Author: David Simon, Yale University
Earlier this year, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the Biden administration’s recognition of Rohingya persecution in Myanmar — which dates back to at least 2016 — as a genocide. While the implications of the declaration are not yet immediately clear, history provides some guidance as to what they may be.
The idea of a ’genocide declaration’ is itself a product of governments’ failure to recognise the unfolding of genocides Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s, in a manner consistent with the United Nations’ Genocide Convention’s definition of genocide. Both cases were highly ineffective, given US officials’ dithering responses to whether the term could be applied. Samantha Power’s award-winning critique of US policy toward genocide, A Problem from Hell, called for a greater willingness to recognise genocides as they unfold. To do so, she reasoned, was a prerequisite for a more robust response.
The Bush administration’s 2004 declaration of genocide in Darfur, perpetrated by the Sudanese government and its domestic allies, can be seen as a response to his predecessor’s polices. But its impact was mixed — Congress passed a humanitarian aid measure to support displaced people, while US diplomats lobbied counterparts to join an effort to isolate Sudan’s Bashir regime. This culminated in the dispatch of peacekeeping forces, though they lacked the manpower, equipment and clarity of mandate to do more than simply protect displaced Darfuris. These shortcomings became particularly acute after the government’s brutal 2015 offensive, with the architects of the genocide maintaining power until 2019.
The context and impact of the Darfur genocide declaration has some parallels with the Rohingya situation. There is little likelihood of a protective force being mobilised, either by international organisations or the United States. As an ally of Myanmar, China’s presence on the Security Council and its shadow over ASEAN renders any multilateral or bilateral protection plan — beyond cross-border support for refugee camps — unlikely. The United States, meanwhile, does not possess the type of diplomatic leverage that could affect regime change in Myanmar.
Seen in this light, it might be easy to dismiss the State Department’s Rohingya genocide declaration as a symbolic gesture of little consequence. Indeed, some commentators have reacted with scepticism, pointing out that Blinken’s declaration will not directly lead to any further protection of the Rohingya in Myanmar, nor greater support to those languishing in camps in Bangladesh. Though the United States imposed new sanctions on the junta now serving as the Myanmar government in the days following the declaration, they were not contingent upon the genocide determination.
In a sense, it might be fair to pronounce the Rohingya genocide declaration to be strictly symbolic. Even so, that does not make it meaningless. Symbols, after all, do matter.
The new US stance affirms the reality which the Rohingya people have been desperately trying to convince others of — that the campaign against them intends to eliminate the Rohingya identity from the face of the earth. Acknowledgment of this fact matters. If genocide is an attempt to destroy a group, denial of that group’s destruction signals complicity.
The genocide determination also serves as the basis of historical record. Survivors can point to the US acknowledgment of genocide as evidence of their own vulnerability and, should future episodes of endangerment occur, to call for a quicker protective response. More concretely, the declaration supports the concerted effort to collect evidence of the current genocide for use in foreign, international and domestic courts. Since the United States typically only cooperates with the International Criminal Court when conditions suits it, the genocide declaration gives those within the administration who are pushing for more cooperation, a stronger hand to play.
A similar logic applies to non-state actors. Meta’s Facebook platform is alleged to have served as an instrument in the incitement of the Rohingya’s genocidal persecution. With investigations ongoing in both international courts, the company should be more cooperative than it has been previously, as doing otherwise could now be perceived as covering for the perpetrators of a recognised genocide.
The United States’ genocide declaration will also influence its diplomatic efforts, which could impact coalition-building endeavours aiming to isolate the military regime in Yangon. More importantly, it emphasises the argument that durable solutions for Rohingya refugees need to be Rohingya-centred — including the assurance of a safe return to their homes in a context where they possess full rights as citizens, without having to sacrifice their identity.
Finally, the declaration also matters more broadly to the concept of international human rights. The political gain for the United States from its determination of genocide in Myanmar is, frankly, minimal. But it offers the promise that an increasingly well-articulated set of standards can be consistently applied to an available set of facts — and not merely as a policy of convenience — preventing genocide politics from being trapped in the domain of the cynical.
David Simon is Director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University.
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