Rule of Law, Statelessness and Human Rights: The Rohingya Minority Case

Earlier this month another eruption of violence occurred against Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine province of Myanmar. The Buddhist inhabitants lynched and killed 48 Rohingya, with state authorities looking the other way. This incident is the latest in a series of violent attacks that have flared up since 2012, but which date back to at least the 1970s.

At the heart of the problem lies the question of citizenship: are the Rohingya citizens of Myanmar? And if they are not, does that mean they cannot count on protection against discrimination, unjust treatment and personal attacks?

The situation of the Rohingya people is without doubt severe. Besides physical attacks by angry mobs of Buddhist co-inhabitants, their legal status and unequal treatment have caused many of them to flee the country to refugee camps across the borders of Bangladesh, Thailand and, alternatively, in Malaysia. The approximately one million people still living in Rakhine province face discrimination, are not allowed to own land, travel around freely or have more than two children. This shows that violence against them goes beyond incidents of enraged individuals, but it includes systematic and state organized violations of their human rights.

The government of Myanmar seems unwilling to protect the Rohingya, to say the least. Its position is to refrain from preventing violence, maintain the repressive and discriminatory regulations and oppose international appeals to improve the situation. The government was very quick to respond negatively to a UN General Assembly Resolution in November 2013, requesting the granting of citizenship to the Rohingya and their active protection from violence, arguing that this Resolution was a clear infringement on Myanmar’s sovereignty.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, recently pleaded for a ‘full, prompt and impartial investigation and [to] ensure that victims and their families receive justice. By responding to these incidents quickly and decisively, the government has an opportunity to show transparency and accountability, which will strengthen democracy and the rule of law in Myanmar’.

In anticipation of the Secretary-General’s Guidance Note on the United Nations and Statelessness in June 2011, the UN Rule of Law unit and UNHCR organized a panel discussion, at which occasion it was stipulated that ‘Although certain specific rights are reserved for citizens, all individuals are entitled to the protection of their fundamental human rights’.

From the many examples and cases discussed, however, it was shown that in practice statelessness often results in the denial of fundamental rights. And that is exactly why the international community should remain alert and continue to offer criticism of abuses, making sure that even countries that have not signed the 1954 and 1961 Conventions on the Reduction of Statelessness are serious about protecting people, not only citizens.

Continued appeals to grant the Rohingya Myanmar citizenship by the international community are of vital importance for finding a real solution, in a situation where the national government is reluctant to give in, but at the same time is interested in being portrayed before the global community as a democracy and economically relevant partner.

Meanwhile, national and international NGOs play a key role in educating the public and raising awareness about the protection of fundamental human rights, rule of law and democracy, including within Myanmar, whose population has been subject to a long history of human rights violations. Top-down appeals and bottom-up awareness might just give the right incentive to the Myanmar government to step up and find a solution which is beneficial to all parties involved.

Further Reading

Completed: Global Governance Reform Initiative

The Global Governance Reform Initiative (GGRI), a collaboration between  The Hague Institute for Global Justice, The Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Observer Research Foundation…