The Rohingya Exodus: Who is the Subject of the Responsibility to Protect?


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The Rohingya Exodus: Who is the Subject of the Responsibility to Protect?
Igor Milić – University of Trento, School of International Studies, Graduate Student. ASRIE Geopolitical Report Volume, 2018.

Since International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) defined the responsibility to protect (R2P) in 2001, the doctrine has been constantly debated. With regard to unilateral humanitarian intervention of the 1990s, the R2P was envisaged as a legal way of reshaping state sovereignty through rethinking the traditional idea thereof and repudiating unconditionally the absolutist one (Bellamy, 2009:8-35).1 The answer to this challenge was the idea of sovereignty as responsibility and the debate on sovereignty and human rights seemed to have reached its epilogue.

Yet, since the intervention in Libya (2011), the debate on both the theoretical background and the practical implications has been suddenly rekindled, notwithstanding the prior authorisation by the Security Council of the UN. A new challenge emerged: the possibility of abuse of mandates.

Today, the impression is that the doctrine has inherent limits, which are, arguably and quite paradoxically, also its strong points. This can be observed in the case of the Myanmar’s Rohingya2, as it befits perfectly the idea that the exodus of a stateless people represents the paradigm of the excess of responsibility, both a nodal point of the preventability of R2P and a starting point for its unpretentious and self-critical perfectibility.

The first part tries to reshape the theoretical framework of the R2P, the final aim being that of understanding where the R2P stems from as well as that of identifying its points of undecidability. The second part tackles the Rohingya crisis from both a social and historical perspective, whereas the last one points towards an unresolved and potentially unresolvable conundrum of the doctrine which the exodus in question has just exacerbated.

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P): Where are We Today? Any Caveats?  In Kofi Annan’s famous doubtful claim ‘if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica – to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?’ (Annan, 2000:34)3, a number of problematic points might have been consciously underlined and others potentially overlooked. No doubt probably highlights better the agony of more than half a million people which have recently fled Myanmar.

The Rohingya Crisis: What Went Wrong?  For all the ongoing debate on the origin of the Rohingya, on their historical co-existence with the Rakhine Buddhists, who are not to be confused with the Buddhist majority in Myanmar, namely the Bamar, one thing seems certain: the situation dramatically changed for the worse from the Second World War on. After a period in which citizenship was automatically assigned under the 1948 U Nu government’s Union Citizenship Act which had no reference to ethnicity (Zarni & Cowley, 2014:18), all of a sudden the Rohingya have seen it denied, both politically and legally, since the military seized power in 1962. Ne Win’s Operation Nagamin (“Dragon King”) in 1978 and the 1982 Citizenship Act, which discriminates on the basis of ethnicity (Zawacki, 2013:18)15, are the most telling examples of this wave of oppression. There has been a number of episodes of violence ever since: 1992, 2001, 2009, 2012 (Ibid. 20), to which the present-day crisis, probably the most ferocious one, must be added. The latter culminated on 25 August 2017, when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), formerly Harakah al-Yaqin (“Faith Movement” (Saikia, 2017)16, HaY), attacked police posts on the border with Bangladesh (ICG, 2017).17 Simultaneously, Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State (ACRS, 2017)18, appointed a year before by Aung San Suu Kyi in order to explore the reignited violence in northern Rakhine State (NRS), was submitting its final report.

Given that the 2014 Myanmar Population and Housing Census (RUM, 2014), the first since 1983, made no reference to the Rohingya, the reliance on estimates says that around 85 percent of the population, or 624,000 people, fled to Bangladesh (ICG, 2017) in the aftermath of the attacks. The gravity of the situation was such that the Secretary General sent the first official letter to the Security Council since 1989: the international community, he wrote, has the responsibility to prevent further escalation of the crisis (Ibid.). A week later, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights used the following words: “the situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” (OHCHR, 2017).19 The Rohingya crisis being all about denominators, it is important to note the language used: as Gareth Evans points out, “[i]n contrast with [genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes], ‘ethnic cleansing’ has no formal legal definition” (Evans, 2009:12-13). Even Pope Francis has been criticised for failing to utter the contested designation (The Guardian, 2017), whereas some time earlier the Security Council released an official statement on the situation in Myanmar, referring explicitly to “the Rohingya community” (SC/13055, 2017).

In light of the current immobility and evasion of responsibility on the “Rohingya crisis” (Reuters, 2017), there seems to be no doubt about the incoherence in the defence of ASEAN’s notorious golden rule and Jones’ prophetic point on the matter. This new concept, namely R2P, has been called for in the Myanmar case for at least a decade now, on account of a wide variety of reasons. Yet, the Secretary General’s first official letter to the Security Council since 1989, dated 2 September 2017, bears important implications for the correct reading of the current situation: the international community, he wrote, has the responsibility to prevent further escalation of the crisis.

This paradox probably led to the implosion the Rohingya crisis: the outcome is the present-day blurred context of mixed responsibilities, the one to protect and to rebuild, with a shy reliance on the second pillar of the R2P (BBC, 2017; CNN, 2018). Nevertheless, the interpretation of this ambiguity could be at least twofold: on the one hand, if the R2P stands for the responsibility to protect one’s own citizens, it is shockingly clear that Myanmar could become exempted from protecting the Rohingya whom it has rendered stateless in an era of absolutist sovereignty. On the other hand, the apparent ambiguity could also be thought of as a way to reinforce the integrity and dignity of the human person.


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