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Forgetting the Rohingya on the Human Rights Day

Noorah Noor
December 20, 2012

The world celebrated the Human Rights Day on the 10th of December and we have quietly slipped away from our responsibility to the Rohingya. On this day, sixty four years ago, ‘the international community vowed never again to allow atrocities like those of the Second World War happen again’, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly with a view to making ‘a road map to guarantee the rights of every individual everywhere’. 

The UDHR is the ground upon which the international human rights law was founded, and has been the basic force behind many legally binding international human rights treaties. It is the primary inspiration to all the efforts of humanity towards the achievement of universal human rights in times of both peace as well as conflicts. It is the basis for the universal recognition of the basic, fundamental and inalienable rights equally applicable to all human beings. December 10th, 1948 was the day humanity pledged to uphold dignity and justice and to recognise the human rights of all.

According to the official website of the UN, on the occasion of the Human Rights Day this year, the spotlight is to be on the rights of all people, including the minorities and the poor and marginalised, to make their voices heard in public life and be included in political decision-making. 

The official website of the UN points with satisfaction at the basic human rights – the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, to peaceful assembly and association, and to take part in government (articles 19, 20 and 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) having been at the centre of the historic changes in the Arab world over the past two years, in which millions took to the streets to demand change; and at the ‘99%’ having made their voices heard through the global Occupy movement protesting against all forms of inequality. 

Does it make sense to congratulate oneself for the few achievements which are actually shadowed by the larger losses? Are these few events enough to make 2012 a blessed year – a landmark in ensuring the human rights of a few, and for turning a blind eye to the many atrocities that have left a large part of humanity in a state of utter misery and helplessness? What percentages of the oppressed, who have been crushed and denied their most basic rights for generations, have made their voices heard? How many of them have been able to enjoy a single one of the rights enumerated in the UDHR? 

According to the official website of the United Nations Organisation, ‘Human Rights Day presents an opportunity, every year, to celebrate human rights, highlight a specific issue, and advocate for the full enjoyment of all human rights by everyone everywhere.’ 

This opportunity could well be taken to highlight the issue of “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities” – the Rohingya in Myanmar. They are stripped of their nationality and widely discriminated against by the Rakhine people who enjoy the support of their government; while the Rohingya are generally denied the most basic human rights like the rights to religion, travel and education as well as the rights to marriage and even trade. They have been used as forced labourers and massacred by the people as well as the government, displaced from their homes that are in turn razed and burned down during the riots, and denied the right to take refuge in bordering countries like Bangladesh. And the UN declares them as “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.” But what does it do next? 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights consists of a Preamble and 30 articles; the Preamble acknowledges and highlights the importance of equal rights of all humans, and the articles describe each one of these rights in detail. A look at the situation of Rohingya through the years shows that they have experienced the violation of every single one of these rights. 

Anna Roberts, the executive director of Burma Campaign UK, said: “This is an incredibly serious situation and it continues to deteriorate at a very fast rate. There has not been anything like the international response that would be expected for a crisis on this scale.” 

The international human rights law is meant to protect human rights. It ‘lays down obligations which States are bound to respect… States assume obligations and duties… to respect, to protect and to fulfil human rights… States must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights… protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses… take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights… Where domestic legal proceedings fail to address human rights abuses, mechanisms and procedures for individual and group complaints are available at the regional and international levels to help ensure that international human rights standards are indeed respected, implemented, and enforced at the local level.’ 

At the 2005 World Summit of the United Nations, it was affirmed that ‘each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.’
The Burmese government has done just the opposite. During the raids and massacres of the Rakhines against the Rohingya, the local police and soldiers stood by and watched. When the President finally declared a state of emergency on June 10, the security forces joined hands with Rakhine mobs in their rampage against Rohingya communities, where they slaughtered people and torched houses. They operated in concert with the Rakhine mobs to loot food stocks and valuables from Rohingya homes. 

The Human Rights Watch press release stated that the Burmese security forces committed killings, rape and mass arrests against Rohingya Muslims. During one of the rampages of a Buddhist mob against Rohingya, the police and paramilitary anti-riot forces stood by and watched as the mob burned down thousands of houses. When members of the Rohingya community attempted to extinguish the fire, the security forces finally played their part – opened fire on those trying to extinguish the fire. 

To further aggravate the situation, the government has restricted humanitarian access to affected areas, particularly those belonging to the Rohingya community, which has left tens of thousands of people displaced and in dire need of food, shelter and medical care. United Nations and humanitarian aid workers have been threatened and intimidated by the local Rakhine population. Government restrictions have made many areas inaccessible to humanitarian agencies. 

The Burmese President’s idea of a solution was to ‘send them away if any third country would accept them.’ The opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Miss Suu Kyi, when asked to comment on the current situation, simply said she did not know if the Rohingya were Burmese. Other freed political prisioners, though portrayed as heroes of their nation, were even less sympathetic to the Rohingya plight.
In its latest report issued on July 19, 2012 the Amnesty International has slammed the increasing abuse of human rights and arbitrary detention of Muslims in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. “Under international human rights law and standards, no one may be left or rendered stateless. For too long Myanmar’s human rights record has been marred by the continued denial of citizenship for Rohingyas and a host of discriminatory practices against them,” concluded the report. 

