G20 and UNHCR Fail to Address Rohingya Genocide

By Liam Scott

BUENOS AIRES AND GENEVA (New York Times) - Why hasn’t there been an invocation of the genocide convention in the G20 Summit or in UNHCR debate?

When asked this question at yesterday’s G20 Summit, the delegate from India paused a moment before saying that there were “two sides to the story in Myanmar” and they needed “more clarification” before referring to the crisis as a genocide, let alone invoking the genocide convention.

But the facts are clear. Since 2012, the Burmese Tatmadaw has killed around 10,000 Rohingya Muslims, says Doctors Without Borders, but tensions between the Myanmar government and the Rohingya have existed for much longer. The government views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and has rejected the idea of giving them citizenship since Myanmar achieved independence from the UK in 1948. Over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh in the last eight years. Those that have stayed behind have been terrorized by systematic violence, rape, and murder. This is certainly an example of ethnic cleansing, as former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Theresa May both have said. However, “ethnic cleansing” mutes the reality of the events in Myanmar by implying only forced displacement, whereas “genocide” effectively captures the intentionality and scope of the systematic eradication and murder of a specific group of people.

The Rohingya genocide has remained relatively unaddressed by the international community since its beginnings. Despite the wealth of pithy articles playing on the “Never again” slogan in the wake of countless genocides, “Never Again” has done a horrible job at preventing genocide, or even serving as a mechanism for remembrance. However, as member delegates of the current G20 Summit are confronted with the genocide of Rohingya and growing refugee crisis, even conciliations of “never again” were too much to ask of the global leaders..

Three blocs in the G20 Summit presented working papers yesterday on how to best handle the crisis in Myanmar. South Africa, a member of one of the blocs, said that his working paper offered a “multifaceted” solution that was “hardline on pressuring Myanmar” through mechanisms like sanctions. Despite this allegedly “hardline” stance, the working paper does not once mention genocide. When asked if the word “genocide” had been used in discussion or formal resolutions, South Africa conceded that the word has been just “thrown around.” Such unofficial usage of a clearly necessary word disparages the importance of the word itself and encourages passivity on behalf of the international community. This hesitation is perhaps because usage of the word ultimately would call for intervention from the international community

Another bloc led by France, India, Mexico, and Russia proposed a resolution that advocated for 3D-printing houses for the refugees. Despite the effort to employ modern technology, 3D-printing houses will do nothing in terms of condemning genocide or healing the wounds that come from experiencing a genocide. The draft also called for education campaigns within Myanmar schools—which are controlled by the state perpetrating the genocide itself—in order to help foster feelings of goodwill and understanding between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists. The delegate from Russia said they hoped offering economic incentives to Myanmar would encourage the government to implement these education initiatives. It is unclear how these initiatives will be supervised or if Myanmar will even agree. Likewise, the bloc proposed an annual summit in Switzerland to support religious tolerance. Such a summit would function as just a long term solution, but would not put an immediate end to the killing.

The draft also advised the development of an online program called WeAreMyanmar in order to encourage “cross cultural kindness” and “combat[t] rhetoric” that fosters hate. One of the proposed platforms is Facebook, a concerning choice considering the site has been used by the Myanmar military to incite violence against the Rohingya. This working paper did refer to the crisis as “ethnic cleansing,” but no more severe terms appeared.

The G20 Summit, however, is not the only committee discussing the Rohingya genocide; UNHCR is also discussing the crisis. In this committee, the term “genocide” has not been casually referenced, but rather one that has been treated with weight and significance. The delegate from the Dominican Republic said it had been made very clear in committee that the crisis is a genocide. Delegates from Zambia and Paraguay agreed.

UNHCR delegates have divided themselves into three main blocs: Short And Long Term solutions (SALT), Rehabilitation Acknowledgment Displacement Allocation for Refugees (RADAR), and Support Against Violence and Extermination (SAVE).

While RADAR condemns the crisis, the bloc argues that sanctions against Myanmar will not improve the situation, according to the delegate from Bangladesh. The bloc hopes to use aid camps and education in order to, according to Algeria, repatriate Rohingya refugees. Algeria has also stressed the importance of the role of Facebook has had in encouraging violence by “spreading rumours” and hopes to “stop the false news” in part by “hav[ing] Facebook monitor the content more closely.”

Still, gaps in knowledge persist. The delegates from Algeria and Australia do not know what the genocide convention is, and therefore do not plan on referencing it or holding the Myanmar government accountable at the ICC for crimes of genocide.

SAVE differs in an important way. The delegate from Bolivia explained that she hopes to use her working paper to bring the Myanmar government before the ICC. SAVE’s draft implores the ICC to investigate Myanmar political leaders, specifically Aung San Suu Kyi, and military leaders, for crimes including genocide and incitement of genocide on Facebook.

Although referring to this crisis as a genocide could be more overt, formally calling upon the ICC and referencing how Facebook has been used to incite violence are both necessary steps toward halting this genocide and preventing future genocides. The G20 Summit did not achieve similar results. How bad does the atrocity need to be for the G20 to invoke the genocide convention?

Looking at the future, perhaps Facebook will experience something similar to the “media trials” that convicted leaders of Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines and Kangura, a radio station and newspaper, respectively, that incited violence during the Rwandan genocide (“Inciting Genocide, Pleading Free Speech”).

Neither the G20 Summit nor UNHCR responded as harshly as they could have. Still, the actions of both committees are in line with history. From East Timor to Rwanda and from Darfur to Cambodia, the international community has rarely stepped up to combat genocide.