Crime or Conflict: Differing Perspectives on the Role of Human Rights in Rakhine State

By Sanjeev Dasgupta

Most international actors view the Rohingya question as first and foremost a human rights issue. Large concerns exist with respect to targeted violence and ethnic cleansing, with some actors even arguing that there are signs of the possibility of genocide in Rakhine. Such arguments also give rise to questions about justice and accountability since any kind of grave human rights violations will have perpetrators to be dealt with. There is, however, a disconnect between the international perspective on the situation – particularly from the international NGOs who have prepared reports and undertaken advocacy efforts on the issue – and the view of domestic actors, such as the central government in Naypyitaw. The government looks at the Rohingya question as more of a conflict between ethnic groups in Rakhine state. Its efforts approach the issue from a broader perspective and consider issues like development as well as the security of all ethnic groups in the state. In many ways, this disconnect reflects the tensions between different approaches to resolving the problem in Rakhine, and lays bare some of the trade-offs associated with them. Ultimately, a balance between the two perspectives, an approach that appears to be possible through the recently established Rakhine Commission, might be the best path going forward.

A traditional human rights approach is based on the fundamental understanding that in cases of group persecution there is a “crime” – and hence a perpetrator to hold accountable. A crime would mean that some kind of law has been violated. A Human Rights Watch report on the Rohingya question gives stark evidence about this approach. The report talks about crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, both crimes under international law. It also talks about the denial of citizenship, something that also goes against fundamental international human rights principles enlisted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights violators – in this case “native” inhabitants of Rakhine who have perpetrated systematic violence against the Rohingya – must be held accountable in some way and the HRW report proposes a number of ways in which this could be done. For example, it talks about providing “unfettered access to [Rakhine] state for the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Burma.”

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during the "Peace Talk" at the Myanmar International Convention Centre in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017. Nearly a dozen fellow Nobel peace laureates on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016, criticized Myanmar leader Suu Kyi, saying she has failed to ensure equal rights for the minority Rohingya people in Rakhine state, where the group says more than 30,000 people have been displaced amid an unfolding humanitarian crisis. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo)

Such an approach, while seemingly just in this case, faces a number of challenges. Firstly, like in most cases of gross human rights violations, state sovereignty poses a paradoxical challenge. Naypyitaw is one of the most important stakeholders in the problem and the government’s involvement is key to finding any sort of solution. Neutral international bodies cannot enter Myanmar without the permission of the central government. However, Naypyitaw has also been complicit in many of the human rights violations and so will be extremely circumspect on what international organizations active in the country are doing. This is why independent NGOs such as Human Rights Watch can openly condemn actors in the central government but bodies such as the UN can’t. At the end of the day, the UN still has to work with the central government and a hardline human rights stance will not help promote any kind of dialogue with the central government.

Secondly, a traditional hardline human rights approach can oversimplify the situation by dividing the actors into two groups – victims and perpetrators. There is no denying that gross human rights violations are occurring in Rakhine against the Rohingya – and have been occurring for decades – and these “perpetrators” do need to be held accountable. However, Rakhine politics is extremely complicated. There are complex questions of demography and identity that have given rise to the present ethnic tensions. And the most important role is probably played by the lack of development. If one does look at development as a human right – as has been argued by many international actors – then the lack of development would also constitute a human rights violation, but with a very different set of “victims” and “perpetrators.” This complicated picture is where a different perspective that views the problem more as a “conflict” between various stakeholders rather than just a “crime” perpetrated by a set of actors might become useful.

Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, center, listens to a Rohingya religious and community leader as he is explained the situation in the Internally Displaced People's camps as the Rakhine Advisory Commission visits a camp in Thetkabyin village, outside Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state. Annan is visiting as part of a commission set up last month to help find solutions to "protracted issues" in western Rakhine state, where human rights groups have documented widespread abuses by majority Rakhine Buddhists against minority Rohingya Muslims. (AP Photo/Esther Htusan)

The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, a joint effort of the Ministry of the Office of the State Counsellor of Myanmar and the Kofi Annan Foundation, was born from a similar understanding. There is no denying the fact that the central government benefits from the functioning of the commission in this manner since it can help reduce the tag of “perpetrator” that organizations such as HRW have instilled upon it. However, there is also no denying that a complicated situation like the one seen in Rakhine might actually benefit from this multi-stakeholder mission. As the commission’s website states, it “aims to propose concrete measures for improving the welfare of all the people of Rakhine state” (emphasis added). For its final report due to the Government of Myanmar in the second half of 2017, it will consider “humanitarian and developmental issues, access to basic services, legal questions including citizenship and the assurance of basic rights and security to all people in all communities.”

The Commission has not been free of criticism. After the announcement for its launch in September of last year, certain domestic groups criticized the commission for including international members. Some members of the international community also criticized it as just an effort from Suu Kyi to get critics off her back. However, many groups and individuals have also come out in strong support of the commission reflecting at least some sort of legitimacy among the various stakeholders in the process. This includes Rohingya-affiliated groups such as the Arakan Rohingya Union as well as international NGOs such as Amnesty International. Along with its support, however, Amnesty International also stressed that the commission “should investigate decades of discrimination against minorities in Rakhine State, ensure accountability, recommend reparations and lead efforts at reconciliation.”

Amnesty’s statement sheds light on some of the biggest concerns human rights groups have with such processes. From their perspective, such an approach in which human rights violators are allowed to participate – and even become benefactors – in the process almost rewards the brutality that they have exhibited. In this case, their concerns might be that groups who have targeted the Rohingya with violence might get away with their actions under broader considerations of stability in the region. And they might even benefit in the long run from development policies undertaken by the government. This is why the call for accountability is central to their position. On the other hand, not including these “perpetrators” at all would not be beneficial to the problem since they could easily destabilize any process aimed to bring long-lasting peace. Regardless of whether or not their perceptions on the problem are justified, they must be acknowledged since to ignore their concerns or needs leaves the possibility of ongoing violence as the “perpetrators” seek to pursue a solution that they see as just.

These are both legitimate concerns and suggest that there are strong tensions between the “crime” and “conflict” approaches. And indeed there are if the two sides adopt hardline stances on their positions. The “crime” side could be adamant about not having perpetrators involved while the “conflict” side could be more than willing to trade-off accountability for peace. This is where the Rakhine Commission can become very successful. The Commission does have its roots in the “conflict” side of the paradigm but importantly includes the question of human rights violations in its mandate. Theoretically, the commission should be able to have significant impact on the Rohingya question. But this is only if it is able to maintain this delicate balance between the two sides by continuing to give importance to human rights considerations along with those of development and stability. It will have to maintain its legitimacy with all the stakeholders, but also be willing to make tough calls to point out human rights violations where they have occurred. This might be the only way the Rohingya question can move forward positively in the near future.