PICTURE a country that contains people of various ethnicities, cultures and beliefs. In today’s world, that could mean any country on the map. Now put in place people in power, position and influence, who begin to target and harm a particular group of people because of their ‘difference’ in faith and ethnicity. If you were in a time machine, you could zip across decades and end up in Germany, Yugoslavia, Rawanda or Bangladesh. However, the large-scale ethnic tension and acts of genocide in these countries have concluded long ago.
Human rights and human dignity have, to a large extent, been recognised and restored. Those who were excluded and persecuted are now citizens of independent states, with all rights that come with such status. When the international community stood up against the persecution and genocide all those years ago, they stood against human rights abuses, regardless of the race, gender or belief of the persecuted. How things have changed! The largely western call for ‘war against terrorism’ — targeting so-called Muslims — have made almost all adherents of Islam potential trouble-makers. This has also affected refugees seeking safe haven from war and persecution.
It must not be forgotten that the modern system of human rights and the United Nations were established after a war that saw genocide perpetrated on people of a specific religion. Why should things be any different now? We do not need another war. That should always be a last resort and will cause further violations. What we need is a concerted effort from everyone to restore human rights and human dignity to the Rohingya people and ensure that they get justice at the international level, because it is all too obvious that their own country is doing absolutely nothing to help them. The first rule of human rights is that there must be no discrimination.
There are two sides to the issues of the rights of the Rohingya people — the country trying to wipe them out of existence through ethnic cleansing and the nearest country where they feel they could get refuge — however sparse. Reports show that more than 1,64,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar and are seeking refuge along the Bangladesh border, fleeing persecution, rape and death. And this in a span of two weeks. Bangladesh has been playing benevolent host to Rohingya refugees since the 1970s and is near the end of its tether.
It is beyond high time that the international community stepped in, not only to assist in the humanitarian efforts to assist the Rohingyas but also to take stringent measures to cease the diabolical policies of the Myanmar government so that the Rohingyas are finally given recognition and all the rights and dignity that come with being a citizen of a state. Yes. It will be a Herculean task most probably akin to cleaning the Aegean stables. But it must be done now — since not only Rohingya Muslims but others too are now being targeted and attempts at retaliation are being labelled as ‘insurgency’ and have become an excuse for the government to perpetrate further violence to show the international community that they are ‘handling’ the situation.
In the past two weeks, the media have been flooded with news of what the Rohingya have been facing in Myanmar. Homes are being torched, villages emptied, women and children raped and, of course, the torture and death. A close friend and human rights defender who returned from the border recently had spoken to many Rohingya who had taken shelter in the border. A mother had fled with her daughters, leaving her son behind. Her fear of rape was genuine. She said that her son could fend for himself, but her daughters would surely be raped. There were children everywhere, crying and looking for their parents who had had to flee leaving them behind. Or who were dead. There were parents who did not know where their children were.
In February 2017, a report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and statements by the UN special rapporteur on Myanmar referred to reports of violations targeting the Rohingya minority at the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 — including the deliberate killing of children, the burning of homes with people inside them, rape, and sexual violence. The OHCHR report concluded that reports coming from Myanmar indicate the very likely commission of crimes against humanity. A total of 204 people were interviewed by the UN human rights team for this report. Of them, almost a half had reported family members who had been killed or who had gone missing. Of the 101 women interviewed, more than half were either victims of rape rape or some form of sexual abuse. The information in the full report and the witness statements therein are enough to jump-start ways to pressure the Myanmar government into opening up for further investigation and the need for sanctions. But we are still waiting.
What the Myanmar government is and has been doing to the Rohingya people is beyond inexcusable. It is barbaric and inhumane. The levels of violence, neglect, disgust, distrust, repression and alienation faced by the Rohingya is something no human being should have to suffer, especially in the country where they were born and have lived long enough to establish it as their homeland. They are not recognised as belonging to Myanmar, they have no citizenship and, obviously, have no state protection. I met two highly educated Burmese women in Europe in 2015, who were doing their postgraduate studies on a European scholarship. When I questioned them about the Rohingya, they both explained to me that ‘everyone knew’ the Rohingya were actually from Bangladesh and were committing criminal activities and terrorism in Myanmar.
