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  • Dr. Richard Quinlan

Ignoring “Never Again”: America and Contemporary Genocide

October 20, 2022

Rohingya refugees arrive in Bangladesh from Myanmar. [Credit: AFP]

In a September 2001 issue of The Atlantic, author, diplomatic, and professor of Global Leadership and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, Samantha Power wrote a scathing article titled “Bystanders to Genocide” concerning the Clinton administration’s slow response to the horrific genocide in Rwanda. Power commented that, “the slaughter never received the top-level attention it deserved.”[1] While the lack of humanitarian actions during the butchering of Hutus by Tutsis was deplorable, it was a continuation of a political trend that started in the United States decades before Clinton made his apologetic address to Rwandans in 1998.[2] A similar lack of willingness to step in and assist people in need is currently playing out in Myanmar. In 2017, the Myanmar government tumbled due to a military coup and the widespread persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, began with bloodthirsty intensity. Although leaders within the U.S. government knew what was transpiring in Myanmar, the Trump administration refused to call the killings what they were, namely a genocide. While it is easy to consider this yet another misstep during the disconcerted years of the Trump administration, the refusal to assist the Rohingya in a meaningful manner only illuminated America’s repeated failures in combatting genocide around the world.

In 1972, President Richard Nixon knew about and took an interest in the Burundian genocide that afflicted that nation. However, Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, downplayed U.S. involvement in this mass killing, describing America’s relationship with Burundi as “microscopic” and referenced how the U.S. buys “some coffee” from the tiny, landlocked, East African country. Kissinger made it clear that if a nation is not economically viable and beneficial for the United States, people can be left free to kill each other by the thousands. Tragically, the events of Myanmar are just another example of America’s history of hesitancy to rightfully denounce acts of genocide, even as they play out in real time across social media platforms. In March 2022, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, took a bold but disturbingly tardy step by finally labeling the events in Myanmar against the Rohingya what they have been since the birth of the crisis: a genocide. He did so at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which could be interpreted as solemn understanding of the gravity of the violence facing those targeted in Myanmar, or a heavy-handed political act done to perhaps inspire a sense of faith that the United States was finally on the proper side of history concerning the atrocity that befell this viciously marginalized group.[3] As of the spring of 2022, the International Criminal Court has determined that over 740,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, a nation not fully equipped to handle such a massive influx of displaced people.[4] Human Rights Watch reported that at least 1,600 people have been murdered by the Myanmar government along with forced disappearances, detention, and the denial of international aid to those in the most desperate need, including Rohingya that have remained within Myanmar.[5]

Following the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader of an experimental democratic Myanmar, a military coup launched in February 2021 shattered the optimism Myanmar had inspired and brought the nation under martial law. Shockingly, either through coercion or simply a lack of recognition of the reality occurring on the ground, Suu Kyi refused to label the actions of the military against the Rohingya as a genocide, a lack of action that gave nations such as the United States an opportunity to exhale and relieve them of a mandatory statement of calling out the truth. The United States, like many other nations, do not have a clearly defined set of criteria for determining a mass atrocity as a genocide despite the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide that went into effect in 1951, which defined genocide as a collection of acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.[6] The inclusion of the phrase “or in part” should be enough to force the hand of countries such as the United States to formally declare the destruction of human life like that seen in Myanmar as a “genocide”. Instead, due to the vague nature of America’s qualifications of genocidal actions, other euphemisms have been used, phrases such as “ethnic cleansing”. The reality for the United States is that it needs to reflect renewed, global leadership following four unsettled years under then-President Donald Trump, which saw a separation from traditional European allies and a more isolationist international policy.

Aung San Suu Kyi [Source: BBC News/EPA]

The Biden Administration’s willingness to officially recognize and honor the events of the Armenian genocide was a significant step in America’s willingness to see the truth and label it for what it is.The decision to label an event a genocide is a significant act, for it risks angering other global powers and even trade partners. By acknowledging the ongoing massacre and displacement of the Rohingya, the United States puts its already uneasy relationship with China under greater strain. However, while it is naïve to believe that governments with select morality over money or humanity over global influence, if the United States hopes to reassert itself as a nation committed to the values of freedom and hope, it must become not just a mouthpiece, but the loudest voice that does not quiver in the face of accepting the blood-soaked realities of unspeakable violence against the innocent. Richard Nixon, for all his faults, understood that genocide cannot be tolerated anywhere, regardless of the size of economic impact of a country. The Biden administration should be given a muted celebration for finally using “genocide” to reflect the killing of the Rohingya, but one must still ask why such obvious acts of destructive violence remain so difficult to condemn.

[1] Samantha Power. “Bystanders to Genocide” The Atlantic. [2] “Text of Clinton’s Rwanda Speech”, March 25, 1998.

[3] Timothy McLaughlin. “Why the U.S. Finally called the Genocide in Myanmar a “Genocide”. The Atlantic, March 21, 2022. [4] “Myanmar: US Recognizes Genocide Against Rohingya”. 3/21/22 Accessed 9/23/22,Human%20Rights%20Watch%20said%20today. [5] Ibid


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