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Denying Rights to Citizenship and Participation in Public Affairs: Genocide Risk Factors in Burma

Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State in Burma, on March 6, 2015. Courtesy of Paula Bronstein Getty Images Reportage for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

By Erin Rosenberg, Senior Advisor for the Ferencz International Justice Initiative

The government of Myanmar’s (also referred to as Burma) systematic denial of the Rohingya’s rights to citizenship and public participation indicates serious risks that genocide against the group could reoccur, according to a new Simon-Skjodt Center report.

The new report, “Denying Rights to Citizenship and Participation in Public Affairs: Genocide Risk Factors in Myanmar,” is the second in a series that examines whether Myanmar is complying with its obligation to prevent genocide under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention). 

In January 2020, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Myanmar, in what are called "provisional measures," to "take all measures within its power" to prevent genocide from (re)occuring. The Practical Prevention report series aims to identify an action agenda for Myanmar and international actors to prevent genocide by addressing a series of risk factors.  

Preventing the reoccurrence of genocide against the Rohingya is a matter of grave urgency, as numerous international actors, including the UN’s Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, have determined that, still today, “the Rohingya people remain at serious risk of genocide.”

The new report is the second in a series by the Ferencz International Justice Initiative that examines Myanmar’s genocide prevention obligations. The first report, “Identifying and Mitigating Risk Factors,” set out the series’ legal framework, which is to examine whether risk factors for genocide are present in Myanmar today and, if so, what steps Myanmar is taking to mitigage those risks. 

Read more about the Museum’s work on Burma, the Practical Prevention report series, and the ICJ case.

Which genocide risk factors does the second report address?

The second report looks at the denial of the right to citizenship and the right to participate in public affairs as genocide risk factors. The right to citizenship and to participate in public affairs are fundamental human rights contained in numerous treaties, to which Myanmar is a party,  such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as in foundational international human rights documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The right to citizenship is commonly referred to as “the right to have rights,” due to it often being the basis for people to be able to access other rights, such as freedom of movement and access to medical care. Under international human rights law, governments cannot arbitrarily deprive individuals of citizenship and may not do so on the basis of race or national or ethnic origin, which violates the principle of non-discrimination. 

The report determines that Myanmar is continuing to deny Rohingyas their right to citizenship on the basis of their ethnicity. The report analyses the various laws and procedures that Myanmar uses to accomplish this denial.

The right to participate in public affairs is a critical safeguard to preventing and stopping discriminatory government actions because it provides an avenue for targeted groups to be a part of, and potentially influence, decision-making processes that affect their rights. Under international human rights law, the right to participate in public affairs includes the right to vote, to be a candidate for office, and to be employed in the public sector.

The report concludes that Myanmar has systematically denied the Rohingya the right to participate in public affairs by, for example, disenfranchising the Rohingya from voting in elections, preventing them from running for public office, and excluding them from employment in the public sector. 

How do denials of these two rights relate to genocide?

The denial of the Rohingya’s right to citizenship encourages the rest of Myanmar society to view the Rohingya as an alien and threatening presence in their country. Similarly, the denial of the right to participate in public affairs creates a segregated society that negatively affects the manner in which the Rohingya view themselves and how they are viewed by other members of society. 

These denials of rights, and the othering and dehumanization of the Rohingya that accompany them, create an environment where additional serious human rights abuses are more likely to be committed against the Rohingya. Denial of these rights also increases their vulnerability to such violations, and increases the likelihood that the broader community will tolerate and even support violence directed against the Rohingya. In sum, these denials contribute to the formation of a society more likely to enable the re-commission of genocide against the Rohingya. 

What does the report recommend in relation to the denial of these two rights in order to prevent another genocide from occurring against the Rohingya?

August 25, 2020 marked the three year anniversary of the escalation of the 2017 genocide of the Rohingya people. Only three years removed from this horrific event, the Rohingya are at serious risk of genocide reoccurring. There are a number of concrete actions Myanmar can take to mitigate the risk of genocide reoccurring, including restoring citizenship to the Rohingya, repealing the 2015 Race and Religion Laws, and halting discriminatory policies that exclude Rohingya and Muslims from public service. 

There are also a number of actions that international actors can take to encourage Myanmar to comply with its genocide prevention obligations. For example, other states should support The Gambia’s case at the ICJ, and press Myanmar to develop a measurable and time-bound policy that restores citizenship rights of the Rohingya, comply with its obligations under the Convention of the Rights of the Child, and to create conditions that allow Rohingya refugees to return in a safe, dignified, and voluntary manner, and to claim their citizenship rights. In addition, the report recommends that the ICJ should require that Myanmar enact concrete legislative and policy changes that address the ongoing human rights violations against the Rohingya in order to comply with its provisional measures order, and issue further provisional measures if Myanmar does not comply.

Read the second report.