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January 08, 2019

The Rohingya genocide: an ongoing tragedy

The international crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity perpetrated against the Rohingya for decades continue in full force, even after the August 2017 wave of  violence that forced over a million Rohingya to flee in to Bangladesh. Since that time, there has been little done to achieve a long term solution for the Rohingya people.

Genocide and Then What?

In its September 2018 report, the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar indicated that the activities of the Myanmar military met the legal definition of genocide. This report, not surprisingly, was heavily criticized by the Myanmar government. However, states, at a snail’s pace, have begun to recognize the genocide as a result. The slowness is probably attributed to how complex factual and legal issues are when it comes to genocide determinations. In addition to the question what happens after it is recognized as genocide? The Rohingya situation poses no exception. The Canadian House of Commons recognized the Rohingya genocide. as well as the United States House of Representatives. Currently, the United States Senate is continuing bipartisan efforts to build on the momentum of the House of Representatives to recognize the genocide. Hopefully, more national governments will follow suit. It will be interesting to monitor the progress on this effort; particularly within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to see which of those countries will recognize the genocide.

Even after the label of genocide is properly placed, we are left with the question what is next? As per the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, one of the reasons for determining whether the crime of genocide has occurred is “for the purpose of establishing State responsibility or individual criminal responsibility for the crime of genocide.” The current United States Senate Resolution calls for imposing more sanctions on Myanmar military officials in addition to asking social media platforms to curb hate speech within Myanmar. However, these actions will not be enough. In the camps, the Rohingya people have been vocal about asking for a safe return home, citizenship, and for justice and accountability.  


During the Assembly of State Parties meetings (December 2018) in the Netherlands, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court released her yearly “Preliminary Examinations” report. In her report she discussed the decision by Pre-Trial Chamber I to confirm jurisdiction over the “alleged deportation of the Rohingya people from Myanmar to Bangladesh, as well as potentially other crimes under article 7 of the Rome Statute.” Myanmar is not a party to the Rome Statute and has criticized this move by the ICC. The Prosecutor is seeking to complete her preliminary examination within a “reasonable time.”

Despite these actions, other countries and entities, such as the European Union, are still asking the UN Security Council to refer the matter to the ICC. It is unlikely that these actions will be successful given the “no vote” that Russia and China will likely utilize on this particular issue (if it can even get to a vote).

There are also calls made by parties within the U.S. government and international interest groups asking for an independent or ad hoc tribunal to be created to try perpetrators for the alleged crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity. Myanmar, naturally, set up its own “Independent Commission of Inquiry” and the Chair recently stated that the “commission had found no evidence to support allegations of human rights abuses.” The questions surrounding justice and accountability will continue into 2019.

The Return Home

The issue of repatriation has remained difficult and controversial. On one hand, it appears that all parties are actively seeking a solution for the Rohingya to return to Myanmar and  it is clear that the Rohingya want to return home.

In November, 2018, China, Bangladesh, and Myanmar participated in tripartite talks about the repatriation (without any Rohingya representation). The plan would have sent the Rohingya back to Myanmar beginning in November, 2018.  However, this plan was supposedly “stalled” as a result of protests in the Bangladesh refugee camps. A more likely reason may be that Bangladesh is in the midst of election season and therefore any plans to relocate over 1 million people will need to wait until the elections are completed. Another reason may be that Myanmar is not serious about repatriation. In mid –December reports indicated that ASEAN is now playing a role in facilitating a plan for repatriation.

Another notable player with regards to repatriation is the UN Security Council. The Security Council is looking for ways to implement a successful repatriation plan. The United Kingdom recently issued a draft resolution on the topic and the talks were boycotted by the dynamic duo – Russia and China.

In the meantime

On December 24, 2018, Bangladesh authorities sealed off Rohingya settlements so that the Rohingya were not exploited during the election period. Troops have been deployed to the settlement areas. In the camps themselves, aside from continued issues with healthcare, nutrition, trafficking, and impending climate issues, beetles are causing extensive damage to shelters which can cause them to collapse. In Myanmar, one journalist reported the following situation:

“Last month, a Rohingya man who was outside the camp perimeters after dark was hacked in the face by a police officer after an altercation, a Rohingya witness in the camp told The Post.He had a bad gash near his eye, according to a camp resident, but refused to be transferred to Sittwe General Hospital. He sought care from a pharmacist in the camp, but his wound became infected. ‘The doctors and nurses [at Sittwe general hospital] are not only unkind to the patients, they neglect the patients,’ said one Rohingya man in a phone interview from his camp, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear of his safety. ‘We are scared to go there.’”

It is apparent based on the limited information that can be obtained from Myanmar, that the situation for the Rohingya bears no improvement.

It is important to continue to monitor and assist the Rohingya who are languishing in detention in various places around the world.  For those of you who are interested in helping the Rohingya people–please contact your government and ask them about their initiatives to help the Rohingya. Support organizations such as the International Office of Migration and Doctors without Borders who are providing crucial services to Rohingya refugees.

In 2019, efforts to assist this vulnerable population will need to be aggressive and increase tremendously, if a complete end is sought to the genocide of the Rohingya.

Image credit: REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton.

Call to Action
The Rohingya genocide: an ongoing tragedy