Skip to main content

Lloyd Axworthy, a former foreign affairs minister, is chair of the board of Cuso International. Allan Rock, a former ambassador to the United Nations, is president emeritus and a professor of law, University of Ottawa.

The Rohingya crisis has steadily deepened in the absence of any effective international response. It has become a humanitarian catastrophe with three tragic dimensions.

The first is our collective failure to prevent the carnage or to stop it once under way. Long before the burning and killing started, the warning signs were there, building on decades of persecution of the Muslim minority by the Buddhist majority in Rakhine state. Radio broadcasts sowing hatred and inciting violence eerily recalled Rwanda before the slaughter there. And when the Muslims dared last year to hit back, the Myanmar military mounted a disproportionate response, escalating it this summer when it sensed that Washington would not object and Beijing might even be supportive.

Despite the Myanmar government's aggressive efforts to exclude journalists, there were regular reports and even graphic videos as the attacks intensified. And yet there was no international effort to prevent the atrocity, and no collective response later to what the United Nations human rights chief called "a textbook case of ethnic cleansing." So much for the Secretary-General's signature priority of prevention.

For this, the Security Council must get the lion's share of the blame. Two of its veto-wielding permanent members – Russia and China – are allergic to interference when a sovereign state targets its own people, largely because they like to indulge in the practice themselves. Along with many others who pretend that sovereignty precludes any outside intervention, they ignore their own 2005 vote in favour of the Responsibility to Protect (or R2P), a principle adopted unanimously by all UN member states. That principle holds that sovereignty means responsibility, and a state's inability or refusal to protect its own population from atrocities including ethnic cleansing amounts to a failure of sovereignty.

The nations of the world solemnly undertook that in such cases they would, through the Security Council, take steps necessary to provide protection, including military force as a last resort. No one suggests that R2P required military measures here. Sanctions and an arms embargo would likely have influenced the Myanmar government's conduct. The Security Council's failure to take even those steps will simply embolden murderous tyrants and despots elsewhere.

The second tragic element in this preventable crisis is the pitiful plight of the half-million Rohingya refugees who have now fled Myanmar for Bangladesh. Unprotected and largely unprovided for, they represent a powerful rebuke to the flawed international framework for dealing with refugees and internally displaced persons. The current archaic model, designed after the Second World War, suffers from chronic underfunding and an absence of burden-sharing. It is left to neighbouring states, often (as with Bangladesh) developing countries with their own crises to manage, to accommodate a sudden influx of persons with urgent needs. The whole approach to forcible displacement and its consequences cries out for innovation and renewal.

Canada is hosting a peacekeeping conference next month that should consider UN protection for refugees where they seek refuge and on resettlement. The newly formed World Refugee Council, with support from the Government of Canada, is examining various ways to improve how the world deals with refugees. Its recommendations, due in 2019, will complement the UN's Global Compact on Migration, which may be concluded next year. In the meantime, Bangladesh needs the world's financial and non-financial support as it struggles to meet the enormous challenge of supporting the newly arrived.

Finally, the Rohingya crisis presents the tragic prospect that those responsible for the crimes against humanity committed in Rakhine state may never be held to account. Myanmar's domestic courts will not be asked to determine responsibility. The government has rejected an independent international inquiry. And the Security Council, riven by the veto, is not likely to refer the case to the International Criminal Court. Once again, the message to the corrupt and the ruthless is the same: You can literally get away with murder.

It did not have to be this way. When Myanmar began systematically targeting a segment of its own population, an early response from the Security Council could have changed the outcome. The Secretary-General could have marshalled the moral authority of his office and the influence of supportive states, including Canada, to galvanize global public opinion and isolate and shame any of the permanent five members of the Security Council who sought to stand in the way. Using tailored sanctions for leverage, the council could have insisted on access by independent observers. The UN might even have bargained for the deployment of an international police presence to provide the vulnerable minority population with some measure of protection.

All of that would have required strong leadership, determined diplomacy and a willingness to invest political capital. But as the Muslims of Rakhine can sadly testify, such qualities are in very short supply at the UN. And in their absence, we have not seen the last humanitarian catastrophe unfold.

Bangladesh and Myanmar agree to start planning the repatriation of more than half a million Rohingya Muslim refugees who've fled to Bangladesh to escape an army crackdown.


Interact with The Globe