How can the US and humanitarian groups respond to the Rohingya crisis?

A makeshift refugee camp in Bangladesh in 2013. Photo by: Pierre Prakash / EU / ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

CANBERRA — As the United Nations Security Council ramped up talks on how to respond to the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, the Center for Global Development brought the debate directly to Washington on September 29, discussing what the United States and humanitarian groups should do.

In the past month, half a million Rohingya have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh, joining hundreds of thousands of refugees already there. A brutal Myanmar military campaign against the Rohingya population started on August 25 in response to coordinated attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on army and police bases. “There is an increased level of violence among certain elements of the Rohingya and because of the state led persecution against this population, you might not be surprised to know that,” Sarah Margon, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, explained. “They have nowhere else to turn.”

“We all knew the likelihood of ethnic cleansing and mass atrocities in Burma, and the early warning signs all went unheeded.” 

— Andrea Gittleman, program manager, Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide

The military’s response, Margon said, has been “heavy-handed and brutal,” with extensive burning of homes and villages, arson, killings, massacres, and sexual assault. The level of violence has shocked even aid workers who have seen the worst the world has to offer.

The consensus from experts gathered at the Center for Global Development event was that warning signs were ignored for too long, allowing for a situation described as “historic.”

The response now needs to be large and swift, as the situation has the potential to worsen if responders do not scale up to meet the increasing humanitarian need.

Ignoring the signs

“All the red flags were there,” Andrea Gittleman, program manager for the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, told the audience. “We all knew the likelihood of ethnic cleansing and mass atrocities in Burma, and the early warning signs all went unheeded.”

In her work with the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, Gittleman takes the lessons from the holocaust to inform policy decisions today. Being cognizant of the warning signs of genocide, she said, was important to avoid ethnic cleansing and atrocities in the future. The stories of Rohingya refugees over the past few years matched closely those that came through the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“The stories of people fleeing for their lives,” she said. “Also the stories of people risking their lives to help others. People trying to profit off other people’s misery. And the story of inaction by the international community.”

Gittleman explained that in Myanmar, the government created an “enabling environment” for mass atrocities through its state-led persecution. Over the past few decades, the military-led government was able to do “pretty much anything it wanted,” Gittleman explained. “It had a clear signal that ‘business as usual’ included human rights violations against civilians,” she explained.

The democratic transition of recent years, which culminated in the 2015 election of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, has brought some change, but not to the Rohingya or other minority ethnic groups in the country. And it was important for the international community to recognize that transition in leadership does not necessarily translate to a shift in human rights records.

“Democracy and rights-respecting policy don’t necessarily go hand in hand,” Gittleman said. “You really need to have strong leadership making sure any kind of democracy will take into account the rights of a minority population.”

The impact of delayed international action

Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International, told the audience that key stakeholders failed to take a strong and early stance.

“By September 5 of this month, after more than 100,000 Rohingya had been forced from their homes, and hundreds — if not more — reportedly killed, we called for sanctions against the Burmese government and stated, and I quote, ‘Make no mistake, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity are taking place in the full view of the international community,’” he said.

But the timing of the statement from Refugees International stood in “stark contrast” to institutions that had the opportunity to do more, he said, including the U.S. government. “Beware of the phrase ‘it’s complicated.’ In the world of policy, that is code for dismissing human rights concerns. When you start to hear that, get very nervous.”

“Beware of the phrase ‘it’s complicated.’ In the world of policy, that is code for dismissing human rights concerns. When you start to hear that, get very nervous.”

— Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International

Recent days, however, have seen encouraging signals from the government, according to Schwartz. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence referred to the “savagery” of the military of Myanmar, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called the attack “brutal and sustained.” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres also spoke strongly against what was happening in Myanmar. Margon said we are starting to see the wheels of government in motion: France is working with the U.K. to move this forward action — and the U.S. will likely be a partner in these efforts.

“These are very welcome statements, notwithstanding the fact that they should have been issued weeks ago,” Schwartz said. “But they have to be coupled with action, a far greater sense of urgency, and some sense of a strategy to end this awful suffering.”

Political action should focus initially on the military

While the leadership in Myanmar under Suu Kyi needs to be questioned, Schwartz and Margon explained that an immediate political response needs to target the military actions that are responsible for the attacks. And Margon believes only outside pressure can create change.

“[Suu Kyi] has fallen from grace in being the leader we all hoped she could be to move the country forward into a process of democracy,” she said. “Now the responsibility falls to other governments and multilateral institutes to do what needs get done — to not only stop active operations and provide aid for those displaced and ensure there is some justice and accountability.”

Schwartz was emphatic on his calls for action, saying military-to-military support should end and targeted action is required from senior military officials and military-owned enterprises. The U.N. Security Council needs to be pushed to establish embargoes and collect evidence of human rights violation. Unless the situation dramatically changes, added Schwartz, the situation should be referred to International Criminal Court for investigation into possible crimes against humanity.

“More importantly, the administration, the Congress, and countries of the world have to treat this crisis with the urgency it demands and must develop strategies to influence change,” Schwartz said.

Humanitarian, political, and financial support needed in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, WHO hurries to thwart possible disease outbreak

With hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into makeshift settlements and ad-hoc camp sites, the threat of cholera looms in Cox's Bazar. But the World Health Organization is hoping that a strong health ministry, talented team, and early action will stave off an outbreak.

Jason Mills, humanitarian representative for Médecins Sans Frontières, told the audience that the situation in Myanmar is the largest movement of people fleeing since Kosovo War in the 1990s. He described the conditions within the camps in Cox’s Bazar and en route as “abhorrent” and a “five alarm humanitarian crisis of the first degree,” saying the risk of communicable diseases could not be higher.

Immediate scaling up of humanitarian action is needed.

But Mills also praised the government of Bangladesh for keeping its borders open despite land politics being highly contentious in the country. The U.N. response, he said, needs to better support Bangladesh and acknowledge the constraints that Bangladesh's response puts on the country politically and domestically. Governments and institutions, Mills believes, should increase funding to Bangladesh, communicate with the country leaders, and understand their needs.

Questions to ask governments and humanitarian responders

 “In 10 years from now, if your kids are studying about the elimination of a people from Western Burma and they ask what you did when you were in the government to prevent that disaster, what will you be prepared to say to them?”

— Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International

In addition to immediate action to target military actions and provide humanitarian support, Schwartz told the audience that it is important to be asking the questions of policy and whether the response would save lives. Anyone working in this field, he said, needs to be continually asking themselves if they did everything they could to avert or end a tragedy of historic proportion, including international governments.

“Policymakers must grapple with this question,” Schwartz said. “We must do so because we are on the midst of a human rights and humanitarian crisis of historic proportion.”

Schwartz met with State Department senior officials last week and put the question directly to them: “In 10 years from now, if your kids are studying about the elimination of a people from Western Burma and they ask what you did when you were in the government to prevent that disaster, what will you be prepared to say to them?”

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.