Call it by its name

Later this month, over half a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh will mark the third anniversary of the atrocities that caused them to flee across the border from Myanmar’s Rakhine State. But the United States has yet to utter a determination that the events of 2017 constitute genocide, or crimes against humanity.

Worse still, the Trump administration has actively sought to undermine the very international justice mechanisms intended to deliver justice.

An investigation commissioned by the State Department produced some 15,000 pages of documentation of “atrocity crimes,” alleging that the Burmese army’s bloody campaign was “well planned and coordinated”. This stopped short of using the term ‘genocide’, erring on the side of the legally hollow term ‘ethnic cleansing’.

This came in direct contradiction of recommendations by the House of Representatives, which concluded that “every Government and multinational body should call such atrocities by their rightful names of “crimes against humanity”, “war crimes”, and “genocide”.

As the anniversary approaches, a petition from more than 50 civil society and human rights groups is calling for Pompeo to exercise his discretion and make a statement rectifying this omission. But that may well prove futile.

The violence directed at Rohingya civilians is now the subject of ongoing proceedings in both the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.

When the ICC proceedings were announced, this was met with protest by the Myanmar government. A spokesperson stated that it was deemed not to be “in accordance with international law”.

Myanmar isn’t alone in rejecting the legitimacy of the court. President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte has responded with indignation and threats to any suggestion that his brutal ‘war on drugs’ could bring about a day in court.

It’s this company that the Trump administration finds itself in, following the recent move to authorize sanctions targeting staff at the International Criminal Court  for “its illegitimate assertions of jurisdiction over personnel of the United States and certain of its allies”.

The administration noted the US is not a party to the Rome Statute and that it rejects the ICC’s assertions of jurisdiction as an infringement on sovereignty.

This has drawn criticism from rights groups and put the US  at odds with allies, as 67 member states have rallied in support of the ICC.

Speaking on behalf of 34 experts, UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers Diego García-Sayán said that the implementation of such policies by the US “has the sole aim of exerting pressure on an institution whose role is to seek justice against crimes of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression”.

The human rights credibility of this administration is rightly being called into question, and the American people should be alarmed at the attack this most recent move constitutes against the legal framework that underpins a rapidly unraveling world order.

Rather than signaling that atrocities can go unpunished, the United States needs to uphold its commitments. To do otherwise is rank hypocrisy.

Earlier this month, the House Oversight Committee held an update on the situation of the Rohingya. Addressing the committee, senior policy analyst with the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation Olivia Enos remarked that failure to act could embolden bad actors, urging that further targeted sanctions be levelled at military-backed enterprises.

A few choice words from Pompeo could help correct the course for whoever sits in the Oval Office next, as well as assuring the Rohingya that they haven’t been abandoned.

But moral leadership hasn’t been a strength of this administration.

In one telling incident in July 2019, survivors of religious persecution from 17 countries gathered in the Oval Office to meet with President Trump. One man explained that he was a Rohingya refugee living in a camp in Bangladesh, and that he and many others were willing to return home. Trump’s response was callous:  “And where is that exactly?”

Sam Brownback, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom stepped in, saying “It’s right next to Burma.”

Former political prisoner, activist and lawyer Wai Wai Nu, herself a Rohingya, also addressed the House Committee in August. She reiterated the demands of the Rohingya in Myanmar, Bangladesh and of the diaspora, and urged that the US “should call the crimes what they are.”

Inaction, she rightly pointed out, has come at a heavy price before: “All of this was preventable.”