The Human Rights Watch says that the Burmese government should take urgent measures to end abuses by their forces, ensure humanitarian access, and permit independent international monitors to visit affected areas and investigate abuses. The Burmese authorities should immediately release details of detained Rohingya, allow access to family members and humanitarian agencies, and release anyone not charged with a crime recognized under international law in which there is credible evidence, which would be a test case of the government’s stated commitment to reform and protect basic rights, according to Brad Adams from the Human Rights Watch. “The Burmese government needs to urgently amend its citizenship law to end official discrimination against the Rohingya,” Adams said. “President Thein Sein cannot credibly claim to be promoting human rights while calling for the expulsion of people because of their ethnicity and religion.” 

The sectarian violence has created urgent humanitarian needs for both Rakhine and Rohingya communities, Human Rights Watch said. Rakhine organizations, largely supported by domestic contributions, have provided food, clothing, medicine, and shelter to displaced Rakhine. By contrast, the Rohingya population’s access to markets, food, and work remains dangerous or blocked, and many have been in hiding for weeks. 

To make their condition worse, the targeting of Islamic charitable organisations by the US has caused Muslims to become wary of giving to charity. The normal Muslim sources that could be expected to have helped the Rohingya have therefore been largely absent. Muslim Aid is one of the only organisations allowed to operate in one of the refugee camps, and they provide the only small and overworked clinic and child feeding programme for thousands of refugees. 

Bangladesh, which shares borders with Burma, writes another horrifying chapter of this story. Thousands of Rohingya, seeking shelter and refuge in Bangladesh to escape the massacres in their homeland, were pushed back to Burma and sometimes to the open sea, in violation of the international law, according to the Human Rights Watch. The Rohingya families, pleading for mercy, were given a deaf ear and pushed back to sea in hardly seaworthy wooden boats, where many of them drowned or died of hunger or at the hands of their Burmese persecutors. To aggravate the condition even more, the Bangladesh government ordered three international aid groups— ‘Doctors Without Borders’, Action Against Hunger and Muslim Aid—to cease their assistance to Rohingya in refugee areas. 

“Bangladesh is violating its international legal obligations by callously pushing asylum seekers in rickety boats back into the open sea,” said Brad Adams from the Human Rights Watch. 

Bangladesh is obligated to open its borders and provide the Rohingya at least temporary refuge until it is safe for them to return, in accordance with international human rights norms. Human Rights Watch called on concerned governments to assist Bangladesh in doing so and press both Burma and Bangladesh to end abuses and ensure the safety of Rohingyas. 

Thailand has been another hope for the Rohingya refugees. In January 2009, Thailand’s military was accused of towing 992 Rohingya boat people far out to sea before abandoning them with little food or water in boats without engines. The Thai government said its investigations were inconclusive. A Rohingya human rights group, the testimony of survivors and Indian police in the Andaman Islands have suggested as many as 550 may have died. 

From Washington – the greatest champion of human rights throughout the world – there has been little criticism of the Burmese government. Full diplomatic relations between the two countries did not have to suffer. The new US ambassador to Myanmar, Derek Mitchell, expressed his surprise at the rapid spread of the violence, but clarified at the same time that it would not affect the relations between the two nations. The American administration has never bothered much about the human rights of the Rohingya, especially in the case where any criticism of the Burmese government would risk exposing the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is closely aligned to the West. 

Over all, there has been a muted international response to the persecution of the Rohingya, except from governments in Muslim majority countries, seeking to placate public concern at home. 

Pakistan foreign ministry spokesman Moazzam Ali Khan expressed his concern over the situation, but added that there were reports that things had improved there. He hoped that Burmese authorities would exercise necessary steps to bring the situation back to control. Protests against the anti-Muslim riots were lodged by various political parties and organisations in Pakistan, who called for the government, United Nations, OIC and human rights organisations to take notice of the horrible situation and hold Myanmar accountable. 

The Council of Ministers of Saudi Arabia said that it “condemns the ethnic cleansing campaign and brutal attacks against Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya citizens” and it urged the international community to protect “Muslims in Myanmar”. King Abdullaah ordered $50 million of aid to be sent to the Rohingyas, in Saudi Arabia’s capacity as a “guardian of global Muslim interests”. 

The Indonesian President appointed the former Vice President Jusuf Kalla as a special envoy to Burma to show “solidarity with our Rohingya brothers.” A meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation on August 23, resolved to take the matter to the UN because of “the continued recourse to violence by the Myanmar [Burmese] authorities against the members of this minority and their refusal to recognise their right to citizenship.”
The international human rights law declares that in cases ‘where domestic proceedings fail to address human rights abuses, mechanisms and procedures for individual and group complaints are available at the regional and international levels to help ensure that international human rights standards are indeed respected, implemented, and enforced at the local level.’ 

At the 2005 World Summit of the United Nations, it was agreed that the international community would assist States in the exercise of their responsibilities; and in the cases where a state ‘manifestly fails’ to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, the international community would be prepared to take collective action, through the Security Council and in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations. 

Wherever genocide, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity take place and a State proves to be unwilling or unable to bring alleged perpetrators to justice, the International Criminal Court is empowered to investigate and prosecute those most responsible; since ‘fighting impunity and establishing a credible expectation that the perpetrators of genocide and related crimes will be held accountable can contribute effectively to a culture of prevention.’ 

But the maximum that the UN has really done for the Rohingya is the declaration that they are “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.” No actual step was ever taken to ensure that this persecuted minority would be able to win any of their basic human rights or even have their voice heard. 

On the occasion of this Human Rights Day, the huge question to all Humanity is – What have the UDHR, UNHRC or the numerous treaties and declarations of the UN relating to human rights really given to the oppressed, for whose sake and in whose interest these laws are passed in the first place?

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