Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s Comments on the Rohingya Crisis: Statement by Refugees International President Eric Schwartz

Refugees International welcomes Secretary of State Tillerson’s October 18 statement on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, and, in particular, his comment that “the world can’t just stand idly by and be witness to the atrocities being reported in the area.”

But in fact, the world can stand idly by, as can the United States, and for nearly two months, that is largely what has occurred. 

What is happening on the ground is not complicated. The Myanmar military has a plan which it continues to execute methodically: to drive out the bulk of the population of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and to terrorize and kill women, men, and children to achieve that objective. 

The Myanmar military is succeeding in this gruesome effort, which is ongoing.

Statements like those of Secretary Tillerson, which follow strong statements by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Vice President Mike Pence last month, are very useful if they are followed by strong action. But they are not valuable if they stand by themselves, as they create expectations that, if not realized, send confusing signals to the world and undermine U.S. credibility. 

So how can the United States build on these encouraging statements by Secretary Tillerson? And what can the Government of the United States do to communicate to the Myanmar military that these awful actions must come to an end? 

First, the United States must press – not occasionally but repeatedly and at the highest levels – for the Myanmar military to cease all violations of human rights and indicate a willingness to accept the return of Rohingya in conditions of safety and dignity; the United States should also press at the highest levels for unfettered access for humanitarian organizations to Rakhine State.

Second, the United States should prohibit all military to military cooperation, and press the UN Security Council to impose a multi-lateral arms embargo until these requirements are met and individuals involved in planning, aiding or carrying out such abuses against the Rohingya are held accountable.

Third, the United States should support targeted bilateral and multilateral sanctions on senior military officials and military-owned enterprises.

Fourth, in light of Government of Myanmar’s stated willingness to accept return of Rohingya, the United States should engage China and other members of the UN Security Council in discussions of measures to ensure safety and dignity in the return process, including the deployment of international observers.

And finally, the United States should continue to support generous assistance to refugees in Bangladesh.

These measures would demonstrate a seriousness of purpose to bring an end to horrendous abuses – a seriousness of purpose that has thus far been sorely lacking.