It’s been four long years since the Myanmar military’s most egregious attack on the Rohingya people, and it’s time for the U.S. government to finally recognize those crimes for what they are: Genocide.
On Aug. 25, the U.S. State Department issued a brief statement of solidarity for the Rohingya people — which was welcomed — but rather than refer to crimes against Rohingya in Myanmar as genocide, it instead called the situation “ethnic cleansing.” That was a mistake.
For starters, “ethnic cleansing” is a metaphor, not a crime per se. It has become a euphemism that governments, politicians, and even human rights and aid groups use when they would rather avoid the term genocide. Coming into popular use in the early 1990s — via perpetrators who sought to purge Bosnia of everyone but the Serbs — the term “ethnic cleansing” lacks legal definition, making it technically un-actionable.
Nevertheless, “ethnic cleansing” does describe criminal behavior and may constitute mass atrocity crimes. The Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, endorsed by U.N. member states in 2005, provides that governments have a “responsibility to protect” people from “ethnic cleansing” and other atrocity crimes, such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. A U.N. commission of experts said that ethnic cleansing can “constitute crimes against humanity and can be assimilated to specific war crimes” and that “such acts could also fall within the meaning of the Genocide Convention.”
Regardless, “ethnic cleansing” is an unacceptable substitute for a genocide determination, failing as it does, in this case, to describe past and ongoing criminal attacks against the Rohingya accurately.
There is no shortage of evidence. We documented Myanmar Army-led offensives in 2016 and 2017 (and since). Soldiers killed, raped, and otherwise destroyed Rohingya people in well-planned, coordinated attacks in three townships of northern Rakhine State. Those attacks forced hundreds of thousands to southern Bangladesh.
Many organizations and experts apart from Fortify Rights, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Refugees International, and an independent U.N. fact-finding mission, found that the situation amounts to genocide. The U.S. State Department itself already has up to 15,000 pages of evidence of atrocities against Rohingya.
There have been recent legal actions, too. The Gambia brought a case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), alleging genocide of the Rohingya. The Burmese Rohingya Organisation U.K., U.N. Special Rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana, and others filed a petition in Argentina under the principle of universal jurisdiction, urging the prosecutor to take up a genocide case against Myanmar’s generals. And most recently, the National Unity Government (NUG) of Myanmar — the civilian-led government comprising elected officials deposed by the junta — announced at an online Fortify Rights press conference on Aug. 19 that it had delegated jurisdiction to the International Criminal Court to investigate mass atrocities in the country since 2002, including atrocities against Rohingya.
Recently, more than 90 organizations worldwide wrote to U.S. Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenNuclear watchdog: US, Iran entering 'decisive' period on resuming talks Sullivan raised normalizing relations with Israel during meeting with Saudi crown prince: report Democrats call for State to lift ban on embassies discussing same-sex marriage MORE, urging him to make a formal genocide determination without delay.
To his credit, even before his confirmation, Blinken committed to deciding whether Rohingya faced genocide. On July 12, he said the determination was being “very actively considered.” Forthcoming legislation led by Rep. Gregory MeeksGregory Weldon MeeksPowell death leads to bipartisan outpouring of grief US faces daunting task in relationship with Haiti Overnight Defense & National Security — China steps up saber rattling MORE (D-N.Y.) in the House and Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinIt's time to make access to quality kidney care accessible and equitable for all Charity game lets users bet on elections Progressives push back on decision to shrink Biden's paid family leave program MORE (D-Md.) in the Senate has strong bipartisan support and is meant to nudge Blinken to show some hustle on the question.
So, what is the holdup?
It’s not as though Democratic administrations in D.C. are allergic to genocide determinations — far from it. In 2016, the Obama administration said crimes committed by the Islamic State against Iraq’s religious minorities, including the Yazidis, amounted to genocide. In 2021, the Biden administration said that China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in the Xinjiang region constitutes genocide. In April, it declared century-old atrocities against Armenians as genocide.
Since the Myanmar military's bloody Feb. 1 coup d’état, U.S. government agencies devoted considerable time and resources to respond with targeted sanctions and other measures. While this may have redirected internal resources away from a genocide determination, we’re told that Blinken has complete authority to issue a declaration and need not seek presidential approval. He should use that authority without delay.
Before the coup, U.S. State Department officials were quietly hesitant to brand the crimes against Rohingya as genocide, fearing such a move might further alienate the U.S. from Myanmar officialdom — where America has never kept pace with China. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi had long denied the Rohingya genocide and defended the military, most visibly at the ICJ in The Hague. As a result, in part, of her prior leadership, the general population was prone to denying the existence of the Rohingya while dismissing any evidence of atrocities against them. In that context, some argued a U.S. genocide determination would have further alienated the U.S. from Naypyidaw.
Overlooking genocide in exchange for a weak connection with the government was not savvy realpolitik, but rather callous and craven. Regardless, those days are over. Many opinion leaders in Myanmar, including senior members of the civilian-led NUG, civil society members, and others, have acknowledged the crimes against Rohingya as genocide, issued heartfelt apologies, and even committed to seeking justice and accountability.
If the U.S. issued a Rohingya-genocide determination now, it would fertilize those roots of contrition and foster the inter-ethnic and inter-religious unity already forming in Myanmar. It would serve the domestic political awakening that now sees the Myanmar military for what it is: A corrosive, authoritarian, genocidal regime that must be held accountable for its crimes in all possible ways — including through genocide determinations.
Lastly, a genocide determination would be truthful, and that matters.
John Quinley III is a senior human rights Specialist with Fortify Rights. Matthew Smith is chief executive officer of Fortify Rights. Follow them on Twitter: @john_hq3 and @matthewfsmith.