We think, we learn.
It wasn’t long ago that we covered our eyes while countrymen massacred each other in Rwanda. Brother on brother, blood for blood, nobody had the courage to intervene in this genocide. We were too afraid. 1994 was our wakeup call, they said. We have the unyielding responsibility to protect victims of genocide.
But we haven’t learned a thing. Another genocide, right now, rages in Myanmar.
Beginning in late 2016, the Myanmarese government began a campaign of bloody retribution for Rohingya militant attacks on government outposts. The claims of bringing the Rohingya to justice were weak justification — for decades, Myanmar has discriminated against the Rohingya: an ethnic minority of 1 million who speak a language more similar to Bengali than Burmese, and who practice Islam or Hinduism in a country dominated by Buddhism.
The genocide has claimed more than 1,000 lives and displaced 300,000 according to an early September report by The Guardian. Many victims flee to neighboring Bangladesh, leaving behind burning villages and the remains of the persecuted.
The Myanmarese government, not surprisingly, blocks aid organizations and the free movement of journalists in the state of Rakhine, the genocide’s epicenter. Without transparency from the government, the strongest testimonies to the horror in western Myanmar have come from journalists. Al Jazeera in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh recounted the story of a woman whose baby was taken by government forces and “hurled” into fire.
Still, no response. No one brave enough to seize the mantle of responsibility that was outlined 12 years ago by Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Responsibility to Protect is an international agreement from 2005, enacted as a response to the Rwandan genocide and war in Bosnia. It lists four crimes which must be prevented by the international community, and in last case scenarios calls for UN-sanctioned humanitarian intervention.
The Rohingya genocide presents a difficult moral judgement to the international community. While R2P outlines the boundaries of what justifies extranational intervention, it has no real enforcement mechanism — there is no penalty for not abiding by the agreement. In international law this is called soft law — a suggestion that, no matter how passionate, cannot be enforced.
Without tangible penalties, the downside of non-intervention is losing face. To some, that is important enough. But for many other countries, in South Asia especially, it is more important to not set a precedent of intervention, so that one day they may save themselves from the same fate. Even the most R2P-committed nations in the international community recognize that abridging state sovereignty is not a one way street. If it is okay for one country to intervene, it is okay for all countries to intervene (when R2P outlines it is appropriate). By taking that first step, they risk their own sovereignty.
Now is the time to take that step. Beyond treaties and agreements, we have an inherent human commitment — a responsibility — to protect against inhumane crimes. The responsibility to protect will not bite back if everyone buys into the system. If the United States or the U.N. intervenes and leads by example, then others will follow. Protection will become a norm because others will see they benefit from it too. There’s nothing to fear about embracing our consensus to protect one another from harm.
The Rohingya need the international community now; we need to answer.
We think, we learn.