When a national peace agreement in South Sudan fell apart in 2016 after three years of civil war, U.S. and U.N. officials asked their leadership for additional peacekeepers and resources to prevent the mass civilian slaughter they saw coming. But according to the Associated Press, their pleas “fell on deaf ears.” What unfolded was a wholesale campaign of ethnic cleansing, according to the United Nations, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths and over a million people fleeing to neighboring Uganda.
“The U.N. did not send peacekeeping troops to stay…and the U.S. continued to support South Sudan’s military, possibly in violation of U.S. law,” the AP reported on Wednesday in a chilling story juxtaposing horrific violence against civilians with the U.S. policy equivalence of a shrug. Meanwhile, cognitive dissonance seems to have ruled U.N. action, which was documenting the rapes and murders across several states but doing little to prevent or minimize these crimes.
A year later, the U.N. is still just considering sending in additional permanent peacekeeping troops if they can find them. Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump has already announced his intention to cut support for peacekeeping missions as well as cutting U.S. contributions to the U.N. budget in general.
The head of United Nations peacekeeping operations on Tuesday called on South Sudan’s government as well as the international community, in general, to bring the country “back from the abyss.” Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the Under-Secretary-General of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, also urged the Security Council to “leverage on all parties and encourage them to engage in this process meaningfully and without any preconditions.”
But the same mistakes are being made right now, in Myanmar, where more than half of the 1 million Rohingya — an ethnic Muslim minority in the Buddhist country — have been violently driven out of the country since late August. Government troops have been cracking down on the Rohingya, who have no citizenship rights in Myanmar, off an on since the 1990s, with the most recent crackdown starting after a deadly attack by Rohingya insurgents on border police posts.
Over the past two months, hundreds of villages have been burned and an untold number of people have been killed (there’s little to no access for the media and humanitarian groups to the country) as the situation, which the United Nations has classified as “ethnic cleansing” worsens to the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world.
Although the U.N.’s refugee agency is responding to the crisis, it’s really neighboring Bangladesh who is bearing the brunt of the crisis, hosting over 500,000 Rohinyga in crowded camps while trying to keep a lid on a potential spillover of violence within its own borders. There were already some 300,000 Rohingya already in Bangladesh, fleeing the general systematic discrimination and hardship imposed by the Myanmar government.
“The [U.N. Security] Council is a prisoner of its own members,” said Akshaya Kumar, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for the United Nations. The U.S. government, she said, failed to put forth the idea of an arms embargo against South Sudan until the end of President Barack Obama’s second term, “And at that point, there just wasn’t the consensus that there had been in the past.”
“But in Burma [previous name of Myanmar], there have been efforts to have a more engaged council, but the specter of a Chinese veto is what’s keeping everyone from pushing for something more transformative.”
“Despite all the pledges that the U.N. would never again allow these kinds of crimes to occur, unfortunately, it hasn’t been able to generate sustained action in the interest of prevention of these kinds of abuses,” said Kumar. Enaged civil societies and concerned governments might be able to hold the U.N. accountable for its inadequate responses, but, said Kumar, ultimately, the U.N. will self-censor and bend to the will of a government such as Myanmar’s “in pursuit of a broader development agenda at the expense of this marginalized Rohinyga community in Rakhine state.”
She points to the recent example of the World Food Program — the U.N.’s food aid agency — deciding to bury a report on Rohingya children “wasting” (starving) in Myanmar at the behest of the government. This is done in part to maintain access to places like Rakhine state, but the result is to either keep information from the public or to present it in a “nuanced” way that’s acceptable to the human rights violators.
The United States too doesn’t seem to be doing much. On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson yet again made another non-committal response on what to do about the crisis. “Someone, if these reports are true, is going to be held to account for that,” he said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, D.C. “And it’s up to the military leadership of Burma to decide, ‘What direction do they want to play in the future of Burma?'”
What are the odds that the United States will push China — which has lucrative trade deals with Myanmar — on the Rohingya issue, especially given that Trump is already trying to pressure China to help isolate North Korea in a bid to force them to end their nuclear and ballistic missile programs?
“That’s what keeps me up at night, is wondering if this administration — and not just the U.S., but other powerful countries around the world — will think it’s worth it to put the Chinese in a difficult position to stand up for the Rohingya people. This is a community that, let’s be frank, doesn’t have many champions around the world,” said Kumar, who is not alone in hoping the U.N. will step up.
Amnesty International researcher Matthew Wells said what’s needed is a “loud, unified voice” from the international community demanding humanitarian access to Myanmar and Rakhine state, where the Rohingya live. Additionally, the international community should let it be known that “These sorts of crimes by the military won’t be tolerated. We believe there should be a comprehensive arms embargo imposed on Myanmar and there should be targeted financial sanctions against senior military officials who are reasonably suspected of crimes,” he said.
Wells, who recently returned from the Myanmar-Bangladesh border said the “targeted ruthless campaign by the Myanmar military through killings, sexual violence and burning of villages to force the Rohinyga population out of the country to make it as difficult as possible to ever return.”
Amnesty International published a brief on Tuesday accusing the government of Myanmar of crimes against humanity.
“There have been good statements and condemnations, including today by Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson, but that has to be followed by action that imposes consequences on those who are implicated in these crimes,” said Wells. Given the evidence at hand, it seems almost impossible that an increasingly stringent regime of sanctions and embargoes have not already been put in place.
“This is a crisis, where, from my experience, we have the some of the hardest evidence from any of the places that I’ve documented. In particular we satellite images from across northern Rakhine state that shows that shows this incredibly targeted burning of every last Rohinyga house, mosque and other shelters,” said Wells.
“We can see these images where only meters apart, you have areas that have been completely destroyed, every last structure burned, and areas that have been completely untouched. And through consistent differences in what those structures look like and through witness testimony from these same villages, we know that it’s the Rohingya parts of these villages that are completely torched and the non-Rohingya parts that are untouched.”
“It shows the naked lie…that this has anything other than a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing,” he said, adding, “The international community can’t let that stand.”
As hard as it is to imagine, things might still get worse for the Rohingya. Wells said that that unless the international community steps in and turns things around, that the Rohingya — currently facing starvation due to lack of access to their own livelihoods as well as being cut off from humanitarian assistance — will either never be able to go back to their homes, or, when repatriated, will be forced to live in what he describes as “concentration camps,” where previously displaced Rohingya populations have been forced to live.
Wells, who prior to working at Amnesty International was as researcher for the Center for Civilians in Conflict in South Sudan, sighs deeply when asked what he makes of the fact that despite international hand-wringing, governments keep getting away with ethnic cleansing.
“More than anything it’s the never ending shock that this continues to happen with no better response than before,” said Wells.
“It speaks to major problems right now in terms of the concerting lack of respect for human rights and humanitarian norms and the lack of determination among the international community at large to address them in a timely manner.”