The UN General Assembly, in a vote of 134-9 with 28 abstentions, issued a condemnation of Myanmar’s human rights abuses against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in the state. Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority country under the leadership of Aung San Suu-Kyi, has long deemed the Rohingya to be ethnic Bengalis despite their long history in Myanmar. The Rohingya have lacked basic rights for decades, including ineligibility for citizenship since 1982 and the inability to move freely. The UNGA’s resolution cites grave abuses by Myanmar’s military toward political prisoners, including arbitrary arrest, torture, mass rape and murder and calls on the government to “expedite efforts to eliminate statelessness and the systematic and institutionalized discrimination” against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in order to “create the conditions necessary for the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of all refugees, including Rohingya Muslim[s].”
Persecution of the Rohingya people escalated in August 2017, when Myanmar’s military responded to an attack by an armed Rohingya group – what it believed to be an extremist threat. According to Al Jazeera, mass rapes and executions by the Myanmar military, as well as a mass exodus of the Rohingya into Bangladesh ensued. By September 20th, 915,000 Rohingya refugees were displaced in camps in Bangladesh and Bangladesh refused to accept more refugees the following March. The Rohingya refused a voluntary return program developed by Bangladesh in August 2019 because conditions for their return were unsafe.
An independent fact-finding mission sponsored by the UN to investigate the Burmese army for genocide in an August found the Myanmar military to be “routinely and systematically employing rape, gang rape, and other violent and forced sexual acts against women, girls, boys, men and transgender people.” The mission accused Myanmar of “the gravest crimes under international law” and “gross human rights violations and abuses suffered by Rohingya Muslims” at the hands of Myanmar’s military. Even despite independent findings along these lines, many diplomats and Myanmar government official insist Myanmar is being held to an unfair standard. Aung San Suu-Kyi denied the “genocidal intent” of Myanmar against the Rohingya and believed military action in the Rakhine state was justified when she was called to the International Court of Justice in The Hague earlier this year, to respond to a case brought by The Gambia on behalf of other predominantly Muslim countries. She conceded there being a limited inappropriate use of force, and told the court that soldiers committing war crimes would be prosecuted. Hau Do Suan, Myanmar’s Ambassador to the UN, believed the UNGA resolution was “another classic example of double-standards [and] selective and discriminatory application of human rights norms,” expressing dismay that the resolution did not suggest a solution, nor did it recognize attempts by the Myanmar government to address the situation in the Rakhine state.
While the UNGA resolution is a credible reflection of international sentiment, the resolution is not legally binding. Myanmar’s ambassador expressed concern that the resolution would further damage existing ethnic tensions in the region. According to Al Jazeera, the ambassador believed the resolution would “sow seeds of distrust and will create further polarization of different communities in the region.” The international community must work together to apply pressure on Myanmar to take swift and meaningful action to provide the necessary safety conditions for the Rohingya’s return, as well as include Bangladesh in the process. World leaders will need to both sustain diplomatic relations and dialogue with Myanmar’s government in order to urge stronger protections for the Rohingya, while maintaining sufficient pressure on the state.