When I asked them how it was then possible that Rohingya people were living in parts of Myanmar for generations, the two ladies had ‘difficulty’ in understanding English and could not explain. The discrimination against the Rohingya seems also to be a social issue. This is a violation on a very wide public scale and is known worldwide. The government of Bangladesh needs to bring the issue to the international forum on an urgent basis. It needs to shock the international community into taking action. The fact that the Myanmar has recently refused to allow international visitors in to investigate and the harrowing experiences that we in Bangladesh hear from the refugees seems to be enough evidence to impose stringent sanctions on Myanmar. When a known repressive government blames ‘insurgents’, the international community needs to find out why the insurgents were created in the first place.
Bangladesh has been playing host to Rohingya refugees since the 1970s even though it is not a party to the Refugee Convention. So, what makes it obliged to shelter these non-citizens to the best of its ability? The fact that they are Muslims? The fact that they speak a similar sounding dialect? No. Bangladesh has an obligation to afford them shelter and a safe refuge because they are humans. The fact that they are humans has been forgotten by the Myanmar government. We in Bangladesh must remind them. In 1971, thousands of Bengalis found themselves refugees, fleeing persecution from a military government that not only saw them as ‘inferior’ but who also refused to hand over power to an elected government dominated by the Bengalis. During the war of liberation, ‘inferior’ Bengalis became victims of genocide and rape. As a nation, we feel the frustration, fear and anger of the Rohingyas. All along the border, Bangladeshis are helping in any way they can. An old woman saw a Rohingy family cooking rice in a field. They had nothing else. She offered them some salt — it was all she had to give. But this and many more are personal, individual endeavours that have limits. Our government needs to now make this an international humanitarian issue.
People of Bangladesh can no longer deal with this crisis alone. However, the government cannot call for the Myanmar government to take back the Rohingya without any safeguards and measures in place. It is obvious the latter do not want them. Pushing them back into Myanmar breaches human rights and international law. Bangladesh and other countries where the Rohingya are fleeing still have the obligation to afford them shelter. They cannot push them back into a country where they know they will face persecution and ethnic cleansing and their life will be at risk.
Under human rights norms, state obligations can be broadly categorised into positive and negative obligations — the obligation to do something and the obligation not to do something. Probably the most fundamental negative obligation is the duty not to harm others — regardless of whether they are your citizens or not. This obligation prevents states, such as Bangladesh, from pushing the Rohingyas back into the territory of Myanmar, where it is obvious that they will become victims of the ethnic cleansing. The providing of shelter and other rights such as food, education and effective sanitation comes from the obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Social, Economic and Cultural Rights — the holy trinity of human rights instruments. Because of the obligations contained in these, a state cannot declare that it has no obligations to house refugees as it is not a party to the convention protecting refugee rights.
It is, in fact, the responsibility of the international community to host the persecuted Rohingya people till conditions are in place for their safe return. Bangladesh, in this respect, can play the role of an interim host. The Myanmar government must not be allowed to think that this is a comfortable or permanent ‘arrangement’. However, although some assistance is given to Bangladesh to look after the Rohingya refugees, little is being done to pressure Myanmar into taking back its people with the guarantee that they will be given the status of Myanmar citizens with all the rights citizens have. The Myanmar government must immediately stop its ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people and recognise them as citizens of Myanmar, with full rights. They cannot deny the very existence of the Rohingyas in Myanmar as it is historically proved that they have been living there for generations.
The Rohingyas are the main targets of the Myanmar government. In its diabolical action to wipe Rohingyas off the map, others who are not Rohingyas are being caught in the violence. Every action has a reaction and in this, others may be harmed. However, using innocent victims to fuel the fire that Rohingyas are to blame for their suffering is just another part of the master plan. The world must never forget that this is ethnic cleansing.
Stopping it will also stop others from being harmed too. However, till the international community wakes up to this fact and looks at the matter holistically and not just at a ‘personal’ level, the establishment of a ‘safe zone’ within Rakhine State of Myanmar under the supervision of the United Nations has become imperative, with security provided by UN peacekeepers, order to give the persecuted and fleeing Rohingya basic human rights of shelter, food, security and dignity — not as Muslims but as human beings.
Saira Rahman Khan teaches law at BRAC University.
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