Congress is giving the United States a fresh chance to show leadership on one of today’s biggest human rights crises: the genocide against Burma’s Rohingya ethnic minority. In coming days, the Senate and the House will introduce legislation to help redress a heinous wrong in the world, while redirecting American foreign policy to promote human rights and accountability.
With so much of the media coverage focused on events at home, many Americans don’t realize that more than 700,000 Rohingya people were forced to flee their homes after the Burmese military razed villages, and killed, sexually abused and tortured Rohingya men, women and children in August 2017. Today, they remain stranded in makeshift camps in Bangladesh.
The Senate’s Burma Human Rights and Freedom Bill, which might be introduced as soon as this week, provides humanitarian aid for the Rohingya people. The bill imposes sanctions on the individuals most responsible for the violence, and against businesses owned by the Burmese military. Finally, it requires a report that sets out recommendations to ensure justice for the Rohingya. A similar bill is expected to be introduced in the House soon after.
Last year, an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives passed a strong Burma bill, only to see the Senate fail to act. This year, both houses of Congress can stand up for American values.
The Trump administration also needs to act. The Treasury Department already has taken some important steps in issuing sanctions under existing laws, but the sanctions do not touch Burmese military chief Min Aung Hlaing and other top brass considered most responsible for the violence. Sanctions targeting these leaders would send a clear message and open a path for other countries to do the same.
Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoObama looks to give new momentum to McAuliffe The CIA's next mission: Strategic competition with China and Russia Biden, Trump tied in potential 2024 match-up: poll MORE needs to take a stand. Last year, the State Department hired a savvy team of lawyers to investigate crimes against the Rohingya people. Yet when the evidence was in, Pompeo declined to label the crimes what they are: a genocide. The weakness of this decision was underscored a few weeks later, when the same lawyers independently released their own report, using “genocide” to describe what happened in Burma.
The State Department needs to do more, including calling on the Burmese government to stop anti-Muslim hate speech against the Rohingya and other groups on social media and by extremist Buddhist groups. State should urge the Burmese government to end its shortsighted promotion of investments on land where the Rohingya community lived for generations before being forced to flee. And State must increase pressure on the Burmese government to conduct negotiations, involving Rohingya leaders, to ensure a safe repatriation process. This needs to include a promise to restore Burmese citizenship to the Rohingya people—a right stripped from them decades ago.
As a party to the 1948 Genocide Convention in the wake of the Holocaust, the United States has an obligation "to prevent and to punish" genocide. We are too late to prevent genocide in Burma, but we must be part of the effort to punish it. Working with the Rohingya community and with other countries, we can look at next steps for justice, including the creation of a special international tribunal to prosecute crimes against humanity and genocide.
Americans had high hopes for Burma when Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi ascended to power in 2015 as the country’s de facto leader. These hopes have been dashed. Despite our sharp political divisions at home, we can agree that the Rohingya genocide is not a partisan issue; it is a matter of right and wrong.
Americans cannot stand by in the face of genocide. Congress and the White House already have the necessary tools to make a difference. The only question is whether they will use these tools.
Tracey Gurd oversees advocacy and civil and political rights grantmaking at American Jewish World Service, which supports more than 450 human rights groups in 19 countries, including advocates for the Rohingya people and other ethnic minorities in Burma.