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Why the US Should Recognize the Rohingya Genocide

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The Debate | Opinion

Why the US Should Recognize the Rohingya Genocide

The Biden administration has a chance to reassert the United States’ moral authority on human rights.

Why the US Should Recognize the Rohingya Genocide

Minara Begum, 22, in her shelter at Balukhali refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, March 5, 2018.

Credit: UN Women/Allison Joyce

Justice delayed is justice denied. As lawyers who have advised nearly every international criminal and hybrid tribunal, as well as over two dozen peace negotiations around the world, we have seen firsthand the consequences of ignoring atrocities in the name of preserving peace or alliances.

The Biden administration is faced with an historic opportunity. By labeling the atrocities committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State as genocide, the Biden administration has a chance to reassert the United States’ moral authority on human rights and to lead the international community on issues of justice and accountability. The Biden administration should speak out firmly and clearly in favor of holding Myanmar and the individual perpetrators accountable for “the crime of all crimes.”

We know firsthand the gravity of the atrocities committed against the Rohingya. In March and April 2018, our pro bono law firm, the Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG), at the request of the U.S. Department of State, undertook a large-scale, comprehensive human rights documentation investigation mission in the refugee camps and settlement areas in eastern Bangladesh. Our investigation mission aimed to provide an accurate accounting of the patterns of abuse and atrocity crimes perpetrated against the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State and to help inform the policy decisions related to accountability in Myanmar.

Our team of expert investigators interviewed over 1,000 Rohingya refugees in the Cox’s Bazar camps, documenting shocking patterns of violence, abuse, and widespread human rights violations committed against the Rohingya. Among the abuses are widespread killings, torture, persecution, rapes, and other sexual violence.

Our team, including many former State Department lawyers, analyzed 15,000 pages of interview responses from 1,024 questionnaires. The evidence led us to conclude that there are reasonable grounds to believe that genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes have been committed against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine State.

When we sent our factual findings report and data to the State Department in 2018, the Trump administration chose not to label any of these crimes as genocide or crimes against humanity, thereby excusing the United States from any legal or moral obligation to take action.

This April, the Biden administration demonstrated its willingness to acknowledge the crime of genocide in another context, as President Biden became the first sitting U.S. president to formally call the crimes committed against Armenians in the Ottoman Empire genocide. The United States should not wait 106 years (or even 106 days) to similarly label the crimes committed against Rohingya civilians. By acknowledging the Rohingya genocide, the Biden administration has the rare opportunity to reverse a previous wrong and lead with moral clarity on the international stage.

As the international community has stayed largely silent in the face of the Rohingya genocide, we have already begun to witness the consequences.

Over 18,000 Rohingya have been relocated from the camps in Cox’s Bazar to a remote island in Bangladesh in the past six months. Those still living in Cox’s Bazar have faced deadly fires and suspiciously consistent destruction of their homes and livelihoods.

In Myanmar itself, this silence and complicity has eroded the legitimacy of democratic government and empowered the military. As Aung San Suu Kyi defended the actions of Myanmar’s military against the Rohingya population before the International Court of Justice, she both undermined her moral authority to lead a democratic Myanmar and emboldened the military to bring an end to her leadership role, as seen in this year’s coup and unrest.

To secure a durable peace in Myanmar and to provide justice, redress, and a hopeful future for the victims of the Rohingya genocide, the United States must use its position of power on the international stage to lead with values of human rights and recognize the Rohingya genocide. As an international leader, America may be “back,” but it should not be back to business as usual with delayed recognition of genocide.

Guest Author

Michael P. Scharf

Michael P. Scharf is Dean of Case Western Reserve University School of Law and the Co-Founder of the Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG).

Guest Author

Paul R. Williams

Dr. Paul R. Williams is Rebecca I. Grazier Professor of Law and International Relations at American University School of International Service and Washington College of Law, and Co-Founder and President of the Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG).

Guest Author

Milena Sterio

Professor Milena Sterio is Charles R. Emrick Jr. - Calfee Halter & Griswold Professor of Law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, and Managing Director of the Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG).