On August 10, 2021, 95 international human rights organizations have sent an open letter to the Biden Administration calling for an official recognition of the atrocities against the Rohingyas as genocide and crimes against humanity. As the Trump Administration failed to do so, the Biden Administration has the opportunity to set the record straight, call the atrocities for what they are, and respond accordingly.
The atrocities in question refer to killings, including by random shooting, enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention, rape, including gang rape, and other forms of sexual violence, physical assault, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, looting, and much more, as perpetrated by the Burmese military against the Rohingya Muslim communities in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, as seen since 2016 and throughout subsequent years. These atrocities may constitute acts of killing, causing serious bodily and mental harm, inflicting conditions that are calculated to bring about physical destruction, imposing measures to prevent births, and forcible transfers, namely methods to bring about genocide as under the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention). Because they are intended to destroy the Rohingya group in whole or in part, are may amount to the legal definition of genocide. And indeed, several actors have considered them as such.
In 2017, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, for example, described the atrocities committed against the Rohingya Muslims in Burma as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” In 2018, the U.N. Special Envoy for human rights in Myanmar identified the “hallmarks of a genocide” within the horrendous crimes suffered by the Rohingya Muslims. In 2019, the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar concluded that it had “reasonable grounds to conclude that the evidence that infers genocidal intent on the part of the State, identified in [an earlier] report, has strengthened, that there is a serious risk that genocidal actions may occur or recur, and that Myanmar is failing in its obligation to prevent genocide, to investigate genocide and to enact effective legislation criminalizing and punishing genocide.” In November 2019, The Gambia initiated proceedings against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (the ICJ), accusing it of committing genocide against the Rohingyas. Subsequently, also the International Criminal Court engaged on the topic.
However, the subsequent administrations shied away from recognizing the atrocities in line with international crimes. Is the evidence lacking? Is the evidence not clear? No. And indeed, even in 2018, the U.S. State Department reported on the dire situation of the Rohingyas stating that the attacks were “well-planned and coordinated”, were “extreme, large-scale, widespread, and seemingly geared toward both terrorizing the population and driving out the Rohingya residents.” Nonetheless, the U.S. State Department did not go as far as to analyze the gathered data against the legal elements of international crimes. Most recently, the situation in Myanmar was specifically mentioned in the 2021 Report to Congress Pursuant to Section 5 of the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2018. The report identified Myanmar as a country at risk of atrocity crimes stating that “one of the strongest predictors of where atrocities are likely to occur is where they have occurred in the recent past.” This shows that the U.S. Administration acknowledges that atrocity crimes took place in Myanmar in the recent past. However, it is still not a formal recognition of the atrocities for what they are.
As the open letter states: “Now is the time to use the words that fit the crimes. U.S. leadership matters. We call upon you to demonstrate the moral leadership and courage necessary to push global action in the face of genocide.”
We must remember that this genocide is not over and the Rohingyas in Myanmar continue to be at risk. Leadership is urgently needed. Global action is urgently needed. We shall not wait until this genocide materializes in whole. We must name it for what it is and act.