Washing Our Hands of Genocide

By Bryce Bower, Co-Editor

What is the purpose of signing an agreement if you are not willing to uphold the terms? Thousands of Rohingya are being killed in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), while their government doesn’t even acknowledge their citizenship. The ‘UN Office on Genocide Prevention And The Responsibility to Protect’ doesn’t seem to be doing what its name implies. After the extermination of six million Jewish people by the Nazis, one might expect the international community to be eager to prevent any and all genocide. Countries all around the world agreed that if a government is unwilling or unable to prevent genocide (despite governments being scared to use this term, genocide is the best description of what is happening in Myanmar) then it is up to the international community to intervene.

A Rohingya boy’s drawing of what he witnessed. Courtesy of the UN.

The US is throwing money at the 870,000 refugees who have fled to nearby Bangladesh, instead of doing things that will actually affect how the Myanmar government treats minorities.  The Human Rights Watch announced that the Myanmar government has bulldozed over 55 villages to “erase evidence of atrocities.” Just like in Rwanda, it seems the global community is too late.

According to an article from October 11, 2017 by the New York Times, Myanmar soldiers were seen “stabbing babies, cutting off boys’ heads, gang raping girls, shooting 40mm grenades into houses, burning entire families to death, and rounding up dozens of unarmed male villagers and summarily executing them.” What more will it take for the international community to do something more than sanctions? The only thing individual countries have done thus far is put sanctions on a single member of the military – one who isn’t even in charge any more.

In order for the “peacekeepers” of the United Nations to get involved in an intrastate dispute, they must be invited in by the country.  But at what point do you go in anyway? The Myanmar government certainly isn’t going to invite the UN in. In 1991, it took the US only five days to defeat the Iraqi forces who had invaded Kuwait. Maybe the reason that a country like the United States hasn’t liberated the Rohingya is because they don’t have a wealth of oil beneath them. Is this why tragedies in Africa, Asia and the Middle East seldom register on Western news or media? in contrast to the time after the Paris shootings, Facebook hasn’t asked me even once if I want to change the filter for my profile picture to the flag of the Rakhine area of Myanmar.

Courtesy of the BBC

Allow me to be frank. I believe American media doesn’t care about Africa, South America, the Middle East, nor Southeast Asia. On April 14, 2014, the terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 school girls from the Government Secondary School in Chibok, Nigeria. The leader of Boko Haram insisted that the girls would be sold in the market and that he would “give their hands in marriage because they are [his] slaves.” It wasn’t until May 6, 2017, that the Nigerian government was able to trade dangerous prisoners, plus €3 million in cash, for between 60-80 girls. Over 100 are still missing.

On February 19 of this year, Boko Haram kidnapped 110 more girls from the Government Girls Science Technical College in Dapchi, Nigeria. Imagine if this happened in the West. Every SWAT team and special forces unit would be chomping at the bit to take the terrorists out. Perhaps Nigeria is under-equipped to deal with this foe that has plagued them for more than a decade, and thus the Nigerian government is pushing for negotiation – not the use of physical force. Or perhaps they believe at the first sign of rescue the terrorists would execute all hostages.

From 1915 to 1917, the Ottoman Empire – led by the Young Turks political party – was responsible for killing 1.5 million Armenians. It seems that this genocide has been ignored, I don’t know any American or European who learned about it in school. It wasn’t until 2010 that the United States officially recognized it as a genocide. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which saw the extermination of approximately 800,000 Tutsis, was a tragedy we learned about, but that could have been avoided.

In the book Eyewitness to Genocide: The United Nations and Rwanda, the author (Michael Bernett) describes the UN’s failure. “Heel dragging states made it a forgone conclusion that any military operation would be too little, too late. Out of excuses, and knowing that the opportunity to make a difference had passed, from late April through July the UN struggled to keep up appearances.” Bernett also blasts America’s lack of action, writing, “The United States sat quietly on the other side of the border in Burundi, ready to intervene to save its nationals but unmoved by either the massacres or the perilous state of the [UN’s] peacekeeping operation.” No one wanted to get involved in a small African country, and many states avoided using the term “genocide” in order to shirk their duty to act.

UN convoy protecting food trucks in Damascus. Courtesy of Seattle Pi.

I fear there is no clear solution to this issue. In cases when talking achieves nothing and innocents are dying, the international community must find a way to protect those who can’t protect themselves. However, even if governments intervene, they need a system of checks and balances – or you end up like Syria, where soldiers blocked and confiscated food being shipped into besieged Damascus.

The UN needs to find a way to quickly apply pressure to a member state in order to keep their actions under control. As it stands, we lack a structure that allows peace-keeping soldiers to respond quickly to threats like those in Myanmar. The world needs to keep a watchful eye, lest we allow the past to repeat itself. As Nobel Prize winning writer and Auschwitz survivor Eliezer Wiesel said, “To forget a Holocaust is to kill twice.”

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