The Rohingya and the Responsibility to Protect: Failing an Oppressed Minority

Claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands and leaving many more stateless, the Rohingya crisis has harrowed the world since 2015.

The Rohingya community has been denied the right to citizenship since 1982 by Myanmar authorities and has been subjected to several government-led oppression schemes (Bhatia, 2018). The end of military rule and the arrival of a softer government in Myanmar was expected to be a turning point for the decades-long structural hostility. However, the latest wave of massive ethnocide against the Muslim minority in the Rakhine state has set a benchmark of unprecedented human rights violations in modern history. The onset of this recent state-perpetrated violence has by far resulted in the mass exodus of over 740,000 Rohingya refugees into neighbouring Bangladesh. Mostly settled in the Cox’s Bazar, 33% of the refugees live below the poverty line, vulnerable to climatic factors such as monsoon downpour and floods. The United Nations has repeatedly condemned the systemic discrimination and violence against the religious and ethnic minority. However, Myanmar has termed the operation as a legitimate counterinsurgency, imperative for the prevalence of peace in the country.

Although the international community concedes the presence of ‘genocidal intent’ in the military crackdown launched by Myanmar’s armed forces, no substantial action has been taken that might prevent the consequences of the ‘clearance operation’. The UN doctrine, Responsibility to Protect, was adopted by all member states in 2005, according to which the primary responsibility for the protection of the masses rests with the state in which they reside. Nevertheless, a ‘residual responsibility’ lies on the community states, in case the primary state cannot safeguard the rights of its people or is itself involved in systemic atrocities. The community states after the authorization of the UN Security Council have the right to intervene to prevent the organized genocide or war crimes . The most recent implementation of the doctrine was seen in 2011 in Libya when the world powers collectively brought down an authoritarian ruler.

Although the operation was a failure in itself, since neither the UN nor the member states of the Security Council fully adhered to the doctrine, it ended the three-decade-long dictatorial regime. In the case of Myanmar, where the intensity of institutionalized discrimination has surpassed the previous records since 2011, the international community has failed to apply the principle to prevent the ongoing ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. 

The UN’s independent Fact-Finding Mission (FFM), published on 27th August 2018, disclosed that the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar army was involved in the crackdown against the Rohingya community and its level of organization indicates the planned structure of the destruction. According to the report, the counter-terrorism stride was actually ‘the “unfinished job” of solving the “long-standing” Bengali problem’ (Human Rights Council, 2018). The Myanmar officials dubbed the document as ‘flawed and biased’ while defending their military action in the Rakhine state (“Head of Human Rights Fact‑Finding Mission on Myanmar Urges Security Council to Ensure Accountability for Serious Violations against Rohingya | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases”, 2018). 

As the report came out, the US imposed travel bans on four Burmese military commanders and two military units. The European Union and Canada sanctioned seven armed officials and pointed out the violent campaigns conducted in the Shan and Kachin states against the minorities besides the Rakhine state. Although the world powers did take a position in the conflict, no economic or diplomatic sanctions were applied on Myanmar which resulted in continuous oppression of the minority group. The launch of airstrikes on Damascus by the US, UK, and France in 2018 on humanitarian grounds following the alleged usage of chemical weapons by Assad regime against civilians while adopting the policy of abstinence from involvement in the case of Rohingya crisis point towards the two-faced commitments of the international community.

The fact that the two permanent members of the Security Council, Russia and China, have refused to take any action to prevent the ethnocide, the Rohingya crisis seems to have little chance to get resolved at least in the foreseeable future. The Western powers are reluctant to intervene on the pretext of human rights obligations as they suspect a shift from Myanmar’s current semi-democratic regime to an absolute military rule in case of any foreign meddling.

Although the de facto leader of the state has been facing widespread criticism for backtracking from her slogans of equality, justice, and freedom, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi seems to be the only alternative to an otherwise brutal military dictatorship. Furthermore, 25% of the seats in the lower house of Myanmar’s parliament are allocated for state’s military appointees, which implies that no bill can be passed into law without the support of the armed forces. Hence, the entire issue revolves around the state’s policies that are still totalitarian and promote discrimination against minorities. Provided the strong position of the armed forces at the parliamentary and administrative levels of the state, presently, there is little possibility for a major policy change.

In a series of recent developments, Myanmar’s state leaders are about to face unprecedented legal action on the Rohingya crisis. Aung San Suu Kyi, along with several other top Myanmar officials, has been named in a lawsuit under the principle of universal jurisdiction in Argentinian courts, demanding justice over ‘existential threats’ to the country’s minority. A separate case has been filed by The Gambia on behalf of OIC in the International Court of Justice against the Myanmar authorities. The International Criminal Court also approved a thorough investigation into Myanmar’s bloody 2017 military crackdown.  However, Myanmar administration termed all three cases a ‘well-organized and well-funded’ international conspiracy and has refused to comply with any of them while calling ICC’s probe, ‘a violation of international law’ (“Myanmar rejects ICC probe into alleged crimes against Rohingya”, 2019). 

In comparison to the previous cases of foreign interventions by the Western world, the Rohingya crisis is far more disastrous and violent and therefore requires a well-ordered and well-planned collective response from the foreign powers. The current situation, however, has revealed the true face of so-called freedom sloganeers as their ideologies diminish in the face of self-interest.  

Muhammad Hamza Raza is a social development and policy student at Habib University. He is currently serving as an Undergraduate Research Fellow at the Center for Trans-disciplinary Design and Innovation Lab. His areas of research include migration diaspora and transnationalism, human and civil rights, and global energy policy trends.


Bhatia, A. (2018). The Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar: When the Stateless Seek Refuge. Human Rights And The Social Determinants Of Health20(2), 105-122.

Head of Human Rights FactFinding Mission on Myanmar Urges Security Council to Ensure Accountability for Serious Violations against Rohingya | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases. (2018). Retrieved from

Human Rights Council. (2018). Report of the independent international fact-finding mission on Myanmar (pp. 1-9). Human Rights Council. Retrieved from

Myanmar rejects ICC probe into alleged crimes against Rohingya. (2019). Retrieved 17 November 2019, from

Nations, U. (2015). United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. Retrieved from

Rohingya Refugee Crisis. (2019). Retrieved from

Zawacki, B. (2018). Defining Myanmar’s “Rohingya Problem”. Retrieved from

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Filed under Accountability, Citizenship, Discussion, Human Rights, Islamophobia, Myanmar, Politics, Rohingya

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