We’ve never known more about oncoming atrocities, but are still mostly helpless to stop them.
A humanitarian crisis is unfolding on the border between Burma (also known as Myanmar) and Bangladesh. Over the last three weeks, nearly 400,000 Burmese Rohingya have fled the country, driven out by the devastating violence unleashed upon them by the military. Their stories are horrific: parents slaughtered in front of their children, systematic rape and sexual torture, wholesale destruction of villages. Aid and advocacy groups describe the rate of population displacement as unprecedented and the human misery among the refugees as unparalleled.
The violence is shocking, but at the same time it is entirely unsurprising. For the past three years, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Early Warning Project has identified Burma as one of the top three countries most at risk for a mass atrocity. Other researchers argued as early as 2015 that a genocidal campaign was already underway. With such clear indications that a crisis was coming, why did the world fail to protect the Rohingya?
The question is all the more puzzling because in 2005, the member states of the United Nations endorsed the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) framework, which obligates the international community to protect civilians from mass atrocities when their governments are “unwilling or unable” to keep them safe. R2P was borne out of collective guilt over the mass slaughter of civilians in Rwanda and Bosnia and promised a new era of “timely and decisive” atrocity response. In pursuit of this goal, early warning efforts to identify the precursors of mass atrocities became a focus for both international and state actors.
But if the Rohingya crisis has revealed anything, it’s that early warnings were never going to be enough to prevent mass atrocities.
As the death toll mounts, many observers are asking whether Burma is committing genocide. But the question hinges on intent, not scale. The mass slaughter of civilian members of a minority group by state forces is a crime against humanity. It may also be genocide if committed with the goal of destroying that group “in whole or in part.” And, practically speaking, the distinction doesn’t matter — neither for the Rohingya, who are being subjected to a brutal and systematic attack whatever the motive, nor for the international community, whose options and obligations in the face of mass atrocity do not depend on the name of the crime.
Called “the world’s most persecuted minority,” the Muslim Rohingya have suffered decades of discrimination and abuse at the hands of their Buddhist neighbors and the Burmese security forces. Although the Rohingya have lived in Burma’s western Rakhine state since the era of British colonial rule, Burma does not recognize their citizenship and insists that they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh. As a result of this deprivation of nationality, they have been systematically discriminated against and denied access to state services.
The Rohingya’s precarious legal status has made them particularly vulnerable to violence from other groups. In 2012, when ethnic riots erupted between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state, 100,000 Rohingya fled their homes. Human rights groups documented the collusion of state forces in the violence, suggesting that the Rohingya’s subsequent forced relocation to squalid displacement camps and urban ghettos in the name of security was part of a deliberate plan to restrict their freedom of movement. In 2015, another alarm bell rang: The situation in the camps had become so dire that thousands of Rohingya boarded unsafe vessels on the Andaman Sea. An international crisis ensued when, in the face of the unprecedented numbers seeking asylum, Burma’s neighboring countries began turning back the boats.
When Rohingya insurgents attacked several border posts in October 2016, the government responded with unrestrained fury. Openly invoking the hate speech propagated by militant Buddhist monks, government officials have characterized the Rohingya as “dirty,” terrorists, and liars. By November 2016, human rights groups were warning that the military was systematically employing extrajudicial killings, torture, and sexual violence against the civilian population in the name of counterinsurgency. And in February 2017, a U.N. report concluded that the so-called “clearance operations” likely amounted to crimes against humanity. The violence, already severe, escalated sharply following the deaths of 12 security officers on Aug. 25. In response, the military launched an all-out attack on the Rohingya. Credible estimates suggest that over a third of the Rohingya population has fled. Thousands more attempt to cross the border into Bangladesh every day.
The plight of the Rohingya suggests that early warnings do little to prevent atrocities against vulnerable groups. The high risk of mass atrocities was clear from the escalating communitarian violence, the documented uptick in online hate speech beginning in 2012, and the tightening of official restrictions on the Rohingya’s movement and activities.
And the Rohingya are not the only post-R2P victims of long-telegraphed mass atrocities. In 2009, Sri Lanka slaughtered tens of thousands of Tamil civilians in the final phase of its war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The bloodbath was neither sudden nor unpredictable. The security forces had committed systematic abuses throughout the conflict and had expelled aid workers and journalists from the field of combat in late 2008. More recently, South Sudan’s descent into violence and anarchy was preceded by the breakdown of a power-sharing agreement and rumors of ethnic militias forming. In both cases, the threat of atrocities was clear, yet the international community took no action to prevent them.
These examples underscore the fact that a lack of advance notice is not the critical obstacle to action on mass atrocities. It’s politics. Many powerful countries are reluctant to permit action that impinges on another state’s sovereignty, lest the precedent be used against them later. This is particularly true for countries (like China, India, and Russia) fighting insurgencies within their own territory. And for those who lack these disincentives, the costs of action may still present a barrier. International actors are aware that humanitarian interventions are rarely simple exercises and often presage long-term commitments. And in the aftermath of the Libyan intervention, where R2P was explicitly invoked, they are particularly wary of the potential for making a bad situation worse.