US should quickly recognize Rohingya genocide

US should quickly recognize Rohingya genocide

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After the Trump presidency, the Biden administration has had to work overtime to reshape America’s image in the world. To that end, the State Department under Secretary of State Antony Blinken has done some pretty remarkable things. Joe Biden was, for example, the first US President to recognize the Armenian genocide, despite staunch opposition from Turkey, an important US regional ally.
But recognizing historical crimes is relatively easy. National prides may be hurt and official protests lodged, but otherwise nothing needs to change. Turkey remains a member of NATO, just as begrudgingly as before.
It is much more difficult to acknowledge crimes against humanity in our own times, such as, for example, the genocide against the Rohingya, which is currently being investigated by the International Court of Justice. This is not least because recognition of ongoing human rights abuses demand — often explicitly under international law and even under domestic law — immediate action. To recognize genocide obliges a country to do everything in its power to stop it, for example under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948.
The upside is that timely recognition of a contemporary genocide also enables a powerful country like the US to take action to mitigate and reduce the outcomes of the genocide, and to frustrate the designs of the perpetrators. Timely recognition is not just about political messaging and posturing, it can actually serve the cause of human rights in real time by intervening to protect real human beings.
Doing the difficult work to counteract genocide is also the only sure-fire way to gain the moral credibility that the Biden administration is pursuing on the international stage. What is more, the US does not have a recent history of intervention in this particular region, nor does it have any essential interests there.
In January, one of the last actions of the Trump administration’s State Department under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was to recognize the abuses against the Uighur Muslim minority of Xinjiang, China, as genocide. Such accusations had the merit of being fully justified, as a number of independent reports have since confirmed. Nevertheless, many were highly skeptical on the timing of the determination, believing it was motivated by Donald Trump’s confrontational attitude toward China. The determination, they argued, was an attempt by the outgoing administration to poison the well for the incoming one and pre-empt any possibility that Biden might reset Washington’s relationship with Beijing. After all, a popular campaign slogan that was used to relentlessly attack Biden’s weakness on China was “Beijing Biden.” Even though we can see with our own eyes what is happening in Xinjiang, Trump and Pompeo should get full credit for the recognition of that genocide, especially on the international stage.
In recognizing the actual genocide — a contemporary genocide no less — the Trump administration did more on this issue in practice than the Biden administration has managed so far. Despite ill-conceived attempts to tarnish that determination as being politically motivated, this does put pressure on Biden and Blinken. If Trump and Pompeo can identify genocide when they see it, Biden and Blinken must do at least as well.

Timely recognition is not just about political messaging and posturing, it can actually serve the cause of human rights in real time.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

The upside, however, is that, once this happens, we can also trust this administration to do something for the victims. Doing so will be difficult and will require expending a substantial amount of political capital in order to both support the democratic opposition to the military coup in Myanmar, while also imposing on it the need to make full amends to the Rohingya once it is in a position to do so. Then, America will not only have talked the talk on human rights, it will have also walked the walk. Then, and only then, can Biden claim that America really is “back”.

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington and research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute US Army War College. Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim
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