Identity-based violence, from pervasive local level hate crimes to systemic state-led and state sponsored mass atrocities, has become widespread in Myanmar. Recent reports from Kachin of the violent targeting of Christian communities is in keeping with the regime’s political objectives.
It was, like the treatment of the Rohingya, predictable and indeed was predicted.
Yet as tensions escalate in Kachin, the world continues to hesitate.
This identity-based violence must be seen as part of the same strategy on the part of the Burmese military, and this risk of war crimes is likely to become more systemic still without any meaningful action from the international community.
This is not to say that the atrocities committed against Myanmar’s Rohingya will be exactly replicated now in Kachin but all indicators suggest identity-based violence in the state and across the country is becoming more frequent.
Regimes that tolerate, incite, or perpetrate identity-based violence are more likely to continue, and indeed become more violent, if their actions go unchecked. Kachin communities believe international intransigence in the face of the atrocities of the Rohingya has emboldened the regime, now confident that the perpetration of violence against its populations provokes neither punitive action nor pursuit of accountability.
Reports of displacement, sexual and gender-based violence, and indiscriminate attacks carried out on civilians in Kachin are becoming more common while aid agencies, diplomats and observers are being denied access to the state. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar has expressed serious concern about the escalating violence and said that any wilful impediment of relief supplies could amount to war crimes under international law.
Responsibility to protect populations from identity-based violence and mass atrocities is a collective one, stretching from local communities to global leaderships. This responsibility is, first and foremost a responsibility to prevent –and part of this responsibility falls on Britain’s shoulders. The world failed, despite a decade of warning signs and red flags to protect Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims. It is incumbent upon the international community and the United Kingdom to learn from this mistake.
Reports that evidence of the latest wave of identity-based violence in Kachin, including allegations of war crimes, were passed on to British and UN diplomats but ignored are deeply troubling. Human rights monitors and civil society organisations, including Protection Approaches, have continued to warn the UK Government that the risk of systematic identity-based violence against many minorities in Myanmar has become critical.
So far, it has been difficult to see what actions the UK and other States have taken in response to the rising risks to populations in Myanmar.
One big problem in the UK is that there is no decision-making body or analysis mechanism in Whitehall tasked with assessing risks of identity-based violence, including mass atrocities, nor is it clear how the Government ensures that it is upholding its international and publicly states commitments to protect populations from these crimes.
The absence of an articulated national approach to predicting, preventing and responding to mass atrocities continues to leave the UK Government ill-equipped to effectively uphold its responsibilities towards the world’s populations who are the most vulnerable to atrocity crimes.
Moreover, this specific gap was highlighted by both the International Development and Foreign Affairs Select Committees following their inquiries into UK policy in Burma. Both committees recommended that Government prioritise its approach to mass atrocity prevention. The Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that the Rohingya crisis was ‘sadly predictable, and predicted, but the FCO warning system did not raise enough alarm. There was too much focus by the UK and others in recent years on supporting the ‘democratic transition’ and not enough on atrocity prevention’. These recommendations have not yet been taken forward.
As penholder at the UN Security Council on Myanmar, as a permanent member, and as a country with considerable economic and diplomatic bilateral ties to Myanmar, the UK has the capacity to do more. The reports from Kachin should be understood as a consequence of weak international commitment to protect and respond to the atrocities against the Rohingya. The risk of identity-based violence against Muslim, Christian and other minorities worsening is high.
The need to develop a cross-departmental strategy on atrocity prevention and integrate mass atrocity prevention into existing Foreign Office and International Development policy commitments and decision-making processes is clear. Not only would such an approach strengthen UK contributions to more timely and effective prediction and prevention efforts, but would likely reduce the financial burden of post-violence humanitarian aid further down the line.
More people are displaced from their homes today than at any other time on record. Most refugees are fleeing situations of identity-based violence and atrocity. Around the world the incidence of mass atrocities are rising yet these crimes can often be prevented. It is clearly in the UK’s national interest to help do so - in Kachin and around the world.