Savage attacks against Muslim minority group were 'ethnic cleansing', says Tillerson
The United States declared the violence and atrocities against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar to be a campaign of "ethnic cleansing," and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that US sanctions may be forthcoming.
Mr Tillerson blamed the Myanmar military and security forces as well as local vigilantes for what he called "horrendous atrocities" that have caused more than 600,000 Rohingya to flee Myanmar's western Rakhine state for the safety of neighbouring Bangladesh. But he placed most of the criticism on the government, demanding the security forces respect human rights and punish the guilty.
"Those responsible for these atrocities must be held accountable," he said in a statement, reiterating his call for an independent investigation into what has caused a refugee crisis in which Rohingya men have been executed, women raped and their babies murdered.
"The United States will also pursue accountability through US law, including possible targeted sanctions," he added, suggesting sanctions might be directed against specific Myanmar officials.
Many members of Congress and human rights groups had been urging Mr Tillerson for months to adopt the "ethnic cleansing" terminology.
UN Secretary General António Guterres designated it as such in mid-September. French President Emmanuel Macron has called it genocide. Amnesty International has called the violence in Myanmar "dehumanising apartheid," and Human Rights Watch has termed it crimes against humanity.
State Department officials noted that ethnic cleansing is not recognised inter-nationally as a crime and triggers no punitive measures against Myanmar, which is also known as Burma. But it sets the stage to exert more pressure on Myanmar officials if they fail to take actions such as giving humanitarian groups and the press access to Rakhine state and guaranteeing safety to those who voluntarily return home.
Mr Tillerson made a brief visit last week to Myanmar, where he talked with state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the head of the armed forces.
The Myanmar military has denied committing atrocities during "clearance operations" to battle Muslim insurgents in the predominantly Buddhist nation. An internal investigation cleared the military of any wrongdoing.
Human rights groups applauded Mr Tillerson's decision to start using the term "ethnic cleansing", but they said more action was needed.
Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International, said the move could be used by Washington to pressure other countries to take stronger measures, including a global arms embargo and the end of military-to-military relations.
"Secretary Tillerson's statement is a necessary first step," he said. "However, until the abuses against the Rohingya people end and full access is given to the international humanitarian aid and the UN fact-finding mission, such pressure and requisite actions will continue to be essential."
Joanne Lin, head of advocacy and government relations for Amnesty International USA, said Mr Tillerson's acknowledgment of ethnic cleansing set an example for how to respond.
"The time for outrage and condemnation has passed," she said. "The international community must impose a comprehensive arms embargo and targeted financial sanctions against senior Myanmar military officials responsible for crimes against humanity."
Ms Lin also urged the US to introduce a UN Security Council resolution calling for an embargo and sanctions, and to pressure Bangladesh to loosen its registration rules so humanitarian groups can get more aid workers on the ground.
The term "ethnic cleansing" is largely descriptive and dates from the conflict in the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia. At the time, a UN commission defined it as "rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove people of given groups from the area."
The timing of Mr Tillerson's statement was rife with symbolism. It coincided with the International Criminal Court's sentencing of former Bosnia Serb commander Ratko Mladic, who was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, to life in prison.
© The Washington Post