When Will Action Match Rhetoric in Myanmar?

by Ted Fraser. Photo courtesy of Amnesty International.

The Rohingya crisis is a sickening catastrophe sitting at the bustling intersection of politics, history, and morality. Just days ago, members of the House of Commons unanimously agreed to label the crisis a genocide —a common-sense step stemming from a United Nations (UN) fact-finding mission.

Per The Guardian, “the report […] presented to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on Tuesday, said Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, had committed “the gravest crimes under international law.”

The 440-page document “includes accounts of women tied by their hair or hands to trees then raped; young children trying to flee burning houses but forced back inside; widespread use of torture with bamboo sticks, cigarettes and hot wax; and landmines placed at the escape routes from villages, killing people as they fled army crackdowns.” Because of these atrocities, a U.N. official has labelled the events in Myanmar “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

This disturbing report prompted the head of the International Criminal Court to launch a preliminary investigation into the atrocities.

Considering the plethora of information on and evidence of the wrongdoings of the Tatmadaw, will Canada and its allies intensify their efforts? Or will they just lob financial aid at Rohingya refugees and pray for the victims? Will they treat the symptoms, or address the root causes of the problem itself?

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine was unanimously declared at a 2005 U.N. World Conference. Former Liberal Party of Canada leader Michael Ignatieff played a large role in its creation. Ignatieff was part of a team that featured former Australian prime minister Gareth Evans, Sudanese intellectual Francis Deng, and a host of other international relations all-stars.
The Responsibility to Protect asserts that in the case of crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, or ethnic cleansing, U.N. member states have a responsibility to protect the state, or population, at risk. Depending on the gravity of the situation, measures can range from sanctions to multi-state interventions.

It’s a noble, moral ideology—but it’s a problematic one in the context of modern politics; how does one state justify trampling into another and, implicitly, meddling in the country’s domestic affairs? It violates the main tenet of international relations established at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648: the principle of non-interference. Furthermore, any U.N.-led effort will likely be vetoed by China, a Security Council member and Myanmar sympathizer.
Canada says they’re leading the fight against Myanmar’s military—but will they send peacekeeping forces or advisors to Myanmar to assist? Will they lobby for intervention under the Responsibility to Protect? The events in Myanmar are, in many ways, reminiscent of the Rwanda genocide in the early 1990s, the “conscience-shocking” slaughter that helped spur the creation of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine in the first place.

So far, sanctions have been implemented by the European Union, Canada, the United States, and other nations. But Canada and its allies need to apply pressure, not merely shake their fists, slap wrists, and ratify common-sense classifications in Parliament. Verifying the International Criminal Court investigation, negotiating with China, forcing Myanmar to admit non-governmental access into the country, and looking into the possibility of a joint intervention would be wise first steps, bolstered by intensifying sanctions.

As global citizens, we have a duty to raise awareness and help prevent human rights offences. We can write letters, fundraise, write, educate, launch a campaign, volunteer—there are innumerable avenues available. Yet we’re often so preoccupied by petty, minute-by-minute annoyances that we don’t internalize how fortunate, safe, and healthy we are. We need to step back, appreciate what we have, and fight to bring about change. It’s our responsibility to help hoist the Rohingya up—and do everything we can to ensure this senseless cruelty never happens again.

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