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Why is Rohingya crisis not classed as genocide?

A man holds his child as he swims across the Bangladesh border
Image: A Rohingya refugee holds his child as he swims to cross the Myanmar-Bangladesh border

Sam Kiley

Foreign Affairs Editor

Sam Kiley

The Rohingya crisis “seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, according to the United Nations’ human rights chief.

But it is not yet officially genocide.

:: Babies dumped and left to die in Rohingya crisis

Rohingya children are packed on to a boat heading for Bangladesh

One can only wonder why not, given the definition of the crime in Article II of the UN’s Genocide Convention.

It states that genocide is any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group:

(A) Killing members of the group;
(B) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(C) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(D) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(E) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

  1. A child refugee is temporarily detained by the border guard in Bangladesh
    Image: More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from Buddhist-majority Myanmar to Bangladesh since late August
  2. Rohingya refugees cross the Naf river on an improvised raft
    Image: In desperation, refugees are building makeshift rafts to try to cross the Bangladesh-Myanmar border
  3. More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since late August
    Image: Young children and the elderly struggle to cope with the lack of food and water, and poor conditions
  4. A mother and father with their two young children
    Image: A mother and father hold their two young children, ahead of the crossing
  5. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya driven from their homes
    Image: Driven from their homes after a military crackdown, many have lost everything they own
  6. A Rohingya refugee boy cries after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border
    Image: A young Rohingya boy cries as he disembarks from the crossing
  7. Refugees on foot at Sabrang near Teknaf, Bangladesh
    Image: After the perilous raft journey, refugees continue their journey on foot
  8. A girl carries all her possessions on her head
    Image: A girl carries all her possessions on her head as she walks to a refugee camp
  9. A young boy peeps through a bamboo barricade at the Thankhali refugee camp, Bangladesh
    Image: A young boy peeps through a bamboo barricade at a Bangladesh refugee camp
  10. A little girl makes her way towards a makeshift camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh
    Image: The Rohingya are regarded as illegal immigrants in Myanmar and most are stateless

Myanmar’s government seems to have met at least A-C of the above criteria. So why the reluctance to call the mass killings and forced deportations genocide?

:: The Rohingya crisis explained

To answer that we must look to Article I of the same convention.

It says: “The contracting parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.”

That’s why the word isn’t being used.

Defining events like this as genocide requires the 147 nations that have signed up to the convention to stop it – by force if necessary.

Rohingya boys reach for humanitarian aid as the Bangladesh military keeps things under control
Image: Many Rohingya have fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh

That’s why back in 1994 the US State Department was swiftly gagged by its own lawyers during the mid-stages of the Rwandan genocide.

:: Geldof handing back Freedom of Dublin in Myanmar protest

They pointed out that if the US accepted that the mass murder of around one million was state-sponsored and ethnically-based then there was an obligation to invade the central African nation.

Instead, the US, UK, and every other country wrinkled their noses at the mass murder of Tutsis and moderate Hutus until it was all over and any effort to prevent the slaughter would have been too late.

There’s no appetite to invade Myanmar. Not least because its leader Aung San Suu Kyi is a Nobel peace laureate.

And so the Rohingya, a Muslim population in a largely Buddhist nation, are being “ethnically cleansed” not subjected to genocide – not that they would be able to tell the difference.

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