Newsweek: The Path Out of Genocide

This piece was originally published in Newsweek.

Five years since brutal attacks by Myanmar’s military forced more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees to flee their homes, the United States has finally recognized those horrors as genocide. This determination is a historic and profound step toward justice for the Rohingya people. But those were words. Now we need action. This momentous assessment must serve as a catalyst to hold the Myanmar military accountable for its unceasing atrocities against people across Myanmar and to take urgent steps to end them.

As a Myanmar-born Rohingya activist now living in the United Kingdom and a refugee advocate in Washington, we have frequently visited the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh and spoken with countless genocide survivors. Nearly all of them have asked the international community first for justice, and usually, the chance to return to their homes when safe to do so. The U.S. decision to describe their plight as genocide means a lot to them. As one refugee told us in the days following the announcement, “[We are] very happy and hoping for justice and early repatriation.”

But the impact of the declaration must not end there. The expectations it has raised among Rohingya refugees must be carefully managed, to avoid further disappointing and despairing people who have already suffered too much. One path is to take a series of meaningful actions.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken‘s promise of nearly $1 million to help investigate and collect evidence for future prosecutions was welcome. But it was his only concrete commitment. There are several steps the Biden administration can and must take to put heft behind its words.

First, all avenues toward justice must be explored and supported. The United States should provide financial and legal assistance for the genocide trial now under way against Myanmar before the International Court of Justice. It should also push for the U.N. Security Council to refer the case to the International Criminal Court, where individuals can be held accountable. The United States and other countries should also pursue cases under the principle of universal jurisdiction—which allows any nation to try perpetrators of the worst crimes anywhere under their own jurisdiction—as one of the authors is currently leading in Argentina. Similar legal efforts must be made to hold the military accountable for the crimes it has committed against civilians across Myanmar since its coup in February 2021.

Second, the United States must lead diplomatic efforts to increase international pressure on the military junta. The recent announcements by the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom of new targeted sanctions, in response to documented abuses in recent months, is a useful step. But more can be done to cut off the flow of money and weapons that allow the military to continue its abuses. Start with sanctions against the state-owned oil and gas sector along with increased U.S. bilateral efforts to stop the supply of arms to the junta. These sanctions would address the continuing atrocities and also contribute toward the long-term goal of safely returning Rohingya refugees to their homeland.

Third, the recognition of genocide must bring sustained efforts to help survivors. The United States has been the leading donor of humanitarian aid for Rohingya refugees, some $1.6 billion since 2017. But competing emergencies in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Ukraine, to name a few, will test the ability to keep this aid coming.

Finally, if the United States is to truly support the survivors of genocide, it must help them build their lives back. Approximately 1 million Rohingyas now live in Bangladesh, mostly in the largest refugee settlement in the world. While they have found refuge, they have been denied access to education, skills training and the opportunity to earn a living. Half of the refugees are children, with their futures—and thus the Rohingyas’—at stake. The United States should work with Bangladesh to provide these opportunities and to offer other options for refugees, including resettlement for some in the United States and other countries.

In calling it genocide, Blinken also spoke of a path out of genocide. It is now incumbent on the world to keep seeking accountability and to support survivors in rebuilding their lives. This declaration was Washington’s first big step on that path. The next steps can’t come too soon.

Daniel P. Sullivan is the deputy director for Africa, Asia and the Middle East at Refugees International. 

Tun Khin is a leading Rohingya activist, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK, and a member of Refugees International’s Advisory Council. 

The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.

BANNER COVER PHOTO: A Rohingya refugee stands in the Hakinpara refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on August 10, 2018. Photo Credit: ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images.