State Sovereignty in the Face of Genocide

Written by: McKenna Ross

The Rohingya are a primarily Muslim group of people in majority Buddhist Myanmar. Persecution against them began in the 1970s, when the state government refused to acknowledge the Rohingya as a legitimate ethnic group of Myanmar. This made them into a stateless people and therefore not eligible for state protection. This was convenient for the government which has historically aimed to demonize the Rohingya and incite violence against them because of their ethnic and cultural differences. 

Violence against the Rohingya has persisted for many years but has recently reached the severity to be labeled as a genocide. Attacks on the Rohingya picked up in 2017 after an attack on Myanmar security forces by Rohingya militants. Twelve members of the security forces were killed, giving the government the excuse it needed to begin a crackdown on “insurgent” forces in Myanmar. The country has come to classify all Rohingya people as insurgents to justify committing widespread murder and violence via the country’s security forces. The Rohingya have started fleeing to the neighboring country of Bangladesh as their villages are burned by troops and mobs of local citizens from other ethnic groups who have been incited into violence. Anyone who remains in the village is likely to be attacked or even killed. The United Nations (UN) Human Rights Chief at the time, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, called the security operations “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The current Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet said the crimes “against the Rohingya in Myanmar amount to the worst atrocities,” and that the human rights violations may “possibly even [amount to] genocide.” The government denies any burning of homes and instead accuses the Rohingya of burning their own houses. In only the first six months after the security crackdown, more than 43 thousand Rohingya were reported lost and presumed dead. Months have continued to pass with no action by foreign governments to stop the killings, meaning the numbers of missing and dead have continued to rise. More than 730 thousand Rohingya have fled the country into Bangladesh, but many have not been lucky enough to escape. Those who remain face the threat of torture, rape and murder. 

Despite widespread evidence of a genocide occuring, countries are doing little to stop the Myanmar government aside from condemning the acts. States argue that it is a matter of state sovereignty, implying that international groups like the UN cannot come in and arrest the president for war crimes or arrest military leaders for genocide. International organizations like the UN and the International Criminal Court (ICC) do not have power within the borders of a state, which is why countries are reluctant to stand up against Myanmar. For example, if the United States agrees to let the UN interfere in Myanmar to stop the genocide, the UN could also interfere within US borders for crimes the US government has committed. Many powerful countries are unwilling to violate any country’s sovereignty because they fear they could be the next target. 

However, one country has stood up against Myanmar’s genocide of the Rohingya people. The Gambia is a small country in Africa which recently accused the Myanmar government of genocide at the top UN court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ). It is a majority Muslim country that signed the 1948 Genocide Convention, pledging themselves to prevent and punish genocide. The Genocide Convention is a good example of how state sovereignty can limit the effectiveness of international conventions. Though many countries, including Myanmar, signed the Convention, it is not legally binding and therefore does not interfere with state sovereignty. The lack of legal power is what has allowed many countries to ignore the genocide and gives Myanmar the ability to commit genocide with little repercussions. 

Even if Myanmar is found guilty of genocide by the ICJ, not much can be done. Multiple countries would need to agree to send military forces to offer protection for the Rohingya or to bring legal measures against the government. Additionally, if countries agreed to this, they could potentially find foreign soldiers within their borders in future years. According to the past records of compliance with ICJ decisions, it is likely the Myanmar government would comply with some of the final judgement handed down by the ICJ but not with all of it. This is especially likely because Myanmar has already blocked many investigations into the genocide. 

The idea of state sovereignty in this context is important because it forces countries to determine what they value more, human beings or control of borders. Sadly, it seems that many countries are choosing borders over people. Governments are in charge of protecting their citizens, so who will protect the people being persecuted by their own government? If powerful countries do not stand up against genocide and are not willing to infringe on state sovereignty, then genocide will continue in Myanmar and the Rohingya as a people could disappear completely. This case has wider implications for minorities around the world. Many other minorities are already persecuted in other states, and if countries know they can get away with genocide like Myanmar, there is nothing to stop the genocide in others, like the Romani people living in many European countries or the Catalans in Spain. State sovereignty must become a thing of the past when in the face of genocide and countries must put human rights above state rights.