Minority Rights Summer School Highlights Plight of the Rohingyas

I was the organiser for this year’s Minority Rights Summer School, held at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, NUI Galway, from 13th-17th June. It was the eleventh year of the School, which always attracts an interesting group of academics, students, activists and lobbyists, as well as those with a general interest in minority and indigenous rights and the role of human rights law in promoting equality and diversity. The programme this year saw a range of speakers, including a full day of sessions dedicated to a forum on indigenous peoples’ rights with contributions from scholars and practitioners.

Other topics included the rights of women within Islam, genocide, multiculturalism, defamation of religion, the Turkish accession debate, caste-based discrimination, minorities and the UN procedures, migrant workers in the Gulf and the Naxalite conflict in India. In all an eclectic mix which reflects the current vibrancy of the minority rights and indigenous rights discourse.

A major aspect of the programme was a morning session (funded by Irish Aid) on the Rohingyas, a Muslim minority of about 800,000 in Arakan/Rakhine State in Western Burma. Many Rohingyas have fled Burma due to severe state repression, and they reside in refugee camps scattered across several states, including Bangladesh, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. Some of these refugees are documented, although the vast majority are undocumented, and have been rendered stateless, a condition which exacerbates their near total lack of any legal rights. Their plight was highlighted in 2009 following global media coverage of the case of the ‘boat people’, where hundreds of Rohingyas attempting to reach Thailand by boat were cut adrift by the Thai navy.

A series of presentations by Amal de Chickera and Stefanie Grant of the Equal Rights Trust in London, and Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project based in Bangkok, Thailand, vividly set out the pattern of abuse and despair that led to the conclusion that the Rohingyas’ plight requires urgent highlighting in the international context. This was underlined by the presentation of an Irish Centre for Human Rights report, led by Joseph Powderly, Nancie Prud’homme and Prof. William Schabas, which discussed their findings following research in Burma, Bangladesh and Thailand, that there is conclusive evidence of crimes against humanity taking place in Arakan state. The report, entitled ‘Crimes Against Humanity in Western Burma: The Case of the Rohingyas’, can be accessed here; the findings need to be disseminated as widely as possible, so I would urge followers of this blog to read it and to raise awareness where possible.

The Summer School heard how the conclusions of crimes against humanity were not reached lightly; these were experts in international criminal law not given to hyperbole. The Report concluded that there was clear evidence of forced labour, deportation and forcible transfer, rape and sexual violence and persecution being perpetrated on the Rohingyas in Burma, in a widespread or systematic manner in accordance with the Rome Statute definitions.

There was much discussion at the Summer School of the need for urgent action on this issue. Burma’s international isolation renders UN mechanisms difficult to engage, however there was some discussion over the treatment of Rohingyas in other states, such as Bangladesh, and the potential for redress -for example by activating the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s early warning mechanism (Bangladesh has ratified ICERD). This and other action is critical; the scenes from the documented and undocumented stateless Rohingya camps in Bangladesh were harrowing, as shown in a presentation by Ms Chris Lewa, for many years the sole campaigner on this issue.

As the report concludes: “it is time for adequate attention to be given to the plight of the Rohingyas… People committing, allowing, aiding and abetting these crimes must be held accountable. The international community has a responsibility to protect the Rohingyas, to respond to the allegations of crimes against humanity, and to ensure that violations and impunity do not persist for another generation.”

Minority Rights Summer School Highlights Plight of the Rohingyas

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