© Greg Nash
The bipartisan leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee are urging the Trump administration to crank up the pressure on the Burmese government in response to the country’s brutal campaign against an ethnic minority group.
At a Wednesday hearing examining the plight of the Rohingya, Chairman Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoyceBottom line Bottom line California was key factor in House GOP's 2020 success MORE (R-Calif.) and Rep. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelLawmakers pay tribute to Colin Powell NYC snafu the latest flub from a broken elections agency Cynthia Nixon backs primary challenger to Rep. Carolyn Maloney MORE (N.Y.), the panel’s senior Democrat, said the State Department has gone too soft on Burmese leaders by refusing to deem the long-running campaign of violence against the group to be genocide.
“I want to commend the administration for speaking out against these atrocities,” Royce said.
“But I encourage the administration to go further – this is more than just a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing,’” he continued. “To all who have met with Rohingya refugees, who have heard these accounts, it is clear that these crimes amount to genocide.”
Engel piled on, urging Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoWhy is Trump undermining his administration's historic China policies? Keeping the world's focus on cyber State Department watchdog probing whether Trump aides took gifts meant for foreign officials MORE to escalate his rhetoric.
“We should use our global stature to call this crime what it is — clearly a crime against humanity and likely also genocide — then rally a strong international commitment to fully fund the latest appeal for humanitarian assistance,” Engel said.
“Instead, the State Department is using language that lets perpetrators off the hook.”
The hearing arrived two days after the State Department issued a new report condemning the attacks against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group occupying parts of western Burma. Thousands of Rohingya were killed in a violent campaign launched by the Burmese military roughly a year ago, and more than 700,000 were forced into neighboring Bangladesh, creating the largest refugee camps in the world.
Based on interviews with more than 1,000 of those refugees, State Department investigators found that “a vast majority” of them “experienced or directly witnessed extreme violence,” including rampant killings and systemic rapes. The Burmese military was behind the attacks “in most cases,” the report found, and they “targeted civilians indiscriminately and often with extreme brutality.”
The report was released with little fanfare — there was no press release announcing the findings — and there is no mention of genocide, nor any reference to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate and Burma’s civilian leader who has come under fire for turning a blind eye to the atrocities.
Stephen Pomper, U.S. director of the International Crisis Group, told House lawmakers Wednesday that Suu Kyi has become complicit — “not only for failing to speak out, but for failing to curb anti-Rohingya hate speech in the state media, denying that human rights abuses have taken place [and] providing cover to the military.”
Royce noted that the United States has ratified the international convention that defines crimes of genocide, including efforts to kill members of a particular ethnicity indiscriminately and take action to prevent births.
“I believe that a realistic accounting of the deliberate campaign of murder, intimidation and displacement against the Rohingya clearly meets this legal standard for genocide,” he said.
The State Department’s language clashes with that of United Nations investigators, who released their own report last month finding similar evidence of mass killings, gang rapes and other human rights crimes targeting the Rohingya. They concluded that the crimes constitute genocide — “violations [that] undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law,” their report reads — and recommended that the perpetrators be tried before the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
Earlier this month, before the report was released, a State Department spokesperson emphasized the gravity surrounding an official determination that genocide had occurred.
“Concluding that genocide, crimes against humanity, or ethnic cleansing have been committed is one of the most serious matters a Secretary of State may undertake, and such a conclusion is made only after a thorough review of the available facts and relevant legal analysis,” the spokesperson said.
Such explanations haven’t convinced many lawmakers on Capitol Hill, however, who are warning that a failure to confront Burmese leaders more aggressively threatens the reputation of the United States as a champion of human rights.
“When it comes to standing up for human rights, for justice, for the rule of law, for the world’s most vulnerable and oppressed,” said Engel, “the United States has taken itself out of the running.”