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US condemns 'ethnic cleansing' of Rohingya

November 22, 2017

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has accused the military of Myanmar of subjecting the country's Rohingya population to "ethnic cleansing." The UN has referred to the events in Myanmar in such terms for two months.

USA Tillerson dementiert Rücktrittsgedanken
Image: Reuters/Y. Gripas

The United States issued on Wednesday its strongest condemnation to date of the violence against Rohingya in Myanmar.

"After a careful and thorough analysis of available facts, it is clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,"  US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement.

Speaking of "abuses" that had occurred, Tillerson said the United States would consider targeted sanctions against those responsible.

"No provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities that have ensued," Tillerson said.

The United States suspended government travel to the restive Rakhine state, citing concerns over potential protests.

Read moreRohingya crisis: Rex Tillerson urges probe into atrocities

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh
More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled MyanmarImage: Reuters/A. Abidi

A top UN official, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, had described the military actions against Myanmar's stateless Rohingya populations as a textbook case of "ethnic cleansing" back in September 2017.

Amnesty International meanwhile chose the term "apartheid" to describe the goings-on in Myanmar.

During his visit to the region last week, Tillerson stressed that Myanmar's response to the crisis would be vital to determining the success of its transition to becoming "a more democratic society" and that those responsible for such human rights abuses must be held accountable.

Refugee crisis in poorest region of the world

More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled the mainly Buddhist country since the military launched a counterinsurgency operation in Rakhine state in late August 2017. The military operation against the Rohingya has triggered a major refugee crisis in the region.

Most Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, which is one of the world's poorest countries.

Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi and Rex Tillerson
The US Secretary of State chose less accusatory terms during his meeting with Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi last weekImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo

Myanmar's army insists that it has only targeted Rohingya rebels during so-called "clearance operations" following a series of insurgent attacks on 30 police posts and an army base. But the large number of refugees in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh paint a different picture, with refugees reporting widespread murder, rape and arson at the hands of security forces as well as Buddhist mobs. 

Aung San Suu Kyi under pressure

Myanmar's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has also been subject to criticism by rights groups over her failure to condemn the military crackdown. Washington says that Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi has a crucial role to play in tackling the crisis but has been careful to focus blame on the army.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein
The UN's human rights commissioner, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, labeled the violence as "ethnic cleansing" two months agoImage: Reuters/P. Albouy

Tillerson also highlighted that the United States supports an independent investigation of the events and has said it would pursue action through US law, including possible targeted sanctions.

Tillerson stressed, however, that he wasn't advocating "broad-based economic sanctions" against the entire nation.

Sanctions on the Southeast Asian nation were eased under former President Barack Obama as the country took initial steps toward transitioning to democracy.

But in early November, US lawmakers revisited bans on Myanmar, including travel restrictions on military officials.

What is 'ethnic cleansing'?

The term "ethnic cleansing" first surfaced in the context of the 1990s conflict in former Yugoslavia, when a UN commission defined it as "rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area."

However, the label "ethnic cleansing" doesn't carry specific legal requirements for the US.

Tillerson's declaration followed a lengthy review process by the Trump administration to determine whether the violence met the threshold to be considered ethnic cleansing. But the US State Department has not yet determined whether the violence constitutes "crimes against humanity" or "genocide."

According to the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention, "ethnic cleansing" is not recognized as an independent crime under international law either - unlike "crimes against humanity" and "genocide."

ss/kms (AFP, AP, Reuters)