Prime minister Sheikh Hasina recently visited the Rohingya refugee camps. This was quite a humanitarian gesture and will certainly be lauded at home and abroad. It will be an even greater achievement if this humanitarian stance of the prime minister and of Bangladesh is skillfully used in international diplomacy and the Rohingyas can be sent back to their country.
In order to send the Rohingyas back, Bangladesh will have to put pressure on Myanmar to implement the recommendations of the Kofi Annan commission. The commission has said that the Rohingyas must be rehabilitated with all their rights. It also recommended UN assistance in ensuring their security. The government must now come up with an effective strategy to implement the recommendations.
Bangladesh must make it clear to the world that they have provided shelter to one million Rohingyas on sheer humanitarian grounds. But as a state, Bangladesh cannot allow this to carry on indefinitely. No country can sustain the burden of a population pushed in unlawfully by another country.
So we must have one basic objective. That objective is to send the Rohingyas back to their own country. We managed to do this to a large extent in 1978 and 1982. The question is, how able will we be to do this? And are we capable our utilising our competence properly for the task?
The UN human rights high commissioner has already termed the indiscriminate killing and driving away of the Rohingyas as ethnic cleansing. There is one advantage Bangladesh has in resolving the problem. Indiscriminate and planned killing and ethnic cleansing is considered an international crime according to the genocide convention, the Rome statute, the UN charter and other charters. These are known as atrocity crimes.
In order to clearly specify the state’s responsibility against such crimes, in 2005 the UN Security Council adopted a Responsibility to Protect Commitment. According to this commitment, it is the responsibility of any country to provide security for any ethnic community within that country. If the country fails to provide that security, the international community has the right to force them to do so.
There are various examples around the world of safe areas being formed and security provided under supervision of the UN peace-keeping forces in order to force states to carry out these responsibilities. The scope of this has expanded multiple times at present. The peace-keeping forces are not just deployed for war time or to resolve clashes, but also to protect various civilian communities, uphold human rights, revive the rule of law and other such objectives.
The problem is that the UN Security Council is the only way to create safe areas or deploy peace-keeping forces. So far it has been based on the Security Council’s decision that the peace-keeping forces have been deployed 58 situations and in 15 countries. America may agree to such an initiative in order to curtail China’s influence and business interests in Myanmar. But even this can fall though with the veto of a single country. Given the relations between China and Myanmar, China will sure impose this veto. There are also doubts as to whether Russia’s role will go in favour of Bangladesh either.
In order to put pressure on Myanmar to take back the Rohingyas, there is presently even talk of putting Myanmar on trial for ethnic cleansing. There is the international Rome Statute that tries persons guilty of such crimes. Bangladesh is a signatory to the Rome Statute. Myanmar is not. The only way left to take anyone of such a country to trial is a decision of the Security Council. But China or Russia are likely to thwart any such initiative.
Some point to BIMSTEC and similar economic forums as means to put pressure on Myanmar. Others wonder whether the matter can be raised in ASEAN through Indonesia or Malaysia. But reality is, even there Bangladesh’s present-day geostrategic importance will be weighed in comparison to that of Myanmar.
For Bangladesh, the UN is one place where some degree of pressure can be created. Bangladesh can raise the issue at various human rights forums of the UN. The most important of these is the Human Rights Council. The session of this council will continue till the middle of this month. It was in this council session that the UN high commissioner for human rights condemned the brutality taking place in Myanmar. But more important than his statement is getting the issue included in the final declaration of the council. Bangladesh can also raise the issue in the form of a complaint during the council’s universal periodical review next year.
However, other than the Security Council, it is of little practical value in any other forum of the UN, including the general assembly. According to the UN Charter, on the Security Council’s decision is binding on the member states. The decision of any other forum only can create moral obligations at most. Of course, moral obligation is not without value. Such pressure will have a degree of influence on countries like Myanmar which have only recently opened up to the world.
Further pressure could have been applied on Myanmar regionally, but we ourselves have let that slip. As at an individual level, at an international level too, when there is any inter-state dispute, the comparative strength and importance becomes a significance determinant factor. This comparative strength is not necessarily military strength or economic power. It is the credibility of the government and position of the state in the international arena. Having won a free election, the Aung San Suu Kyi government has far more credibility than Myanmar’s previous military regime. In comparison, the ruling party has a legitimacy crisis due to the last election.
There are problems in gaining support of the international community. This is evident in India’s attitude when it comes to Myanmar. Though India also has the presence of Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh has failed to garner its support. On the contrary, the India prime minister visited Myanmar and has actually supported the uprooting the Rohingyas in the name of combating terrorism. The foreign ministry may have given a statement expressing concern over the Rohingya issue, that was negligible compared to the joint statement of Modi and Suu Kyi.
Many may say that India had no other alternative but to take such a stand in order to curtail Chinese influence in Myanmar. China has gained access to the Arabian Sea through the China-Pakistan economic corridor, and will gain access to the Bay of Bengal by means of oil and gas pipelines and other connectivity projects with Myanmar. As in Sri Lanka, China wants to build a sea port in Myanmar as well to extend its regional influence in the India Ocean. It is only natural for India to be concerned. India is also concerned about Myanmar’s support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. India wants to bring about a balance to China’s influence by constructing the 1400km India-Myanmar-Thailand highway as well as the Kaladan multimodal transit transport project to connect Mizoram with the Bay of Bengal. So the reality of the matter stands that both China and India are supporting Myanmar in their own respective strategic economic interests.
The question is, despite its important geo-strategic position and natural resources, why couldn’t Bangladesh create a competition among China and India to support it? Why couldn’t we strike a bargain with India just as Myanmar has done? Why have we, over the past decade, simply given away facilities for transit, shared rivers, security and international support unilaterally to India, leaving us with no bargaining clout?
Other than the Western world, Bangladesh’s only hope now lies with the support of Muslim countries. Religious identity is one of the main factors behind the brutality being unleashed on the Rohingyas. When Hindus, Jews or Christians are persecuted anywhere, the countries with populations of their religions rise up in protest. Bangladesh has the right to organise strong protest at the OIC and such forums. If it hesitates to do so, it will lose a golden opportunity to mobilise public opinion on an international level.
The government has to proceed with utmost acumen and skill to put pressure on Myanmar to resolve the problem by means of implementing the Kofi Annan commission report. The interests of any individual or party must certainly be put to one side.
* Asif Nazrul is a professor at the law department, Dhaka University. This column, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.