Friday, 8 May 2020
Friday, 3 April 2020
Author: Adam Simpson, University of South Australia
Since the communal pogroms of 2012 razed the villages of Muslim Rohingya across Myanmar's Rakhine State, there have been debates about how to protect Rohingya populations through international legal mechanisms. The search for legal avenues gathered pace following insurgent attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in August 2017 that resulted in a disproportionate collective punishment response from the Myanmar military. This saw the slaughter of thousands of unarmed Rohingya and over 740,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh.
The most promising avenue to date has been through the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. On 11 November 2019, the Republic of The Gambia filed an ICJ application to start proceedings against Myanmar for violations of the Genocide Convention.
Another international legal option is to prosecute the Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar's military Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and other military leaders at the International Criminal Court (ICC). But there are difficulties with this approach. Myanmar is not party to the Rome Statute, which created the court, and any attempt to force the ICC to take a case like this one through the UN Security Council would likely be vetoed by China and Russia.
Since Bangladesh is party to the Statute, and the Rohingya crossed the Bangladesh border, the ICC ruled that it had jurisdiction over the case. In November 2019, the ICC approved a full investigation into allegations of 'systematic acts of violence', deportation as a crime against humanity and persecution on the grounds of ethnicity or religion against the Rohingya. By February 2020, investigators from the ICC Office of the Prosecutor visited Rohingya refugee camps to collect evidence for their case.
As the ICC case gathered pace, the initial hearings of the ICJ case in The Hague in December 2019 provided more spectacular imagery for the world's media. With an eye firmly on the forthcoming November 2020 national elections, Nobel Peace Laureate and Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi personally travelled to the ICJ to defend the actions of the military and the Myanmar state against charges of genocide. There is little sympathy for the Rohingya in Myanmar. Ever since the 2012 pogroms, when the United Nations and aid agencies were seen as being overly sympathetic to Muslims and the Rohingya, there has been a nationalist antipathy to what is perceived as international meddling in Myanmar's domestic affairs. Aung San Suu Kyi's ICJ defence was interpreted as defending the nation and was supported by large rallies throughout the country.
While giving evidence to the ICJ, Aung San Suu Kyi admitted that 'it cannot be ruled out that disproportionate force was used by members of the defence services in some cases, in disregard of international law'. She insisted that any breaches would be investigated internally. This 'bad apple in the military' defence was debunked by evidence that demonstrated the erasure of Rohingya communities was systematic.
Internal judicial redress within Myanmar has been ineffectual. There have been several internal inquiries, all of which have cleared the military of any systematic crimes despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The government-appointed Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE) did find that security forces and civilians committed war crimes and violated human rights in Rakhine State but held that these were rogue elements acting in isolation rather than reflections of a more systematic policy.
In late January 2020, the Court declared that The Gambia had established prima facie a breach of the Genocide Convention. It issued several urgent measures to Myanmar to prevent further acts related to breaches of the Convention and the destruction of evidence. Myanmar is to provide regular reporting to the Court on measures undertaken. The Gambia has until 23 July 2020 to submit its full case and Myanmar has until 25 January 2021 to submit its response.
The ICJ has no power to enforce its judgements and compel a state to take action. It relies on the UN Security Council to support its judgements. As key allies to Myanmar, China — with its veto power at the Security Council — along with Vietnam refused to agree to a statement compelling Myanmar to comply with the Court's instructions. Although the Court's decision was celebrated by Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh's camps, the limited powers of the ICJ mean that little may change on the ground.
The Myanmar government, led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) and Aung San Suu Kyi, has no oversight over the military and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. But Aung San Suu Kyi is the only person capable of communicating the suffering experienced by the Rohingya effectively. Her silence on the military's brutality and her attempts to exculpate it from wrongdoings is normalising what, under any reasonable assessment, constitutes ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and perhaps even genocide.
Myanmar's politics is complex and fraught. After years of military rule, the path to democracy was never going to be smooth. But without the support of Aung San Suu Kyi, it is difficult to see justice for the Rohingya emerging anytime soon, with the potential of a coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in the refugee camps increasing the urgency of action. The NLD government needs international support to transform the country economically and politically. The pursuit of justice and democratic development in Myanmar will also require deeper engagement by Western companies, governments and NGOs. Right now, this pursuit is being left to the vicissitudes of foreign investment and diplomacy with China.
Foreign governments need to apply pressure on both the government and the military so that they adhere to international norms whenever they deal with Myanmar's ethnic communities, regardless of that community's perceived place and legitimacy in some mythical nationalist past.
Adam Simpson is Senior Lecturer of International Studies in UniSA Justice & Society and Program Director, Master of Communication, in UniSA Creative, The University of South Australia.
Wednesday, 11 March 2020
Nothing prepared Antony Beevor for this devastating exposé of the systematic use of rape in war and ethnic cleansing
Ihad assumed, after 40 years of researching and writing about war in the 20th century, that I was prepared for just about any horror. But Christina Lamb's research, into the mass rape of women and young girls in more recent wars and ethnic cleansing shook me to the core. This is the most powerful and disturbing book that I have ever read, and it raises important questions.
Lamb takes us from one zone of racial and religious aggression to another. The attackers have different motives and each persecuted minority is culturally unique, yet the pain and suffering of their victims are terrifyingly similar. She meets the Yazidi women, seized by Isis warriors from their ancient homeland between Syria and Iraq, chosen by lot as sex slaves, then sold on like second-hand cars from one rapist to another. The Muslim Rohingya women in northern Myanmar are violated with conspicuous cruelty by the Buddhist army in order to stampede an entire people over the frontier to Bangladesh.
