JÁN FIGEL: Genocide happens step by step in stages
Despite the international community’s promise of ‘never again’ to genocide, these crimes against humanity continue to be perpetrated
Violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar during the past few decades, particularly against women and girls, has significantly contributed to several mass emigrations. Since the escalation of violence hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have sought refuge in Bangladesh.
However, the violence has not diminished, and according to Bangladeshi officials armed gangs murdered about 40 Rohingya refugees in the camps in 2022, and at least 48 more died in the first half of 2023. The Rohingya community claims there have been more fatalities. With many refugees kidnapped, threatened and subjected to sexual assault, forced marriage and child recruitment by armed groups, concerns about being targeted by criminal gangs and alleged associates of armed Islamist groups have led to an atmosphere of increasing brutality and terror (Amnesty International, 2022).
Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina has actively addressed the Rohingya situation and sought international support to alleviate the ongoing issues. Despite encountering political obstacles at home, she wants to have a stable administration in place until the elections of 2024, and is against turning over control to an unelected caretaker administration. She presented a comprehensive five-point plan to address the ongoing Rohingya crisis at a UN General Assembly side event.
This plan calls for giving political and financial support to the Rohingya community in Bangladesh, holding those responsible for crimes against humanity accountable, putting pressure on Myanmar to stop oppressing ethnic and religious minorities, ensuring Myanmar complies with its obligations under the Asean five-point consensus, and providing unrestricted humanitarian access to the affected areas.
Recently some questions were delivered to my office regarding serious claims of genocide. I addressed this issue as the first-ever European Commission special envoy (2016-2019) to promote freedom of religion outside the EU. I was asked to indicate how I would manage the Rohingya catastrophe, where nearly five years ago over 925,000 Rohingya, more than half women and children, became stateless, stigmatised, experienced violence and suffered from chronic poverty.
My first special envoy role started in Brussels in May 2016. The raison d'être of this new post and agenda was mass atrocities against religious and ethnic minorities committed by the IS militants in Iraq and Syria. The parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, and then the European parliament followed by the US Congress, British parliament and other bodies, labelled these atrocities genocide. Despite the repeated promise of the international community's “never again” to genocide, these horrific crimes against humanity continue to be perpetrated.
The first religious personality I met officially as a special envoy was Cardinal Charles Bo from Myanmar. While Buddhism is the dominant religion in Myanmar the cardinal advocates for Christians, Muslims and other minorities and publicly appeals for a peaceful coexistence against religious nationalism and violent extremism.
In 2016 the military of Myanmar started a crackdown on the Rohingya community. Waves of violence continued in the following years, which included attacks motivated by ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity with signs of genocide. Many people were killed, women raped, houses and villages burnt. More than 1-million escaped to neighbouring countries, mainly Bangladesh.
Suffering and persecution of Rohingyas in (Burma) Myanmar started in the 1970s; it has been a long, gradual story. In the aftermath of the second world war and holocaust tragedy the International Anti-Genocide Convention from 1948 was adopted. This is based on three critical pillars: crimes against humanity prevention, victim protection and genocide offender persecution.
The international community needs to improve in all three objectives; genocide is not a surprising, sudden tragedy. It is born and graduates step-by-step, in stages. Genocide Watch president Gregory Stanton described 10 stages: classification, symbolisation, discrimination, dehumanisation, organisation, polarisation, preparation, persecution, extermination and denial. It is crucial to act preventively in the early stages of this process.
The international community needs to learn from its painful history. The UN must focus more on conflict prevention and effective humanitarian aid. Donors such as the US, EU and UK provide humanitarian help to refugees in Bangladesh and other countries of Southeast Asia. Regardless, the volume of assistance is far from the necessary level. Rohingyas and other persecuted minorities in Myanmar and Asia need more attention and support.
The responsibility to protect the most vulnerable is an important criterion and precondition for a more humane 21st century. The media have a vital role in making these bloody stories visible and known, but how many viewers and readers know that over 300-million people worldwide today are persecuted for their faith-based identity or belief?
The international community needs to work on religious freedom, and “climate change” nations are primary actors responsible for human rights protection, representing a core of justice for all. Justice is the mother of peace in society and the basis of sustainable development; a lot can be achieved by civil society organisations.
How would I suggest the international community address the issue's root causes, ensure that those who violate human rights are brought to justice, and develop a durable solution that upholds the rights and dignity of the Rohingya people?
In a society where evil is pervasive and includes acts of violent extremism, terrorism, nationalism and religious intolerance, it is imperative that humanity come first and that we actively promote the common good. Minority groups, whether ethnic or religious, frequently become the targets of genocidal atrocities committed by individuals, organisations or dictatorial governments.
Specific strategies must be used on both a national and international level to combat these trends. These strategies should include monitoring, education, reporting and assistance for those who are being persecuted, and extremist victims. Along with using trade agreements like the EU’s GSP+ system, advocacy, legal defence and conditional international aid are also required to advance human rights, labour rights, environmental protection and anticorruption initiatives.
As a special envoy I dealt with the case of Asia Bibi — a Christian woman on death row in jail for alleged blasphemy in Pakistan — and the GSP+ instrument was crucially helpful. Today, Asia Bibi is alive, free and in a safe country.
Evil today is so vast and increasing because it has many efficient allies. Three offshoots are present and visible almost everywhere — indifference, ignorance and fear. Evil grows when people do not care, do not know, and are scared to say or do something to help the voiceless and defenceless.
Antidotes of these ethical failures are active compassion, engagement, education and courage. Like-minded leadership must promote the ethos that people are all equal in dignity, although different in identity; equal dignity should be translated into equal, inclusive, fair citizenship.
• Figel is a Slovak politician who served as European commissioner from 2004 to 2009, then as Slovak transport minister from 2010 to 2012. From 2016 to 2019, he was the European Commission's special envoy for promoting freedom of religion outside the EU.
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