Secretary of State Rex Tillerson forcibly condemned the Myanmar military’s brutal crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority last week, but he has consistently failed to call it ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity.
And that means President Donald Trump’s upcoming 12-day visit to Asia in early November comes as his administration dances around what to call the brutal violence tearing apart a country without doing much to actually try to stop it.
More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims — 60 percent of whom are children — have fled for the border of Bangladesh since the end of August because of a systematic pattern of organized violence carried out by the Myanmar military. The refugees carry with them unfathomable stories of mass shootings, murdered babies, whole villages burned to the ground, and gang rape. The widespread violence led the world to call upon Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to condemn her military; she has not only failed to do so but has questioned the very need to do so.
UNICEF representative Sakil Faizullah described to me the drawings of the children in the refugee camps by Skype from the Bangladesh border. “They are drawing bullets being shot. They are drawing helicopters flying over and they are drawing fire," he told me Thursday afternoon. “With green crayon they are drawing human figures and with red crayon they are drawing blood marks.”
That makes the disconnect between the Trump administration's rhetoric and actual policy all the more striking.
“We really hold the military leadership accountable for what's happening with the Rakhine area," Tillerson said on October 18. “What's most important to us is the world can't just stand idly by and be witness to the atrocities that are being reported in that area."
Those are strong words, to be sure. The question is whether he will receive — and abide by — an expected recommendation from his State Department to apply harsher language and call out Myanmar for ethnic cleansing.
While the administration deliberates tweaking our official language, other world leaders have gone a lot further, and have done so a lot sooner. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres designated the atrocities as ethnic cleansing back on September 13. French President Emmanuel Macron called Myanmar’s actions a genocide on September 20. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both called the atrocities crimes against humanity for weeks.
But not the US State Department. Instead, the Trump administration has consistently offered softened messages. “The violence has been characterized by many as ethnic cleansing,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Murphy said in a press briefing on Tuesday. That’s a pretty contorted way of not saying something.
Many senators are saying enough is enough: In an emailed statement, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) went so far as to tell me that he considered the violence to be "genocide."
To be clear, these aren’t just words. Crimes against humanity, and genocide are specific legal terms that would require the United States to make a move to protect the population at risk and penalize the perpetrators. As Philippe Sands, an international human rights lawyer who wrote about the origins of the two terms in his important book East West Street, told the Atlantic last year, “Crimes against humanity focuses on the ... systematic, mass killing of a very large number of individuals,” but “[g]enocide has a different focus. Genocide focuses not on the killing of individuals.” That means, he continued, “One aims at protecting the individual; the other aims at protecting the group.”
Tillerson's upcoming decision on whether to use either of those phrases would change not just how the US designates the mass atrocities in Myanmar but also how far Washington would go to stop them.
There’s a reason people care about labeling atrocities
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting Monday, Sens. Markey, Jeff Merkley, Tim Kaine, Ben Cardin, and Cory Gardner pushed Murphy for a shift in both language and policy.
In his comments to me, Markey called on the administration to put Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the Myanmarese military, on what’s known as the “SDN list” — the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List — which blocks assets of the person in question and curtails their travel.
“Putting Gen. Min on the SDN list,” Markey said, “would send a clear signal to those responsible for these atrocities that they cannot act with impunity.”
Likewise, Kaine began his Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing speech Tuesday noting the State Department is still discussing if they can use the term ethnic cleansing and made a point of noting Macron had used the term “genocide” in September.
Cardin took a similar tack on the Senate floor Thursday, warning that the perpetrators of violence "expect impunity" because the United States has been slow to act.
Cardin is correct that there are two things happening: mass atrocities and a growing humanitarian disaster. Sakhil Faizullah, the UNICEF representative, tried to give me a sense of the scale. The 600,000 people who have come to Bangladesh since August are now occupying a swath of land “equivalent to 889 football stadiums,” he said. They need 9 million liters of drinking water a day, as well as huge quantities of food. And the money is beginning to dry up.
But the need has only grown as the atrocities continue. Refugees continue to arrive by the thousands in Bangladesh, a country that is itself desperately poor. And the US has yet to act, let alone change the language about the problem.
“An unequivocal statement [about ethnic cleansing] from Secretary Tillerson would centralize and elevate the concern,” explained Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. "But even then, the question of proper labeling only goes so far — the real question is what concrete steps will they take to respond to the brutal and horrific atrocities committed by the Burmese security forces.”
What are the repercussions of using these terms?
John Sifton, Margon’s colleague at Human Rights Watch, told me that the International Criminal Court in the Hague has jurisdiction over crimes against humanity, which means the perpetrators, in theory, can be brought to justice there. Ethnic cleansing like what is happening in Myanmar can fall under that description.
Crimes against humanity and genocide were both given specific legal meanings during the 20th century. The former was first referred to in 1915, coined after the Armenian genocide. But it wasn’t used in a court of law until the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg used it to prosecute Nazi war criminals.
Genocide was first used at Nuremberg as well (it was first used as a legal concept in 1943), and it is considered the worst possible legal accusation in international law. The idea was coined by a Holocaust refugee named Raphael Lemkin, whose family was murdered during the Holocaust.
Under US law since 1987, the designation of genocide requires action. Hence it is almost never invoked.
But even applying the words “ethnic cleansing” to the problem would set the stage for the United States to trigger a new round of sanctions against the regime, sanctions that had been in place until the very end of the Obama administration. Using the term, explains Heather Hurlburt, a director at New America, would “set the stage for Trump’s Asia trip next week with the perception that the US sides with UN officials (who have used the term) against not just Myanmar but other Asian governments that have not.”
It would also, she adds, be a flag to the global community that new sanctions are coming. “Ethnic cleansing,” she continues, “though not itself having formal international legal status, can be construed as a crime against humanity or evidence of genocide.”
What that may mean is that there will be a growing pressure internationally to recognize responsibilities under international law to protect and defend the innocent and persecuted.