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How Can The UK Respond To A 'Textbook Case Of Ethnic Cleansing'?

17/10/2017 08:40 BST | Updated 17/10/2017 09:21 BST
K M Asad via Getty Images

The systematic violent targeting and forced displacement of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims has been described by the United Nations as "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing." So far the international community has answered with a textbook response.

Since the end of August more than half a million Rohingya have fled Rakhine state and into Bangladesh. This amounts to the largest displacement of people in such a short period of time since the Rwandan genocide. At least hundreds have been killed and an estimated 214 villages have been destroyed in a scorched-earth campaign; it is highly likely that as more information becomes available these numbers will rise considerably. Those who have escaped recount stories of massacres, gang rapes, torture, and looting.

The atrocities are neither spontaneous nor surprising. It is an organised campaign of violence being carried out by the Myanmar military. Moreover, they were predictable and indeed were predicted.

These crimes are the violent expression of decades long efforts to stigmatise, delegitimise, and dehumanise Muslims in the country. The Rohingya have been stripped of their citizenship and their rights, subjected to nationwide attack online and in the press, and the Myanmar state has aided and abetted the creation non-state armed vigilante groups. State-owned media does not report attacks on the Rohingya and political rhetoric presents the Muslim minority as trouble making outsiders.

These are textbook patterns that too often precede identity-based mass violence.

For at least half a decade, the Rohingya have been identified as one of the world's populations most vulnerable to the threat of atrocity crimes including genocide.The last few years have seen an escalation in the scale and frequency of attacks against the group. In 2016 over 80,000 Rohingya fled violence which the UN said very likely amounted to crimes against humanity.  25,000 Rohingya refugees fled in boats to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Hundreds drowned along the way.

We knew what was happening and what was likely to happen so why was this textbook example of ethnic cleansing not prevented? Could the British government have done anything differently?

In 2005 the UN member states unanimously acknowledged the shared responsibility to protect people around the world from the gravest crimes; from genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Successive governments in the UK since 2005 have reiterated their commitment to this shared responsibility. The UK stands firm in its rhetorical commitment to learn the lessons of the Holocaust, and of the international failure to prevent genocide and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sudan. Just last weekend, the Conservative Party launched its Declaration Against Genocide and Identity-Based Violence - a strong document that acknowledges the challenge as a party priority but one that stands above politics.

But in practice, what is the UK doing?

The current crisis comes at a time when the international community is distracted by nuclear war games, an appalling hurricane season and a US leadership bent on withdrawing from multilateral diplomacy. Here in the UK we are just emerging from a tense party conference season. As both Labour and the Conservatives continue to wrestle with their own identity crises, and the direction of the UK's EU exist is chewed over, the question of how to protect people on the other side of the world from mass violence risks slipping from the agenda already.

The UK's incoherent and tardy position on Myanmar is a reminder that the UK has no clear policy on atrocity prevention nor any institutional process that can guide its response.

One massive problem is that the prevention of these kinds of crimes is still not viewed in the UK as a distinct global challenge. It may sound technical but the UK's responsibilities to prevent identity-based violence and to protect people from atrocities fall between the cracks of conflict prevention, tackling violent extremism, and international development. While two thirds of these grave crimes occur during armed conflict, the rest-including the atrocities taking place in Myanmar-do not.

This is because there is no office, cabinet portfolio, or mechanism in UK policy making charged with assessing if and how the UK can better predict and prevent mass atrocities. Any such mechanism responsible for looking at UK policymaking through an 'atrocity prevention lens' would have alerted others to the warning signs emerging from Myanmar and initiated a process of sharing information, scrutinising Government policy, and communicating with other atrocity prevention stakeholders here in the UK and abroad. It could have provided advice gathered from previous cases and monitored indicators of risk.

The absence of a clear atrocity prevention strategy also leads to confusion over where responsibility lies within UK government to prevent. Is it a Foreign Office issue or one of international development? The answer, of course, is that the responsibility to learn and uphold the lessons of the Holocaust, of Srebrenica, of Rwanda apply to us all -and are incumbent upon all government departments.

The UK has not adopted this whole of government approach in its Myanmar policy and thus it has been inconsistent and, from the perspective of the Rohingya, ineffective. Concern expressed by the UK representatives at the UN was not, for example, matched by the UK's strategy to support British business in Myanmar and expand trade relationships.

Considering whether policies enhance or impede the protection of people from these appalling crimes would assist the UK government in developing a more consistent, joined up approach to upholding its own stated commitments.

While it will take time, resources -and a political climate not dominated by Brexit and political party infighting- to properly restructure the UK's approach to atrocity prevention, there are more immediate measures that can help stem the violence and ensure the UK centres its response to the atrocities within the context of its responsibility to prevent and protect -rather than simply viewing the crisis in binary humanitarian terms.

Even if its driving force is political, widespread anti-Muslim prejudice is at the heart of the crisis. discrimination, persecution, and violent attack on Muslims is now widely perceived in Myanmar as being acceptable. This atmosphere of impunity aids and abets further escalations of identity-based violence. At the same time, there are medium and longterm risks of resentment and radicalisation increasing within the Rohingya population. While the recruitment among the displaced to violent extremist groups should not be exaggerated, ongoing violence against Muslims does increase the risk of reprisals. Moreover, failure by the international community to protect another Muslim minority will be weaponised by those who promote a world view of a Christian West pitched against an Islamic East.

DfID pledges to up its aid are to be commended but it is vital that the UK prioritise tackling the root processes that facilitate and perpetuate identity-based violence as well as alleviating the most immediate humanitarian needs. This means championing inter-communal dialogue, monitoring hate speech, grievances and rumour, and building trust with the local communities.

First and foremost, the violence must end and aid and international observers be given full, unrestricted access to effected areas. The UK can play a central role in this; with global leadership is in a state of flux and given Britain's historical relationship with Myanmar, this plight of the Rohingya can be seen as a test case for what a 'Global Britain' outside of the EU might look like.

It is unlikely that this episode of violence against the Rohingya will be the last. The displacement of the population is not a byproduct of the violence but its intended consequence; ethnic cleansing works. Myanmar is manifestly failing to protect populations within its borders. The international community must now shoulder that responsibility- however late in the day it might be. Politicians in the UK-and around the world- should heed the lessons of their predecessors: this time we knew and we know.