The Slatest

The U.N. Has Accused Myanmar of Genocide. But Can Anyone Do Anything About It?

Rohingya refugees.
Rohingya women and children wait in line for food distribution in Kutupalong camp on Sunday in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

A damning new U.N. report concludes that Myanmar’s campaign of persecution against the Rohingya meets the definition of genocide under international law. But that doesn’t mean the perpetrators are likely to face justice anytime soon.

The report, released by a fact-finding mission the U.N. Human Rights Council established last year, is based on 875 interviews with survivors and eyewitnesses as well as satellite images and other documents. The investigators were not granted access to Myanmar itself. While the Myanmar government had long discriminated against and marginalized the Muslim Rohingya minority, the current wave of violence, mainly in the western Rakhine state but also in two northern states, began a year ago this month in response to an attack on several military bases in Rakhine by a Rohingya militant group. Using counterterrorism as a pretext, the Myanmar military, often with the assistance of locals, began “clearance operations” targeting the entire Rohingya minority, destroying villages and terrorizing inhabitants. An estimated 25,000 people have been killed, and 700,000 have fled to neighboring Bangladesh.

The report doesn’t make for easy reading, describing scenes of women and girls being gang raped in front of their villages, children being killed and maimed in front of their parents, and men and boys being rounded up and marched into the forest, never to be seen again. The government has agreed in principle to allow Rohingya who’ve fled to return, but has taken few steps to assure them of their safety if they return.

The report concludes that “Many of these violations undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law.” The report includes a list of senior military commanders it labels as perpetrators. It also calls out Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize–winning ex-dissident President Aung San Suu Kyi, noting that she has “not used her de facto position as Head of Government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events” but rather has defended the military and stonewalled attempts to investigate their actions.

Referring specifically to genocide, perhaps the most serious crime under international law, the report finds that the Myanmar security forces and their civilian helpers have committed four of the five specific actions outlawed by the  1948 Genocide Convention, including “(a) killing, (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm, (c) inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction of the group in whole or in part, and (d) imposing measures intending to prevent births.”

While the term genocide should not be used lightly or indiscriminately to describe any human-rights violation, as Kate Cronin-Furman wrote for Slate last fall, the past treatment of the Rohingya and statements by senior political leaders and military commanders “make up exactly the sort of sociopolitical context in which international courts have inferred in the past that mass atrocities were committed with genocidal intent.” The U.N. report concurs with that assessment.

But labeling an atrocity a genocide and actually doing something about it are two different things. The report recommends that the crisis be referred to the International Criminal Court. Since Myanmar is not a state party to the ICC, such an investigation can begin only if it is referred by the U.N. Security Council. That’s not likely to happen given that two of the council’s members—Russia and China—have been resistant to investigating or pressuring the Myanmar government. ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has been pushing to open an investigation in Bangladesh, which is an ICC member and where most of the Rohingya have fled, but this would cover only the crime of deportation, not more serious offenses like genocide, rape, and war crimes that were committed within Myanmar. In any case, Suu Kyi’s government has made clear it has no intention of cooperating with the court’s proceedings in any country.

The report recommends that the Security Council enact an arms embargo on Myanmar, which is equally unlikely, although individual countries may take action. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted the anniversary of the attacks two days ago, writing on Twitter, “The U.S. will continue to hold those responsible accountable.” The Treasury Department imposed new sanctions on the Myanmar security forces this month.

An unexpected player in the Rohingya crisis has been Facebook, which has come under heavy criticism for failing to prevent the spread of misinformation, hate speech, and propaganda in a country where the site is overwhelmingly popular as a news source. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been questioned about the issue in Congress, and the head of Facebook’s news feed told Slate’s If Then podcast in March that the situation was “deeply concerning” and “challenging for us for a number of reasons.” Today’s U.N. report notes that “Facebook has been a useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate, in a context where for most users Facebook is the Internet.” It characterizes the company’s response as “slow and ineffective.”

On that front, there have been some new developments. On Monday, Facebook announced that it is removing the accounts of several Myanmar military officials from its flagship service as well as Instagram. Reuters calls the action an “essential blackout of the military’s main channel of public communication” and notes that it is the “first time Facebook has imposed such a ban on a country’s military or political leaders.”

Facebook’s role in the violence has gotten what is probably a disproportionate share of the international attention devoted to the Rohingya crisis, which, as Oren Samet writes, perpetuates the “false notion that recent events in Rakhine state were principally communal violence”—a frenzy of hate generated by social media rather than a deliberate campaign masterminded by high-level officials in the country’s military and government.

Putting meaningful pressure on these officials to stop the violence ought to be a higher priority than putting pressure on Mark Zuckerberg, but unfortunately, for now, there appear to be few avenues available to do so.