary first appeared on the U.S. New & World Report website on May 1, 2018.

The United Nations Security Council has just made its first visit to Myanmar since a campaign of ethnic cleansing carried out by the Myanmar military forced nearly 700,000 Rohingya to flee the country. The visit came just after the delegation met with Rohingya who have sought refuge in camps in Bangladesh.

These visits in themselves are a big deal. But if they are to be counted as a success, they must both spur improved humanitarian cooperation in Bangladesh ahead of the pending monsoon and cyclone seasons and create an opening for the further access and accountability in Myanmar essential to ultimately resolving the crisis.

The sad reality is that conditions are nowhere near safe for the Rohingya who remain in Myanmar, let alone those who might seek to return.
camp vulnerability rainy season.JPG

I just returned from the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, where it is immediately apparent that another level of emergency is about to unfold in the coming weeks. This new level of catastrophe is all but inevitable. With bamboo and plastic shelters precariously perched on the sides of sandy hills, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya and their makeshift shelters will soon be vulnerable to landslides and high winds as cyclones and monsoon rains hit Bangladesh.Highlighting this threat in the wake of its visit and rallying the necessary international support and cooperation from the government of Bangladesh will be the most urgent task of the Security Council delegation.

But even more important in the long term, and equally apparent when speaking with Rohingya refugees, repatriation – the solution most publicly touted by Bangladesh, Myanmar and the international community – is far from becoming an acceptable reality.

The most egregious stage of the ethnic cleansing campaign by Myanmar's security forces against the Rohingya has passed. Hundreds of villages have been burned, thousands have been killed (according to conservative estimates), and countless women raped.

The Security Council delegation’s visit to the destroyed Rohingya villages in Myanmar should be an important first critical step toward accountability and toward the type of conditions conducive to the voluntary return of Rohingya in safety and dignity to Myanmar.

Yet, abuses have not ended. During my most recent mission to the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, I spoke with a Rohingya woman who arrived from Myanmar just days before. Despite being well-aware of the precarious situation for the Rohingya refugees in the camps in Bangladesh, she decided her only choice was to flee across the border. As she told me, "I feel safe here. Here we don't have to fear the military. Here we can hear the call to prayer. Here I don't have to fear for the arrest of my son."

While the mass exodus has slowed from its alarming height in the fall of 2017, thousands of other Rohingya have continued to arrive in 2018, citing starvation, lack of access to medical care, and apartheid-like conditions. The sad reality is that conditions are nowhere near safe for the Rohingya who remain in Myanmar, let alone those who might seek to return.

To date, there has been virtually no accountability for widespread atrocities in Myanmar's Rakhine state, nor has there been access for international officials to inspect the scene of the crimes. The government of Myanmar has refused access to an independent international fact-finding mission established by the U.N. Human Rights Council, revoked previous access to the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, and arrested Burmese journalists working for Reuters who uncovered evidence of one of many reported massacres.

The Security Council delegation's visit to the destroyed Rohingya villages in Myanmar should be an important first critical step toward accountability and toward the type of conditions conducive to the voluntary return of Rohingya in safety and dignity to Myanmar. But greater access for humanitarians, independent media, and human rights monitors will be essential. The government of Myanmar claims it is ready for returns. It is building so-called "reception centers" and Myanmar's Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye even visited Rohingya in Bangladesh to urge the immediate start of the repatriation process.

But there is little confidence among the Rohingya with whom I spoke in Bangladesh that these "reception centers" will be any different than the displacement camps in which more than 100,000 Rohingya have been isolated since 2012. There is little confidence that the centers will be temporary, that basic rights will be granted to those returning to Myanmar, or that further abuses will not take place, particularly as Rohingya exiting Myanmar continue to report little change.

The U.N. Security Council had a chance to raise these issues with the government of Myanmar. But it cannot stop there. If immediate access is not granted to humanitarians and the U.N. fact-finding mission, stronger measures must be taken. High-level military leaders found responsible for the ethnic cleansing campaign should face targeted sanctions. Myanmar's military, which oversaw this campaign, should face a global arms embargo. And continued denial of access for the U.N. fact-finding mission should result in referral to the International Criminal Court.

The Myanmar military has carried out one of the worst crimes against humanity in modern history. As long as Rohingya continue to live in makeshift shelters in Bangladesh and as long as the Rohingya people continue to choose the deprivations of that life over the horrors of life in Myanmar, the military will have gotten away with it. The U.N. Security Council has a chance to make sure that does not happen. For the sake of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, that opportunity must not be lost.

Print Friendly and PDF