No big power is going to take military action to save the Rohingya from what the UN Human Rights chief called this week a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing” in Myanmar. It will be the Srebenica massacre all over again, just without the mirage of UN havens.
Chapter 7 of the UN Charter will not be invoked to stop the carnage, nor will any coalition of the willing be assembled. The massacres of Rohingya will continue as they flee Myanmar’s scorched-earth policy. Even economic sanctions against Myanmar are unlikely to alter the government’s course of ridding its territory of what it considers “Bengali” undesirables.
Over the past three weeks 300 000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh, 8 000 people have been burnt while 40 villages were razed and 2 000 to 3 000 have been killed. It seems the international community always waits for the situation to become so grave that every action it contemplates becomes too late.
As Africans, we know only too well what inaction by the big powers in the face of genocide means in terms of human lives and destruction. In the case of Rwanda the cost was 800 000 lives in 100 days. It was for this reason that the AU was determined to establish a rapid reaction standby force that would intervene in cases of gross human rights abuses, particularly genocide, on the continent.
Just because the victims of genocide this time are dark-coloured Muslims in Asia, who are largely considered stateless, doesn’t absolve us from the responsibility of raising our voices in their defence.
For 40 years the Rohingya have been going through some of the same forms of discrimination black South Africans were subjected to under apartheid. They are not allowed to travel, get married, or receive health care without special permission, are subjected to forced labour and sterilisation, and are not allowed to own land. They have endured massacres and rape in a never-ending cycle of ethnic hatred perpetrated by the Myanmar security forces and right-wing Buddhists.
When South Africans were suffering under apartheid, we expected the rest of the world to raise the injustice of our situation robustly at every international forum possible. We expected progressive governments around the world to fight for our rights in political forums.
Given our experience with oppression, South Africa as a middle power that maintains a certain amount of moral authority in the world, should speak out forcefully against what is happening to the Rohingya.
We cannot leave it to our retired clergymen like Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, alongside the other foreign Nobel laureates, to condemn the "slow-burning genocide" of the Rohingya. It is time for us to find our moral conscience again and show leadership on the world stage when it comes to human rights. It is what Madiba would have expected of us.
We have nothing to lose by taking a stand, but everything to gain. We don’t depend on Myanmar as a market for our goods nor do we rely on the gas pipeline that passes through Rakhine state. We hold no flame for Aung San Suu Kyi who has compromised her principles since becoming state counsellor, and failed to raise her voice to protect the rights of her own people. If anything she has exposed her moral bankruptcy by calling criticism of massacres against Rohingya “an iceberg of misinformation”.
Just as we have said “Never again” to another genocide in Africa, we need to condemn the perpetrators who refer to the Rohingya as vermin, disease and rabid dogs.
The Buddhist militia and security forces who gang rape women and behead children have to be held accountable. The same crimes took place in 2012 and last year. They are recurring largely because they were carried out with impunity. Myanmar is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, so prosecutions can take place only if the UN Security Council refers the crimes to the International Criminal Court.
While justice needs to be done, the long-lasting solution lies in the implementation of the recommendations of former UN chief Kofi Annan’s report on the Rohingya earlier this year. It addresses the root of the problem and puts forward a clear roadmap on how to reverse decades of oppression and injustice.
The report calls for unimpeded access for humanitarian actors and journalists to Rakhine state, an independent and impartial investigation into crimes committed and the perpetrators to be held to account. It calls for the protection of the Rohingya's rights in terms of freedom of movement, social and economic development, citizenship, access to health and education and participation in public life.
These are the rights we expect all Africans to enjoy and if human security is indivisible, we need to fight for the Rohingya's as government, civil society and the Fourth Estate, and call for the implementation of these recommendations.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.