In Nigeria, Boko Haram kidnaps girls en masse to turn them into 'bush wives' to produce another generation of fighters and slaves. 'I abducted your girls ... I will sell them in the market, by Allah,' declared their leader Abubakar Shekau, after seizing hundreds of schoolgirls. 'I will marry off a woman at the age of 12. I will
marry off a girl at the age of nine.' Militia groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo sometimes even rape babies and infants because they are led to believe that this will give them special powers, or cure them of HIV.
There have been so many more examples of mass rape in different countries. Bangladeshi women were abused terribly in 1971 by their fellow Muslims from the Pakistan Army in its attempt to crush the independence movement. The Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis was known for its massacres, yet the mass rapes which accompanied them were overlooked at the time. The 2018 report of the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict named a minimum of 19 states in which women had been raped during recent conflicts. It also listed '12 national military and police forces and 39 non-state actors' as guilty of mass rape.
Rather like the killing of prisoners in wartime, rape has seldom been mentioned in the past, partly because it might have been embarrassing to think that one's own side might also be guilty, but also because of an assumption that it had always been a natural part of war. 'For decades there was little discussion,' Lamb writes. 'It took rape camps being set up again in the heart of Europe for the issue to get international attention. Like many people, the first time I heard of sexual violence in conflict was in the 1990s during the war in Bosnia.' And yet rape had certainly not been absent from the ideological conflicts of the first half of the century.
In the Spanish Civil War, officers in Franco's Army of Africa, during their advance on Madrid in the late summer and early autumn of 1936, urged their Moroccan troops to rape, and in many cases disembowel, the wives and daughters of peasants and workers as a deliberate act of terror to panic the Republican militias. The greatest example of all took place in 1945, as soldiers in the Red Army raped an estimated two million German women, tens of thousands of Hungarians, and even those women of supposedly Allied nations, such as Poles and Serbs. The Imperial Japanese Army did not restrict itself to the perpetual rape of 'comfort women' imprisoned in military brothels. They also believed in the gang rape of enemy civilians as a form of comradeship bonding.
Lamb's book should certainly provoke much debate and I hope it will also clarify some thinking. Perhaps the phrase 'rape as a weapon of war' has become too much of a standard term. In many cases it is correct, although a more accurate version would be 'a weapon of terror in conflict and ethnic cleansing'. Yet much depends on whether the 'weapon' is a deliberate military policy. It certainly was with the Pakistani Army in Bangladesh, Franco's Army of Africa, the Japanese Army and the Myanmar Army, along with all the other acts of ethnic cleansing.
But there are also examples of where an army has slipped its leash, and soldiers simply exploit the opportunity. In the case of the Red Army, the position was complex. Soviet propaganda had dehumanised the 'Fascist beast', and even the 'blonde witch', with calls for vengeance, yet many officers and soldiers were horrified by what their comrades did and took no part in it. A number even saved German women. So, we do need to be careful about generalisations.
The feminist definition of rape is that it is an act of violence driven by a compulsion to exert power, and has nothing to do with sex. But that is naturally the victim's point of view and does little to explain the motivation of the perpetrator. All the sadistic acts, which Lamb quite rightly does not spare us, clearly support that perspective. The dehumanisation of the enemy, which needs to be heightened by a strong dose of fear along with the hatred, is also another part of the weapon of terror. But men's motives to rape in war obviously vary, from sheer sexual opportunism to the fanatical compulsion to hurt, humiliate, pollute, disfigure and even kill their female victims. And as the Red Army example showed, not all men become rapists, even when they face no retribution. Also, to refute the black and white approach, Susan Brownmiller acknowledged in her seminal work on the subject, Against Our Will, there is even the 'grey area of wartime prostitution', where men with food, as well as guns, can exploit another form of power.
The very phrase 'weapon of war' also unintentionally reinforces that old mistake of including rape as a natural part of the landscape of armed conflict. Unfortunately, as Lamb emphasises, in the few recent cases where perpetrators have been brought to trial, prosecutors tend to drop the rape charges when they find it easier to convict on the more general charge of terrorism. That is no comfort whatsoever to the women who have had to summon up great courage to appear as witnesses.
The vast majority of victims suffer twice. Those who survive their ordeals then have to face ostracism from their own families and communities. They are seen as polluted. Many commit suicide, unable to cope with the contempt and shame heaped upon them. Most of the rest, whatever culture they come from, describe feeling 'dead inside'. It is very hard to enjoy normal human relations after an assault intended to dehumanise one. And how can one trust anyone again when, in the case of ethnic cleansing, former friendly neighbours become savage aggressors? As Lamb argues, the survivors are heroic. Mercifully for the male reader, there are some heroes too on their side of the fence, principally rescuers and doctors.
It must also have taken courage to research and write this book. When you tackle such horrors, they have a way of coming back to haunt you in the dark watches of the night. In 1944, a traumatised Vasily Grossman wrote, after producing the very first report on the atrocities of the Treblinka extermination camp: 'It is the writer's duty to tell this terrible truth, and it is the civilian duty of the reader to learn it.'
Christina Lamb has more than accomplished her duty. It is now our duty to face this other 'terrible truth' — that of man's inhumanity to woman.