25 August 2020

From the Rohingya to the Uighurs: the world cannot keep turning a blind eye to the signs of genocide

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After the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica a quarter of a century ago, world leaders said those fateful words: “Never again”.

Less than three decades later, it’s ‘never again’ all over again in Myanmar and China. Experts have spoken out, but the world has failed to do anything other than wring its hands.

Three years ago today, Myanmar’s army launched a military campaign that forced over 700,000 Rohingyas to flee across the border to Bangladesh. Thousands were killed. Unknown numbers of women and girls were raped. Survivors report the burning of babies and children, and villagers lined up and shot.

When I visited the refugee camps in Bangladesh just over six months later, the stories I heard were harrowing. I met people like 16-year-old Khalida who, as I entered her bamboo hut, lay paralysed on the floor, unable to sit up. She told me that when the Burma army attacked her village in August 2017, they killed 300 villagers, including her father, two sisters and one brother.

Khalida was shot multiple times and lay hidden among the corpses. Her 18-year-old brother Mohammed had been able to escape before the army came. When he returned, he found a scene of utter carnage. Amidst the dead bodies he found his sister, and with the help of villagers he carried Khalida to Bangladesh, where she was able to receive some medical treatment and refuge.

I met an imam, as I walked through the camp, and asked whether he had experienced religious persecution. His eyes filled with tears. Before burning down the mosque, he said, the Myanmar army soldiers took the Holy Qu’ran, “played football with it” and then tore it to pieces.

I sat in another bamboo hut with a young man called Nurul. He reminded me: “The violence did not start on 25 August 2017. Rohingyas have been subjected to discrimination in Myanmar since the military coup in 1962. Ever since then they have been implementing plans to drive us out one by one. It started before I was born. But the violence has become unbearable. People are dying, dying, dying, and the cemeteries are full. What shall we do?”

Warning signs

The seeds of the Rohingya genocide have been apparent for years, but few paid attention. As long ago as 2008 I visited the refugees in Bangladesh and heard people say: “The Burmese tell us ‘You are Bengali, go back to Bangladesh’; the Bangladeshis tell us ‘You are from Myanmar, go back to Myanmar’. We are trapped between a crocodile and a snake.”

Since Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law stripped the Rohingyas’ of their rights in the country that was their home and rendered them stateless, the path to genocide was set. Restrictions of movement, marriage and access to education and health care turned into marginalisation, discrimination, dehumanisation, ethnic cleansing and then ultimately genocide.

And it was not as if the world was unaware. Violence that erupted against the Rohingyas in 2012 ought to have awakened consciences; the pogroms that followed should have sounded the alarm and the 2016 military offensive was, with hindsight, a mere prelude to the 2017 slaughter.

Prior to the 2017 genocide, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, the outgoing United Nations high commissioner for human rights, described what happened in 2016 as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, and the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said she saw “the hallmarks of genocide”. 

In 2018, a UN fact-finding mission accused Myanmar’s generals of genocide against the Rohingyas – and crimes against humanity and war crimes against ethnic minorities in Kachin and Shan states – and called for prosecution for acts that “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law.”

A case has now been brought to the International Court of Justice; the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation and several other judicial avenues are also being pursued. 

Yet the wheels of justice move slowly, if at all.

Three years on from the atrocities against the Rohingyas which we commemorate today – and five years on from Iraq and more than two decades on from Rwanda and Bosnia – the world seems to have made no progress in countering what are known as mass atrocity crimes.

No one suggests that is easy. But it can involve a mix of targeted sanctions, diplomatic engagement, and – if the levers of global justice can be lifted, even if creakingly – prosecution. An end to impunity is vital.

China’s crimes

And so we come to the contemporary persecution of the Uighurs in China, which may yet be proven to be genocide, which I’ve written about previously on CapX.

The 1948 Genocide Convention incorporates examples of methods that can bring about genocide, including “imposing measures intended to prevent births” within a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”, “causing serious bodily or mental harm” to members of the group, “deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction in whole or in part” and, of course, killing members of the group. These, if perpetrated against a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, with specific intent to destroy the group in whole or in part, should be classified as genocide.

From evidence that has been gathered in recent years by several experts – notably researcher Adrian Zenz, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the Uyghur Human Rights Project, Human Rights Watch and others – all five of these methods have been perpetrated against the Uighurs.

At least one million Uighurs are in prison camps. Reports of slave labour are legion and a campaign of forced sterilisation of Uighur women has been revealed. As Muslims, Uighurs are forced to eat during fasting, to drink alcohol, their mosques are demolished, their graveyards and religious sites bulldozed.

An international inquiry is needed, one that some 76 faith leaders, led by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, have called for. ‘Genocide’ is not a term that should ever be used lightly, and so we need to establish beyond reasonable doubt in legal terms what level of atrocity crime the Uighurs are facing. 

Magnitsky-style targeted sanctions should then be applied against officials in the Chinese regime responsible for these crimes, as recently advocated in a new report by the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales. The United States has already done so through its Uighur Act, and Britain and other countries now have Magnitsky legislation in place.

China should be held to account under its international treaty obligations, including as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The United Nations should act on a recent call by over 50 serving UN Special Rapporteurs to create a human rights mechanism specifically for China. Consumer pressure on corporations doing business in China should be deployed to ensure that no international brand name engages with supply chains based on Uighur slave labour. The International Olympic Committee should be pressed to withdraw Beijing’s right to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

A multilateral response

And for the Rohingyas too, the recommendations of the UN inquiries should serve as a starting point for concerted action. Targeted sanctions against Myanmar’s military-owned enterprises – rather than symbolic travel bans against the generals – would be a more effective next step.

Failure to act swiftly and robustly in response to the Rohingya genocide gave China the green light to escalate their campaign against the Uighurs. Failure to stand up to China will embolden other genocidal dictators to inflict yet more atrocities in the future.

All these tragedies require a coordinated multilateral response. They require humanity to rise above partisan politics and exert a will to defend the rule of law against the rule of the tyrant.

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Benedict Rogers is East Asia Team Leader at the international human rights organisation CSW and a member of the advisory group of the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.