Yesterday, Reuters published an exclusive report claiming that the United States is intending to declare that Myanmar’s brutal treatment of the Rohingya Muslim population is a “genocide.” According to the article, which cited Biden administration officials with knowledge of the matter, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will make the long-anticipated designation today at an event at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where there is currently an exhibit detailing the plight of the Rohingya.
When the Biden administration took office in January 2021, it pledged to undertake an investigation of whether the Myanmar military’s attacks on the Rohingya fulfilled the criteria laid out in the 1948 Genocide Convention, which defines the crime as an “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.”
In August 2017, Myanmar’s armed forces launched a brutal “clearance operation” in Rakhine State in the west of the country. Justified as a response to scattered attacks by Rohingya militants, the offensive saw soldiers and vigilantes torch villages, shoot civilians, and drive an estimated 750,000 desperate people over the border into Bangladesh.
Human rights groups have been pressing the U.S. government to declare these assaults a “genocide” since they occurred. Following yesterday’s report, the humanitarian group Refugees International praised the move, describing it as “a welcome and profoundly meaningful step” and “also a solid sign of commitment to justice for all the people who continue to face abuses by the military junta to this very today.” Matthew Smith of the advocacy group Fortify Rights, which has done much to advocate for the genocide designation, described it on Twitter as a “critically important moment for #Rohingya & all people of #Myanmar.”
The case that the actions of the Myanmar military meet the definition laid out in the Genocide Convention is compelling. Officials from the United Nations, the U.S. Congress, and even from some members of the Biden administration itself have already referred to the crimes against the Rohingya as “genocide,” while formal charges of genocide have also been brought against Myanmar by The Gambia in the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
But whether any nation decides formally to declare a particular act a “genocide” is often determined by political and strategic considerations as much as legal ones – and these have become much more amenable to such a ruling over the past 14 months.
Prior to the Myanmar military’s coup d’etat in February 2021, the U.S. government was faced with a conundrum. As Reuters reported in a detailed investigation published in March 2021, based on interviews with 18 current and former U.S. officials involved with U.S.-Myanmar policy, Washington struggled with how to balance accountability with the need for continued engagement with the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, whose ascent to power in 2016 had been accompanied by considerable democratic hopes. According to the report, “some State Department officials argued that punishing Myanmar for the army’s atrocities would push the country into China’s orbit.”
But the military’s coup, which took place barely two weeks after the Biden administration took office, has significantly shifted the political calculus around the genocide question. With Myanmar consigned to its former status as a pariah, and U.S.-Myanmar relations in a terrible state, there is really little political cost to pushing forward with the designation.
What impact will Washington’s genocide designation have? It is hard to say. Reuters quoted an unnamed State Department official as saying that the formal determination would increase international pressure to hold the junta accountable, claiming that “it’s going to make it harder for [the junta] to commit further abuses.” Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon also said in a statement, quoted by the Associated Press, a powerful and critically important step in holding this brutal regime to account.”
But will it? The U.S. government has already sanctioned most of the senior members of the junta, as well as targeted key sources of its revenues. The declaration suggests that the U.S. government would support any attempt to bring Myanmar’s generals to justice in an international court, as opposed to obstructing it. But with an outside military intervention in Myanmar off the table, that still requires enabling domestic political conditions that the U.S. designation does little, in itself, to advance. Even if the U.S. could somehow overcome the Russian and Chinese vetoes on the U.N. Security Council and secure a referral of Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, it is currently difficult to see a pathway by which Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and other high-ranking generals end up in the dock.
Given the small chance of successful prosecutions, the claim that the genocide designation will have some kind of deterrent effect is also speculative. Indeed, the opposite conclusion – that such a threat could deepen the generals’ determination to prevail politically over the nationwide resistance to their rule – seems equally likely. In these circumstances, moreover, the Tatmadaw high command would probably have more to worry about than prosecutions in The Hague. (Witness the grisly fate of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.)
As I noted in January 2021, when the Biden administration announced that it would consider the “genocide” question, the issue points out a central shortcoming of international criminal justice movement, which is that “legal conventions and processes have outrun the political realities necessary to ensure their effective implementation.” There is no doubt that the U.S. (or any government) should point out a genocide when one is clearly evident. But without enabling political conditions, there is a danger that such designations raise hope of justice and accountability that they can’t possibly fulfill.