“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

While the World Washes its Hands…

3 July 2012 | Amal de Chickera

Since 8 June 2012, Rakhine State of Western Myanmar has been in flames. Hundreds of stateless Rohingya have been killed, disappeared, displaced and had their property destroyed. The Equal Rights Trust yesterday published a situation report which documents the human rights violations that are taking place with impunity in Myanmar as well as Bangladesh’s refoulement of Rohingya refugees. This report also provides evidence which raises serious concern that Myanmar may be committing crimes against humanity – an allegation that has been made previously with regard to the extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest and detention, restriction of movement and forced labour of Rohingya during “normal” less-violent times.

The Rohingya are a stateless, ethnic and religious minority who were arbitrarily deprived of a nationality in 1982, and have suffered systematic human rights abuse in Myanmar for many decades.

In Myanmar, what began as sectarian violence between Rakhine and Rohingya has evolved into state sponsored violence against the Rohingya. On 10 June, a state of military emergency was declared, and it is evident that the military – brought in to protect - is also partaking in the violence. The killings and mass scale arrests of Rohingya men and boys by the military has caused increasingly more males to flee the country, resulting in greater incidences of rape of the women left behind.

Bangladesh, in contravention of its international legal obligations, closed its border and has pushed back into dangerous waters, many Rohingya who fled the violence. On 18 June, 139 persons in 8 boats were pushed back from Teknaf; only 33 are confirmed to have survived. However, more refugees continue to arrive – there is nowhere else to go.

All of this seems to be happening while the world sleeps. There has been some media coverage of the issue, including this story by Channel Four News, but the international community response has been slow, non-decisive and has not had an impact. Europe – whose foreign policy is “human rights based” – has not condemned the violence or taken adequate steps to protect the Rohingya. Multinational businesses are priming to rush into the emerging market that is Myanmar – which everyone wants to believe, is on the road to democratisation. The establishment of a “civilian” leadership,  the release from house arrest and subsequent election of the iconic Aung San Suu Kyi, her being allowed to tour Europe and even finally have the opportunity to accept her Nobel Peace Prize are all signs of progress. Violence against stateless Rohingya and other minorities seem to suggest that true democracy is in fact, far far away – but this type of inconvenient truth is not good for morale or for business.

The emerging doctrine of “responsibility to protect” obligates the international community to intervene in situations where human rights are abused and neglected by national governments. The doctrine could mark a paradigm shift from the dominant “responsibility to protect one’s own interests” which has been the driving force behind international affairs and foreign policy ever since borders were created and people started crossing them. The doctrine is fundamental to the notion of universal and indivisible human rights – a globally endorsed concept and a cornerstone of European law. Human rights have revolutionised international law in many ways, none less significant than the transformation of the individual into a subject of the law. As its subject, the individual’s rights must be tangible and justiciable – and when a state refuses or fails to protect them, the international community has a role to play.

This present crisis therefore begs the question – is the responsibility to protect heightened when those in need of protection are stateless? If the international community is expected to step in when the country of nationality fails – should it not be permanently engaged on behalf of those who have no nationality at all?

We can predict with some degree of certainty that Myanmar and Bangladesh will be duly criticised in future texts that invoke universal human rights law. But words – while important – do not restore damaged property and most certainly do not bring the dead back to life. Action today – no, yesterday – is what is urgently needed and Europe has considerable might that it can deploy to protect the Rohingya if it so chooses. The governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh must be spoken to in the two universal languages – the principled language of human rights and the pragmatic language of economics – and told that there will be consequences if they fail to address the situation; and with regard to Myanmar, bring those responsible for gross human rights violations to justice. But Europe needs to do more. Bangladesh is a poor country which has (begrudgingly) borne the burden of over 250,000 Rohingya refugees for decades. Europe must share this burden – both by providing “no strings attached” financial and infrastructure support within Bangladesh and equally importantly, by resettling their fair share of Rohingya within Europe.

This illustration depicts the world playing “Pontius Pilate” with the stateless. It symbolises the reality that we are yet to make the leap from the era of “responsibility to protect one’s own interests” to that of “responsibility to protect”. Perhaps now is the time to think of the stateless not as those who have no nationality, but as citizens of the world.

*The photographs in this blog-post are of the pushbacks from Bangladesh, courtesy of Saiful Huq Omi.

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