The international community must act to save the Rohingya Muslims

By Alex Bryan

One year since anti-Muslim violence broke out in Burma, the blood still flows and the deaths rack up. The Rohingya minority, stateless, discriminated against by virtue of their constitutional status as outsiders, remains the target of one of the most vicious series of ethnic attacks in the world at the the moment. The authorities have at times joined in these attacks; more often, the facilitate them or simply sit back and allow the killings to continue. Sadly, although the Rohingya are officially classed as ‘illegal migrants’, they have no homeland to which they can return. Nor can they simply flee; those that do risk rejection from other countries as well as the potential for bad weather conditions. Those who make it to Bangladesh, Thailand or Malaysia are often ‘pushed back’ from the borders, detained en masse, or arrested.

The discrimination in Burma has a long and inglorious history. It existed long before independence in 1946, and the Citizenship Act of 1982 defined Burmese citizenship in such a way as to exclude the Rohingya. Perhaps even worse than this is the refusal of the Burmese authorities to class the Rohingya as asylum seekers, instead condemning them to the lowest strata of society – the illegal migrant. The violence directed at Muslims in Burma for the last year has happened in a context of exclusion, of seeing the Muslims as ‘not fully human’. This can be seen not only in the violence, but also in the two child policy recently introduced.

The international attention on the violence has increased with time. The UN Human Rights Council President has voiced ‘deep concern’ about the killings. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also questioned the regime’s decision not to prosecute those who have enacted the attacks (indeed, it is often Rohingya themselves arrested after suffering terror attacks against them.) Unfortunately, this had had little to no impact on the regime’s course. In fact, the one piece of international intervention which could be seen to have altered the course of history was President Obama’s visit and meetings with President Thein Sein. Obama said he hoped the violence would stop. It has not, and his trip may been seen to have legitimised the regime.

International action is necessary to stop the systematic murder of the Rohingya people. Inside Burma, the figure those who protested against the regime, Aung San Suu Kyi, is now a member of the government, and has stayed shamefully silent on the issue. Attempts to stop the killings by foreign forces will almost certainly attempt to reach out to her first. Unfortunately, her tight-lipped attitude to the massacres bodes ill for any who do so.

One of the reasons for the relatively small pressure being exerted on Burma is that, nationally, this does not fit into the narrative the media have presented over the past few years of a Burma moving towards democracy, liberalising their economy, releasing political prisoners and allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to walk the streets again. Hence, viewers (on the rare occasion such stories are run on major news bulletins) tend to see them within a wider narrative of progress rather than one of discrimination, thus underestimating the problem.

The international community and national governments cannot absolve themselves of responsibility. The central foreign policy focus for the majority of major nations at the moment is the Syrian civil war and the ongoing power struggle in Egypt. As important as these two events are, they must not take up all the foreign policy political space. The attacks on the Rohingya have been persisting for the last 12 months. They show no signs of stopping organically, nor of being stopped by the Burmese government or ASEAN, the regional international group. The UN must act now to ensure that the Rohingya population can be liberated from this ethnic hatred and to ensure that Burma does not collapse.

Campaign group Avaaz has launched a campaign to get citizens of Western nations to pressure their governments to stop Burma from becoming ‘The next Rwanda’. The story of Rwanda is not only one of genocide and racial hatred but also one of an international community failing to fulfil its promise to those at risk of genocide. If the UN and the wider international community does not act now, the word ‘Burma’ might begin to be said in the same dark way we say ‘Rwanda’; as a synonym for the worst depths of humanity.

The Ocampo six must face international justice

By Alex Bryan

On February 27 2008, Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga signed an agreement which created a new power-sharing arrangement in Kenya, establishing a coalition government between the parties the two men led. This brought an end to almost three months of violence which had ripped the country apart, leaving over 1,000 dead and 300,000 displaced. The violence had mainly run on party lines, and as these parties themselves had built constituencies based on ethnicity, the violence had a haunting ethnic dimension which for many summoned reminders of the violence which engulfed Kenya’s neighbour Sudan just years earlier.

Just under two years after the beginning of the conflict, the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court Luis Moreno Ocampo announced that he wished to summon six Kenyans to the court to investigate them on counts of crimes against humanity. Of those six, one was the former police chief, one was a radio executive and four, including President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, had served in the Kenyan government.

Now it seems that the African Union, in the 50th year since its inception, is requesting the transfer of the ‘Ocampo six’ from the ICC to the Kenyan justice system. The AU has claimed in the past that the ICC unfairly targets African leaders, and appears to be attempting to make some political gains by making a stand in this instance. The resolution makes no legal difference to the ICC’s case, but is a clear attempt by African states to stand against what is perceived to be an international justice system which overwhelmingly pursues Africans whilst allowing international human rights abusers from across the rest of the world to live freely.

It is true that since its inception in 2002 all the ICC’s cases so far are from African countries, with all eight current investigations being held focussed on African countries. The first arrest warrant released by the court was for the infamous Ugandan Joseph Kony. No white person has ever been prosecuted by the ICC.

