This piece was reprinted with the permission of The Washington Times.
See original printing here.
What would you have done if you had been a world leader witnessing mass killing in Rwanda in 1994? Or in Darfur in 2003? Or even in Germany during the Holocaust?
Imagine men raping women, burning villages and shooting people as they run away. Historic parallels are never perfect. There are always comparisons and differences. But think four years ahead as President Trump or President Biden leaves office in 2024. Wouldn’t it be better to know that in the case of Myanmar, America did what we should have done, when we should have done it?
Myanmar began its worst violence yet against Rohingya Muslims three years ago today, ruthlessly driving out hundreds of thousands of women, men and children through murder and other grievous abuses, in a campaign intended to destroy, in whole or in part, the Rohingya people. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo still hasn’t called those crimes a genocide.
Bipartisan political figures, faith leaders and prominent international legal experts have all written to the secretary of State, appealing for him to use the term that fairly describes those atrocities. Thousands of Americans have signed a petition imploring him to do so. More than 80 human rights groups have backed the call.
It would be far better to act now than to wait for many years to speak the truth. In 1998, President Clinton apologized for the U.S. failure to call out the Rwanda genocide in 1994. Scarred by that experience, senior U.S. officials have subsequently acted more promptly. President Bush’s secretary of State, Colin Powell, declared a genocide in Darfur in 2004, less than a year after the killing began.
Secretary of State John Kerry, during the Obama administration, declared the Islamic State’s genocide against the Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims in Iraq in 2016. It was fewer than two years after the killings began. Secretary Pompeo — and President Trump, for that matter — should learn from this experience and act now.
Here’s why calling it genocide in Myanmar today matters. The Rohingya remain at high risk of atrocities, and a key risk factor for atrocity crimes is the lack of outside attention. A genocide determination would help to sustain and increase international scrutiny, as well as bolster global efforts to hold the state of Myanmar accountable for its crimes. It would rally international pressure, including more targeted sanctions. It would signal that we stand alongside the Rohingya people still in Myanmar. And it would show solidarity with Bangladesh for hosting Rohingya refugees.
These aren’t abstract political concerns, either. They are personal. Myanmar denied Yasmin’s Rohingya family health care and education before she was born. Her mother fled the country with her when she was 3. She grew up as a refugee hearing stories from back home about military raiding homes in the middle of the night. The authorities in Myanmar filled Rohingya people with fear for decades before 2017.
Refugee camps in Bangladesh continue to traumatize Rohingya people on a daily basis. Some 800,000 Rohingya people fled Myanmar and have languished in the camps over the last three years. Imagine living in a small tent made out of plastic sheets and bamboo sticks that does not ventilate well. Imagine not being able to eat anything else but rice and lentils once a day. Imagine sharing a few handspans of space with your family of five or more. That’s if you’re lucky enough to have contact with your family. Imagine COVID-19 running through the camp without adequate protective measures in place.
People seeking refuge in Bangladesh in these camps have said how much this issue matters to them. They want accountability for the genocide. Those are the words they say.
This is not a partisan issue, but a compelling imperative that has broad support. In 2018, Congress passed a resolution calling the killings of Rohingya genocide. The bill had overwhelming bipartisan endorsement. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention agrees. They delivered a letter to Mr. Pompeo last week, and 30 other faith organizations supported it. Dozens of distinguished specialists in international human rights and humanitarian law also agree and have appealed to the secretary of State.
History is littered with examples of mass brutality and repression, but there can be no lost causes when it comes to supporting those, like the Rohingya, who are striving to secure their human rights as they confront genocide and other mass atrocities. The only question now is which side of history the United States wants to be on. It is the time to use the word that fits the crimes.