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Rohingya Genocide: Strengthening the U.N. Response Three Years On

In the three years since Myanmar began perpetrating genocide against the Rohingya, little has been done to ease the suffering of the Rohingya, address the causes of the atrocities, or bring their perpetrators to justice. It is imperative that the United States use its influence on the U.N. Security Council to put pressure on Myanmar to end the violence and prevent similar crimes from happening in the future, which threaten to erode international norms, and with it global security.

This month marks three years since Myanmar’s soldiers drove nearly 800,000 Rohingya, members of a Muslim ethnic minority group, from their homes in Rakhine State to neighboring Bangladesh. The Rohingya fled indiscriminate killings, sexual violence, torture, beatings, and arbitrary detention. They witnessed their houses burned to the ground and their fellow villagers killed en masse in what was later declared by a U.N. investigation to be genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Today, nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees find themselves in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh, and hundreds risk their lives in an attempt to reach other countries in the region. Meanwhile, none of the root causes of genocide in Myanmar have been addressed, including the issues of citizenship and freedom of movement. U.S.-led international action, particularly via the U.N. Security Council, is needed more than ever to address the ongoing impunity for mass atrocities, prevent future violence and restore the rights of this vulnerable community.

Inadequate U.N. Response

The response of the United Nations to these unconscionable crimes has been slow, uneven and overall inadequate, particularly at the U.N. Security Council level. The Rosenthal report, formally known as “A Brief and Independent Inquiry into the Involvement of the United Nations in Myanmar from 2010 to 2018,” describes the United Nations’ failure to respond to the escalating situation in Myanmar and notes that due to the “absence of the support of the Security Council … the options of the United Nations to address the challenge in a manner consistent with its values and principles is often rather limited.”

Some parts of the United Nations have spoken out about the situation in Myanmar and taken action in response to the discrimination and violence against the Rohingya. The Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, for example, has provided regular reports that included sharp recommendations for actors within and outside the United Nations. The General Assembly has asked Secretary-General António Guterres to appoint a Special Envoy on Myanmar. The Human Rights Council, which arguably has been the most proactive body in the U.N. system, has created the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, mandated to “prepare files in order to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings,” which is crucial for the further advancement of accountability efforts, which the U.N. General Assembly has fully funded.

The Human Rights Council also created the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, whose findings have played a crucial role in advancing accountability efforts. The information provided by the fact-finding mission was instrumental for both the filing of the case at the International Court of Justice and the authorization of the investigation by the International Criminal Court.

These actions by various U.N. bodies and their interaction with one another demonstrate that different parts of the United Nations can act constructively and complementarily in response to atrocities. However, despite the efforts from these agencies, ultimately it was insufficient to change Myanmar’s behavior. On June 30, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued a statement noting that the situation in Rakhine has not improved and conditions for a “safe, dignified and sustainable return from Bangladesh are still not in place.” All the while, the perpetrators of atrocities are not only walking free, but continue attacking vulnerable populations in Rakhine State and beyond.

Given this grim reality, how can the U.N. strengthen its response to the Rohingya genocide and other atrocities in Myanmar?

U.N. Security Council Actions

One U.N. body notably missing from the above outline of actions is the Security Council. The only official product adopted by the Council on Myanmar was a presidential statement from nearly three years ago. While many of its recommendations were valuable, they did not carry the legal weight of a resolution, and the Council failed to follow up on their implementation. Three years after Myanmar’s security forces expelled the majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya population, there is still time for the United States to strengthen the position of the Security Council and uphold its responsibility to protect.

First, it is important for the Security Council to urgently hold a formal session on the situation in Myanmar. The last formal session was held by the Council almost two years ago. Given the lack of progress and the ongoing threat to vulnerable populations, it is imperative for the Council to resume discussions on Myanmar in a formal format.

Second, it is time for the secretary-general to address the Council. Such a briefing would be in line with Guterres’ commitment to implement the Rosenthal report recommendations and his global cease-fire call due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While Myanmar responded to the secretary-general’s appeal and announced a unilateral national cease-fire in May, it left out the areas of Rakhine and Chin states where the fighting is ongoing, endangering civilians from the Rohingya, Rakhine, and other communities. Moreover, the clashes between the military and various armed groups have increased in Shan State, making the cease-fire meaningless. If the secretary-general’s global cease-fire call is to carry any weight, it is important for him to urge the Security Council to ensure that it is observed in Myanmar. 

Guterres has the authority to help the Security Council refocus on the situation in Myanmar: Under Article 99 of the U.N. Charter, he can “bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” He did so in September 2017, shortly after the “clearance operations” against the Rohingya began, urging members in a letter to “press [Myanmar] for restraint” and full respect of human rights and international humanitarian law. Three years later, and with the ongoing threat of genocide, the scretary-general should use his authority once again to pressure the Council to finally take action.

Third, despite the challenging environment in the council and the looming threat of a veto by China, it is imperative to restart resolution negotiations with a view to advance accountability and address existing discriminatory structures against the Rohingya. Countries like the United States, which have been outspoken on the Rohingya issue and have imposed some of the toughest sanctions against Myanmar, should help restart the resolution process. Together with other sympathetic council members, including Belgium and Germany, they should actively encourage and support the penholder United Kingdom in drafting a new outcome document. It is essential for the United States and others to spend their political capital at the highest levels to recruit the support of the council’s Asian members, Indonesia and Vietnam (with India replacing Indonesia in 2021). Voices from the same region as the country in question carry a lot of weight at the Security Council, so securing their support would make the possibility of a successful resolution much more likely.

Security Council action would bring us closer to any possibility of a safe, dignified, and voluntary return of the Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. With an International Criminal Court referral being problematic for several permanent members, the council should explore the possibility of creating an ad hoc tribunal, an action recommended by the fact-finding mission, which anticipated this challenge. It also is incumbent upon the Security Council to ensure Myanmar’s compliance with the International Court of Justice’s provisional measures order. It can do so by monitoring concrete actions Myanmar takes to address the root causes of genocide and speaking out when it fails to do so. While a resolution negotiation process is a challenging and often protracted endeavor, simply restarting the process would put pressure on Myanmar to change its ways during this critical time. 

Meanwhile, Washington can steer other parts of the United Nations to continue its efforts in drawing attention to the ongoing risks to populations in Myanmar and support ongoing accountability processes. The General Assembly, for example, will soon start negotiating its annual resolution on Myanmar. It would be important for the assembly to express support for the International Court of Justice case and call on Myanmar to comply with the provisional measures order. The General Assembly should also ensure the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar has enough funds to continue its operations.

It is crucial for Myanmar to stay high on the agenda of all relevant U.N. entities for as long as the risk of genocide and other atrocities persists. The United States has a critical role to play here; without U.S. action, the other major powers in the Security Council are unlikely to act. A genocide anniversary is not only a solemn moment for the international community to remember those who perished and suffered but also a call to action to prevent future crimes and hold perpetrators accountable.

Nadira Kourt is Program Manager and Myanmar expert at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect in New York. Ms. Kourt focuses on multilateral advocacy and the United Nations’ response to mass atrocities, including by the UN Security Council, General Assembly, Human Rights Council and the Office of the Secretary-General. Kourt also leads the Global Centre’s work on international networks aimed at preventing mass atrocities, including the Global Network of R2P Focal Points and Global Action Against Mass Atrocity Crimes. Follow her on Twitter at @aridan13.

The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.