Seventy years ago, in the wake of the unprecedented crimes of World War Two, a shaken but resolute international coalition founded the United Nations.
Its charter was conceived as an explicitly international response to the unimaginable state-organized campaigns of genocide that defined that war. The key phrase of the newly-formed international body was: “never again.” Never again, it was thought at the time, would the dark events of the Holocaust be allowed to repeat themselves.
Yet in 2018, liberal democratic societies are once again facing the same question. State-sponsored terror is again ascendant. Innocent people find themselves facing extermination in Burma, where in the “clearance operations” of August 2018 over 725,000 Rohingya were devastated and driven out by an all-out military assault.
A conservative estimate by the United Nations Fact Finding Mission lists the number of Rohingya civilians at 10,000, but the real number is almost certainly higher. At least 392 Rohingya villages were destroyed. Myanmar security forces regularly targeted children and pregnant women, indiscriminately using sexual violence as a weapon of war.
Sadly, as in the period between the World Wars, democratic governments again appear unable or unwilling to act, even as the situation escalates to new, shocking extremes. Echoes of the failed policy of “appeasement” toward the Third Reich are unmistakable.
The world sorely needs bold, globally-minded, responsible leadership. Should it want to, Australia can be such a leader.
Australia has a unique role to play in today’s crisis of democracy. As a signatory to the International Convention on Genocide and one of the regional leaders of the South Pacific, Australia could offer a powerful example of what a foreign policy with real moral integrity looks like in 2018.
Yet to date, Australia has had a consistent record of turning refugees and genocide survivors away. In the midst of the largest refugee crisis in history, the country’s sprawling shores have remained mostly closed to those seeking asylum from the gales of war, disaster, and death.
Compare this record with that of Bangladesh, a country barely half the size of the province of New South Wales while six times the population of Australia. The government and people of Bangladesh have opened their hearts and minds to almost a million Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar. There is no reason Australia could not lend a hand as well.
As the United States State Department’s own extensive, scientifically rigorous report has concluded, “The recent violence in northern Rakhine State was extreme, large-scale, widespread, and seemingly geared toward both terrorizing the population and driving out the Rohingya residents. The scope and scale of the military’s operations indicate they were well-planned and coordinated.”
It is simply undeniable that the Rohingya crisis and the actions of the Myanmar military constitute one of the worst atrocities in modern history.
As a key partner of the ASEAN and a leading country in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, Australia is in a position to assume a more responsible posture of international leadership on this key flash-point for the broader region. It can start by formally recognizing the Rohingya crisis as the most thoroughly-documented, objectively-proven genocide since the Second World War.
The world’s failure to act so far has only further emboldened Myanmar to carry out its genocidal program with impunity and without fear of any consequences. It has also prompted them to expand their extermination program to the country’s Kachin people, who are 90% Christian.
With every passing day, the number of innocent victims of state terror in Myanmar grows larger. Indirectly, inaction has also opened the door for China to persecute millions of Uyghur Muslims and throw them into internment camps. Likewise, India, following suit, recently stripped four million Muslims of their citizenship.
Unless a powerful, unequivocal message is sent making it clear that such actions will not be tolerated, the dominoes will continue to fall, as, one-by-one, authoritarian, oppressive regimes will realize there are no consequences for the most heinous crimes.
Perhaps Australian leaders could even convene a special summit for ASEAN and its partners, in which these growing challenges can be honestly and openly discussed. Such a major move would catch international attention, putting the world on notice that Australia is ready to rally the defenders of democracy, peace, and human rights.
Australia has a major opportunity to take a stand. As a signatory to the International Convention on Genocide, it is morally obligated to act on the main dictum of that Convention: genocide must never be allowed to happen again.
Yet in 2018, “Never Again” is happening again. It is up to Australia, and other morally courageous nations of the ASEAN organization, to decide whether or not they will stand on the right side of history.