However, the reach of the international justice system at large has certainly not ignored the most serious international crimes committed outside of Africa. There has been an international tribunal set up investigating the Bosnian war, including the ongoing trial of Ratko Mladic, and an extraordinary chamber set up to investigate the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. African nations have, on the whole, tended to experience more cases of crimes which fall under the ICC remit than other continents, and hence it is understandable that the gaze of the ICC is centrally focussed there.

It is also the case that the crimes committed in Kenya fall squarely within the ICC remit. The ICC should not be persuaded from investigating cases which appear to fall within its remit and which, were it not for the court, would probably not have been pursued had the court not had the initiative to do so due to the influence and standing of those involved. The problem is not that the ICC is prosecuting too many people committing crimes in Africa, but that they need to be more active in powerful and wealthy nations.

As a concept, international justice is one which had a number of difficulties which sovereign nations have found it hard to overcome. While the UN was founded in 1945 and the Nuremburg trials ending in 1946, it was only in 2002 that it was possible for the ICC to come into being. But the experiences of the past 60 years, and particularly those of the past 25, such as the Bosnian war, the genocides in Rwanda and Sudan, have demonstrated the need for humanity as a whole to attempt to collectively stand against those who commit certain acts.

The African Union might be right that the ICC is pursuing a disproportionate number of cases from Africa, but the merits or demerits of the ICC’s case against the Ocampo six has nothing to do with that. A significant proportion of the crimes committed which fall under the ICC remit are committed in Africa, and Africa needs the ICC to develop into a stronger, more consistent arbiter of international justice in order to protect its people. Discrediting the court, shackling it, displaying open hostility to it does not help; rather than producing a fairer and more consistent imposition of justice worldwide, it erodes the credibility to an organisation which is at least serving some justice.

Bangladesh, 1971: The forgotten holocaust

By Neil Andrews

Forty years ago one of the bloodiest conflicts to engulf the Asian continent took place.  East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) rose up against West Pakistan after the latter had denied the East independence.  The struggle pitted the two halves of Pakistan – geographically located either side of India – in a bitter conflict lasting nine months.  Only the intervention of India, on the behalf of East Pakistan, prevented events from reaching Holocaust-like proportions.

3 million are said to have perished at the hands of the West Pakistan Army and Bengali collaborators between March and December 1971.  In a conflict that witnessed the rape of 200,000 women in purpose-built “rape camps” – of which more than 10% became pregnant – and the exodus of more than 10 million Bengalis for the relatively safe confines of India, the engagement also saw the surrender of 90,000 prisoners of war (POWs), the largest recorded since World War II.  Though Bangladesh cannot be entirely absolved of guilt, Pakistan has never accepted responsibility for the war, which began after the disputed result of a 1970 election, culminating in one of the worst acts of genocide in recent history.

But as evidence of how little the war is known to the West, a 1995 Channel 4 documentary reported that many of the perpetrators of 1971 had been living and working in London, seemingly unbeknown to anyone.  Yet more worrying is the fact that many polemicists – and a handful of historians – have continued to deny that genocide was even committed.

 Justice for the 3 million may now be on its way, however – but it has been a rocky road.  Protests in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s bustling capital, in recent months have thrown fresh light on the events of 1971, with protesters calling for the heads of suspected war criminals.  One of those most wanted is Abdul Quader Mollah, or the “Butcher of Mirpur”, as he is more commonly known.  Linked with the beheading of a poet, the rape of an 11-year old girl and the shooting of more than 300 Bangladeshis in 1971, Mollah – who was assistant secretary general of Jamaat-e-Islami, a political party strongly linked with a number of the atrocities – was found guilty last month and handed down a life sentence.  Justice done, then?  Apparently not.  In a country where life imprisonment for a mass murderer is seen as getting off lightly, the decision has, for many, left a bitter taste – protestors want him executed.  Though I do not support the use of capital punishment anywhere, regardless of the circumstances, it is clear that many in Bangladesh still feel a sense of injustice at the outcome, and want blood.  One reason for such animosity may be that the party alleged to have colluded with the West Pakistan Army in the genocide, Jamaat-e-Islami, is still free to run for election, despite vocal opposition calling for it to be banned.

So how can justice be fairly dispensed?  One charge levelled against the Bangladeshi legal system is that it is plagued with corruption and political favouritism, which is why it has taken so long to convict any of the perpetrators of 1971.  A suggestion has been made that those found guilty could instead be imprisoned under the provisions of the International Criminal Court, situated in The Hague.  Certainly, the intervention of international law in this instance may prove the key to taking those guilty out of the reach of national politicians, which might prevent further delay.

But aside from this, there is something else – something bigger – brewing in Bangladesh.  The gathering of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the capital’s Shahbagh Square, the bubbling epicentre of the protests, bares a striking resemblance to events that encircled Tahrir Square in Egypt two years ago.  The music, the street theatre, and the seeming unity of those in Dhaka suggest that maybe something else is apace.  Perhaps this is not just a protest about 1971.  Perhaps it is a yearning for reform, modernity, and the search for a new Bangladesh.


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