EU infighting must not weaken international response to ethnic cleansing in Myanmar

EU infighting must not weaken international response to ethnic cleansing in Myanmar

By Katharine Derderian, EU Human Rights Foreign Policy Expert, Amnesty International

“When the military came, they started shooting at people, who got very scared and started running. I saw the military shoot many people and kill two young boys. They used weapons to burn our houses. There used to be 900 houses in our village, now only 80 are left. There is no one left to even bury the bodies.”

These words are the eyewitness account of a 48-year-old man who told Amnesty International about how the army and police stormed into his village in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State in early September.

In a little less than two months, more than 520,000 Rohingya have been forced from their homes by a mass-scale scorched earth campaign. Myanmar security forces, often supported by vigilante mobs, have burnt down entire Rohingya villages, shooting people at random as they try to flee.

The campaign of violence – which started in response to coordinated attacks on security posts by an armed Rohingya group on 25 August – shows little sign of letting up. Amnesty International documented new fires in Rohingya villages as recently as last weekend. Rohingya refugees continue to pour across the border into neighbouring Bangladesh by their. To make matters worse, there is mounting evidence that people are now not just fleeing violence, but also the very real threat of starvation, as the Myanmar authorities have blocked aid groups from accessing key parts of Rakhine state.

The scope and speed of what both the UN and Amnesty International have called “ethnic cleansing,” meaning crimes against humanity, including murder, forcible transfer of population and other inhumane acts, have caught the international community on the back foot, laying bare the inability of the European Union and its member states’ to respond in a timely, unified and decisive manner.

Until last year, the European Union led an annual resolution on the human rights situation in Myanmar at the UN General Assembly but this year decided it was no longer needed, citing “progress” by the Myanmar authorities. Amnesty International and other international human rights organisations publically opposed the move, claiming it was premature. A point sadly proven by the current crisis.

But this is not the only human rights issue facing Myanmar. Beyond international headlines, conflict in Kachin and northern Shan states continues unabated; both the military and ethnic armed groups are guilty of horrendous abuses. Humanitarian access is extremely limited, in particular in conflict-ravaged areas where it is needed the most. The space for freedom of expression remains severely restricted, and those who speak out about, or report on, security forces violations face arrest, prosecution, intimidation and harassment.

Today, the EU and its member states have an opportunity to adequately respond to the human rights violations in Myanmar, to prevent this crisis from deteriorating still further and to press for a just, human rights-based solution to the massive-scale problems it has created. Pro-actively leading on a resolution at the UN General Assembly will be one key step towards ensuring international scrutiny and increased pressure to immediately stop the violence in northern Rakhine State and redress the violations which have been committed.

Primary responsibility for the appalling human rights violations and crimes against humanity in Rakhine State and other parts of the country rests with the Myanmar military. Pressure to halt violations has so far failed. An extension of the existing EU arms embargo against Myanmar will be an important step, and should include the suspension of all forms of military assistance in addition to imposing targeted financial sanctions against senior officials responsible for serious violations and crimes. At the same time, the EU and its member states must continue to send a clear message to Myanmar’s civilian authorities that strong leadership is needed, now more than ever, to de-escalate tensions.

Following on today’s meeting of European Foreign Ministers, the EU must take forward a clear, joint commitment to act in response to the human rights and humanitarian crisis unfolding before our eyes.

EU leadership on human rights is desperately needed, but disunity among member states and the false dichotomy of values versus interests, has recently resulted in the EU failing to speak loudly and act consistently enough on human rights abuses. This has been true in response to human rights concerns in Egypt, China and also Myanmar.

Whether it is interests trumping values, or members states’ domestic human rights realities influencing foreign policy, the EU and its member states cannot afford to let these issues hinder action in the face of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. The EU has historically led the international response on human rights in Myanmar.

Now, neither perceived interest in military cooperation, nor longstanding investment in the civilian-led government should stand in the way of EU action to influence Myanmar’s military and civilian authorities.

Waiting to act as the situation evolves is not an option. The EU will find its credibility and legitimacy challenged globally if it cannot transform today’s joint stance into action when confronted with killings, burnings of villages and mass deportation of more than half a million people. 

Today, we are witnessing ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity in Myanmar – if the EU does not stand together and act now for human rights, when will it