ASEAN can act on Rohingya

By Usman Hamid

The recent violence in Myanmar bears all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing. Myanmar’s security forces are engaged in a vicious and disproportionate campaign, burning down whole villages and firing at random at Rohingya as they are trying to flee.

But beyond the immediate humanitarian emergency, the situation can also teach us a meaningful lesson about noninterference and human rights.

The principle of “noninterference in internal affairs,” which features prominently in speeches by ASEAN leaders, is long established in international law. But the view that it is an absolute principle that trumps all others was abandoned by the international community many decades ago, once the scope and scale of the mass atrocities of World War II became known.

In 1970, the United Nations secretary-general at the time said that “obligations under the [UN] Charter must include any humanitarian action that he can take to save the lives of large numbers of human beings.” The name of that secretary-general was U Thant from Burma, now known as Myanmar.

So, noninterference does not mean that any country can do to its own population anything it wants, including attacking civilians. Countries with any self-respect cannot simply watch as the state next door commits unlawful acts amounting to crimes against humanity and be silent in the name of noninterference.

Massive human rights violations and crimes against humanity are never a domestic affair. The right to life and liberty, freedom from discrimination and other key human rights must be defended by all countries around the world.

We are seeing a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding on both sides of the Myanmar-Bangladesh border; every effort must be taken to keep it from worsening.

Myanmar, however, continues to hide behind the principle of noninterference to justify these crimes in the name of “fighting terrorists.” The government makes every attempt to dodge international scrutiny by, for example, refusing to provide access to a United Nations fact-finding mission established earlier this year, to examine what is really going on in Rakhine State and elsewhere in the country.

Other ASEAN members cannot allow Myanmar to continue playing this game.

Even the ASEAN Charter, while including “noninterference in the internal affairs of ASEAN member states” as a leading principle, does so alongside the principle of “respect for fundamental freedoms, the promotion and protection of human rights, and the promotion of social justice” — not above it. Thus noninterference is a fine principle as long as a state upholds its human rights obligations — if it doesn’t, that principle would not shelter it from scrutiny, criticism and other action by states, both within ASEAN and outside it.

In fact, the ASEAN Charter holds the clue to what other member states may do to trigger a significant response to the crisis in Myanmar. Article 20 (4) states, “In the case of a serious breach of the Charter or noncompliance, the matter shall be referred to the ASEAN Summit for decision.”

Myanmar has clearly violated the human rights commitment it is obliged to uphold under the ASEAN Charter. ASEAN leaders should therefore convene an emergency summit on how to end the violations, ensure humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees in Rakhine and those displaced within Myanmar, the safe return of any of the Rohingyas wishing to do so to their homes and resolving the core causes of the crisis, among them the entrenched discrimination against the Rohingya and the poverty, poor infrastructure and need of sustainable development in the state as a whole.

Myanmar’s fight against the Rohingya armed group does not and cannot justify attacks against the civilian population. Such attacks must be investigated, not ignored; perpetrators must be brought to justice, in fair trials, and victims ensured reparations.

The Rakhine crisis has also impacted other countries. In Indonesia, for example, the violence has heated up the majority-minority debate and given an excuse to hard-line groups such as the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) to threaten to besiege the Borobudur Buddhist temple in Magelang, Central Java, in revenge for the suffering of the Rohingya Muslims, a minority group in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

Indonesia has commendably sent US$2 million in humanitarian relief to the Rohingya people in Rakhine and Bangladesh. It must, however, continue to call for full and unfettered access for humanitarian actors to all parts of Rakhine.

In addition, Indonesia should also press Myanmar to comply with recent UN Security Council calls to immediately end the violence in Rakhine.

But ultimately, the only solution to the Rakhine crisis lies on Myanmar’s side of the border. Indonesia and the international community must put the noninterference principle aside and pressure Myanmar to make every effort to address the long-standing and systematic discrimination in Rakhine, which has left people trapped in a cycle of violence and destitution.

For the sake of fairness, following its calls in the Rohingya crisis, Indonesia should also comply with the noninterference principle in its domestic affairs by not resisting any international scrutiny in recurring human rights violations in Papua.

Usman Hamid is the director of Amnesty International Indonesia

This article was first published by The Jakarta Post on September 19, 2017