Preventing genocide is more than just halting mass killing

The immediate steps that the government can take in response to the ruling by the International Court of Justice include dismantling enforced ethnic segregation in Rakhine State.


Last month, the International Court of Justice ordered Myanmar to take measures to prevent genocide against the Rohingya. The government’s immediate reaction was not encouraging. It claimed that no genocide had taken place in Rakhine State. Subsequently, the government spokesman said that all measures to prevent genocidal acts were already being taken, “so we don’t need to take any special action based on the ruling”.

Worrying signs have continued to emerge from Rakhine State. The military has reportedly continued to commit grave acts, including the indiscriminate shelling of populated villages, which has affected both the Rohingya and Rakhine communities. A spokesperson denied the allegation and instead blamed the Arakan Army, which swiftly rejected the claim.

On February 3, a mobile internet blackout was re-imposed in four townships in Rakhine and one in neighbouring Chin State. They re-join four Rakhine townships that have been under a mobile internet blackout since June 21, 2019 – a dubious world record for the duration of such a ban.

The four townships where the blackouts were re-imposed – Buthidaung, Maungdaw, Rathedaung and Myebon – are not only home to most of the Rohingya who remain in Myanmar, they are also where most international crimes were allegedly committed in 2016 and 2017.

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The blackout does not bode well for the ethnic communities who live in the four townships, and it also raises questions about the potential destruction of evidence. In today’s world access to the internet should be considered a basic right. Denying it to people in almost half of Rakhine’s 17 townships profoundly affects individuals as well as the private sector.

As yet there is no information about how the government plans to implement the ICJ ruling, which includes a requirement to submit a report to the ICJ every six months outlining what it is doing to prevent genocide. If the government believes it is in compliance as long as no mass violent crime takes place, it is wrong. It is also wrong if it focuses on major acts of commission and excludes acts of omission – for example, if it leaves in place policies and structures used to oppress and marginalise the Rohingya.

In addition to mass violent crime it should also take account of the “slower” – and often more insidious – elements of genocide. Many of these fall under what the Genocide Convention calls “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”.

There are a number of issues not dealing directly with violent crime that I would expect the government to include in its first report to the ICJ. Some of them can easily be implemented before the late May reporting deadline set by the court. Doing so would significantly enhance the government’s credibility.

Some of the problematic policy measures in Rakhine State have been carried over from a long established, authoritarian system and may seem difficult to change. But as the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, of which I was a member, show, these reforms are important steps in order to transition to a peaceful, prosperous Rakhine State for all. By not acting to address them, the government could potentially undermine its defence at the ICJ.

Inadequate food rations are high on the list. Persistent reports of deliberate provision of insufficient supplies to camps and closed-off villages have to be taken seriously. Deprivation of food and starvation are well-documented elements of the armed forces’ tactics to weaken communities. Moreover, the UN Fact-Finding Mission’s 2019 report found that security forces “routinely visit Rohingya villages to confiscate food, including crops and even humanitarian aid”.

In addition to ensuring the provision of adequate food rations, the government should allow independent experts to conduct regular food and nutrition surveys. Without these the government cannot ensure that the very basic right to freedom from hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition is protected, particularly for people who are forced to live under conditions that amount to detention.

Implementation would not only show the ICJ and the international community that Myanmar is serious about ensuring that a potentially life-threatening condition is removed, it would also signal to refugees in Bangladesh that it is improving conditions for their future return. It is not a matter of funding; it is a matter of political will. UN agencies and INGOs are ready to provide support.

It is not only the Rohingya who receive insufficient supplies; ethnic Rakhine and other displaced groups suffer similar fates. Treating all equally and in line with best humanitarian practice is of critical importance, including to help bring about reconciliation and hope for a common future.

The Rohingya’s poor food and nutrition status is worsened by lack of freedom of movement. This prohibits people from direct access to livelihoods and health services. It also prevents them from fleeing in the event of violent conflict near their camps and villages.

In the past the lack of freedom of movement was often justified, cynically, as a measure to protect the Rohingya against attacks by the Rakhine. But no such restrictions were placed on the latter. It is clear that areas with frequent violent conflict may require temporary security restrictions, including on freedom of movement, but this should apply to all communities without discrimination.

More generally, the insidious system of enforced ethnic segregation, or apartheid, stands in the way of preventing unnecessary deaths and permanent injuries. It facilitates discrimination, ill-health, stokes hate and fear of “the other”, and has led to long years of violent confrontation between communities. It must be dismantled.

Another measure the government should take immediately is to lift the unjustifiable restrictions on freedom of assembly. Gatherings are limited to a maximum of five persons. This limitation should be revoked so that the Rohingya can meet freely, celebrate special events, worship and discuss their present situation and their future. Such activities are important elements of identity and culture.

A review of discriminatory legislation should also be undertaken without delay. This includes the four so-called “race and religion” laws of 2015. The laws isolate Muslims in their own country and legitimise discrimination.

Long before 2015, additional measures against the Rohingya were already in place. An example is the permission that Rohingya men and women need to marry. Obtaining such government permission can take years, while the process is fraught with graft opportunities. Such discriminatory and inhumane requirements must be invalidated.

The 1982 Citizenship Law laid the cornerstone for policies to strip the Rohingya of their citizenship. This was done gradually, over 33 years, with the endpoint in 2015, when their temporary identity cards were declared invalid. The government must urgently review the law, while halting the issuing of National Verification Cards that compel the Rohingya to accept that they are foreigners.

The government’s strategy for camp closure and resettlement requires special attention. It affects some 130,000 Rohingya and has serious shortcomings. The government seems to be making haste but if the strategy is implemented as now planned it will further entrench the apartheid state in Rakhine.

The strategy exhibits the characteristic Myanmar approach of establishing multiple committees as the solution to complex problems. But without a proper policy framework agreed by the Union government, such committees become instruments of retrogression, anchoring past policies, norms and standards. The government should revisit the strategy and ensure it complies with the ICJ ruling.

Lastly, a word about the responsibility of others, such as governments, international organisations and INGOs. As a rule they must not aid or assist a state in the commission of unlawful acts that amount to international crimes. Instead, they must cooperate to bring an end to the systemic failure of Myanmar to abide by obligatory norms of international law.

In June 2019 the UN resident coordinator in Myanmar led the way when he wrote to the government on behalf of the UN and its humanitarian partners, stating that no support beyond life-saving assistance would be forthcoming for the camp closure strategy unless “tangible progress [is] made on the fundamental issue of freedom of movement”.

All those involved in development and humanitarian support in Rakhine should review their programmes to ensure that they do not prolong or entrench policies and practices that could be considered elements of genocide. They should also share information, including research that points to persistent problems, so that they can be addressed.

The potential for successful cooperation between the government and aid agencies is in place. The government can seize on this potential to demonstrate to the ICJ and the international community more broadly that it is serious about addressing – in a verifiable manner – many of the underlying problems that could potentially contribute to genocide.

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