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Preventing genocide in Burma

Readers of this website should need no convincing of the seriousness of ongoing human rights violations against minority ethnic groups in Burma. Medicins Sans Frontieres has described Burma’s ethnic Rohingya minority has one of the world populations “most in danger of extinction” and leading scholars, including William Schabas, president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, have suggested that the Muslim group may be victims of crimes against humanity, a sentiment that has been echoed by multiple other bodies.

Numerous human rights and legal advocacy groups have similarly said that Burma’s other ethnic minorities – the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, and Shan – are also seriously threatened by the ruling junta, which has held power in various forms since 1962.

In the past decade and a half, there has been significant progress in our understanding of genocide and how to prevent it, mainly as the result of our failures to do so. One of the most crucial lessons learned from this bitter experience is that, from the standpoint of saving human lives, the question of whether or not a situation meets the legal definition of genocide is beside the point. And the point, for those in the field of genocide prevention today, is not how to stop genocide once it has begun, but rather how to prevent it from happening in the first place.

To that end, the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, based in New York, operates a genocide prevention program targeting the women and men in government who shape and implement the policies that determine whether or not a society will tip over the edge into mass slaughter. Key to the program is the forging of a community of policymakers to support one another in their everyday work. Given that some of those who take part come from countries that are at risk of genocide, or perhaps even in the midst of one, we do not take a position on whether or not the situation in any particular country constitutes genocide. To do so would defeat our purpose, since the countries that are most at risk of genocide are the very ones we most hope to attract.

This is important because, up until now, there has been no community of prevention between the level of grassroots activism and the officialdom of national governments and the UN. And research has shown that the more connected a country is to the rest of the world – especially economically and politically – the less likely it is that conflict there will escalate into genocide. Some of the other risk factors for genocide, according to US political scientist Barbara Harff, include a prior history of genocide, ethnic and religious divisions within society, exclusionary ideology, and autocratic rule.

Burma has all these in spades. Other researchers may look to different indicators, but the pattern is unmistakable. Most genocide scholars and human rights groups agree there has already been one genocide in Burma since 1962 – that of the Rohingya – and there is ample evidence to suggest that government killings of other ethnic groups constitute at least crimes against humanity, if not full-blown genocide.

US political scientist Ted Robert Gurr recently published a brief paper titled ‘Options for the Prevention and Mitigation of Genocide: Strategies and Examples for Policy-Makers’. His analysis and recommendations are grounded in the most recent experience of the international community as well as the most up-to-date scholarship. Other, more comprehensive attempts to address the issue have come from Minority Rights Group International, which focuses on UN policy; the Genocide Prevention Task Force, focusing on US policy; and the Will to Intervene Project, which looks at both US and Canadian policy.

There are several drawbacks, however, to all of these approaches. One is that they tend to stress intervention over prevention, which tilts the balance toward short-term military solutions and away from longer-term, political or economic approaches. The second is that they view the solution as coming from outside the country at risk, as opposed to from within.

In any case, history clearly suggests that it would be naïve to expect direct action by the international community to prevent genocide in Burma anytime soon. Perhaps the most promising avenue for change at the moment is the recently created International Criminal Court (ICC), which is empowered to investigate and prosecute genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. In 2009, the former UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma called on the UN security council to investigate crimes against humanity in Burma with an eye to referring the case to the ICC. And earlier this year, the British government issued a statement saying that it would support a referral of Burma to the ICC by the UN Security Council. The wheels of international justice grind slowly, though. The question is, can they grind quickly enough for Burma’s ethnic minorities?

Alex Zucker is Communications and Development Officer of the New York-based Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation.


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