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UN Is Right to Refer North Korea to International Criminal Court -- Now It's Burma's Turn

An armed police officer guards as Rohingya Muslims stand behind him at a refugee camp in Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State, western Burma (Photo: AP)

By Dr Azeem Ibrahim
February 26, 2014

The United Nations Organization is often dismissed as an ineffectual body, unable to follow up on its declarations with effective action. But in a recent welcome move, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has urged world powers to refer North Korea to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) following a U.N. report documenting crimes against humanity. The US State Department acknowledged its "deep concern about the human rights situation" in North Korea following the report's "compelling evidence of widespread and systematic human rights violations."

Now it is time the UN took similar action on Burma, where the rights situation is among the world's worst, with the Rohingya people being systematically persecuted by a government claiming to be moving toward democracy. There have been international calls for action ever since the killings began. President Obama, the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis and many others have urged Burma's President Thien Sein to end the ongoing campaign of genocide against the Muslim minority, which contradicts the recent signs of political and economic liberalization in the country.

The Rohingya people have been declared stateless although many have lived in Burma for centuries; they have been called illegal immigrants, they are refused marriage licenses and are restricted to having two children. CAIR notes that these restrictions meet the legal definition of genocide as outlined in the UN 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The campaign of violence has taken the lives of thousands of Muslims, with more than 140,000 displaced to makeshift refugee camps where food and medical treatment are restricted; more than 2 million acres have been confiscated from Muslim villages by corrupt state officials and their patrons.

Burma's 1982 Citizenship Law is racist, breaks Burma's treaty obligations, and so violates international law. It does not recognize Rohingya as an ethnic group in Burma. It helps render the Rohingya stateless, and helps underpin discrimination against them.

Pleas for support from Aung San Suu Kyi have been disappointed, as Burma's Nobel Laureate has indicated she is not in a strong position to help Burma's minorities. Expected to run for president in the 2015 election, she has evidently bowed to popular anti-Muslim sentiment with an expediency that has profoundly disappointed human rights advocates internationally. Burma is a multi-ethnic state with at least seven minority groups living in the mountainous border regions of the country covering about 65 percent of the country. These hill tribes have been persecuted systematically by the generals over the last 60 years of military rule in an attempt to make Burma homogenous; the violence against the Rohingya people is yet another ugly example of state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing.

The first census for 30 years is to be held between March 30 and April 10, 2014. However, limited access to some of the more remote areas and issues of ethnicity and citizenship, with more than 135 ethnic groups and at least 19 major languages, pose difficulties and challenges. The government is planning to count Burmese refugees living in Thailand, which is estimated to be around 130,000 people, and Burmese nationals living abroad. The Rohingya people will be counted under the "other" category on the census along with ethnic Chinese and Pakistanis. If ethnic Rohingya are excluded from being listed as an ethnic group in the census form, this lack of recognition will lead to further discrimination and concerns that they may then be officially deported.

An immediate challenge is to ensure that the process is conducted fairly and to ensure that the findings are respected on a political level. The United Nations is offering training and resources for the census operation, with additional funding from other countries, but there is no indication so far that the citizenship categories will be challenged and re-defined. The UN, World Bank and other bodies and countries involved in the census process have a duty to use their influence if they have reason to think that negative outcomes could result from the census.

The last official census in Burma in 1983 is widely thought to have underestimated the number of Muslims in the country. There was initially a feeling that the census could be an opportunity for ethnic identities to be acknowledged, but growing numbers of ethnic organizations are calling for major changes in the process, or postponement of the census. They see that the census is already causing division within and between ethnic groups, with increased anti-Muslim violence impacting on the peace processes currently underway. Ethnic and religious tensions caused by the release of the data just months before the election in 2015 could even lead to the election process being disrupted.

Burma Campaign UK says that Burma's census should be postponed, because the potential risks associated with going ahead with the census are greater than the potential benefits.

"The structure of the census is totally unacceptable to us... We are simply asking for equal rights for all ethnic minority groups," stated U Kyaw Min, Democracy and Human Rights Party.

If United Nations does have an effective role in Burma's future, perhaps it would be better if it counted the human rights abuses and the deaths of the Rohingya people instead of counting citizens: Certainly, the accountability of Burma's leaders and their role in the genocide of people within its borders is called for. We can only hope that U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, will indict Burma along with North Korea and refer them both to the International Criminal Court for their crimes against humanity.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of the Scotland Institute and lectures in International Security at the University of Chicago.

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