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The OIC must now lead the efforts to stop Rohingya persecution

By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim, Al Arabiya

As the persecution of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar is getting worse by the day, we must now acknowledge that the United Nations is failing to enforce the principles of its own 1948 Genocide Convention.

Leaked documents from earlier this year described the office of the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Reneta Lok-Dessallien, as ‘glaringly dysfunctional’, in no small part due to her putting human rights considerations on the back-burner, in favour of economic development goals. She was accused by many of her own staff of having too cosy a relationship with the civilian government and the military elite, whilst the persecution of the Rohingya and other minorities dropped off her agenda.

Hoping that the new dawn of democracy ushered in by Aung San Suu Kyi will soon start to bear fruit, the UN in general, and Lok-Dessallien in particular, were content to watch from the sidelines as hundreds were killed and tens of thousands ethnically cleansed from villages, and many thousands more were forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh and Malaysia on rickety boats – only to be met with conditions little better than those they had just fled. The UN seemed to have embraced the Obama Administration’s ‘Strategic Patience’ doctrine with regards to Myanmar. Which is diplomatic speak for ‘do-nothing’.

Many were relieved when it was recently announced that Reneta Lok-Desallien was moved on from her position with the Myanmar mission, a couple of years ahead of schedule. But whether the incoming Coordinator will recalibrate the priorities of the office to give due attention to the gross human rights abuses in the country remains to be seen.

Perhaps now that the world’s largest intergovernmental organisation has failed to live up to it’s responsibility towards the Rohingya, the task may be better addressed by the second largest. The plight of the Rohingya has already featured prominently on the agenda of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s meeting of Foreign Ministers. In fact, the OIC held an Extraordinary Session earlier this year in Malaysia dedicated entirely to the situation of the Rohingya.

Not a good record

One concern might be that the OIC does not have a good record when it comes to conflict resolution. It is fundamentally handicapped in this regard, as it does not have the means by which to enforce its will. Resolutions are passed with little fanfare and go largely unnoticed outside the Muslim world. Often, their sole purpose is to mollify local populations.

Nevertheless, in this case the OIC may prove significantly more effective. As the second largest intergovernmental organisation, with a membership of fifty-seven states spread across four continents, and with a new dynamic secretary general in the form of Dr Yousef bin Ahmad Al-Othaimeen, the organisation will have the verve to intervene on the issue that the UN is clearly lacking. And there are simple measures the OIC could pursue.

The OIC does not have the happiest history when it comes to living up to its own founding principles. But on this occasion, they may well be able to succeed where the UN has failed. Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Firstly, the OIC can work with the UN and Myanmar authorities to investigate the allegations that militant Islamist groups are attempting to penetrate and hijack the Rohingya struggle. Though such allegations are anaemic at best, they offer a convenient excuse to the Myanmar authorities to pursue their policy of collective punishment while placating the international community and forcing it to turn a blind eye. Particularly now that ISIS is losing territory in the Middle East and are looking for new regions in the world where their poisonous ideology might find fertile ground.

Secondly, the persecution of the Rohingya has a sectarian dimension, as some of the key instigators promote these abuses in the name of a militant interpretation of Theravada Buddhism. The OIC, as a religious-based organisation, can reframe the conflict-resolution efforts of the international community in terms of an inter-faith dialogue amongst religious communities and their global leaders. The OIC itself claims to represent the global Muslim voice, and so it should be able to bring in leading global Muslim personalities who would already be acceptable and respected by the Buddhist leaders of the country.

Finally, the OIC can help relieve pressure on neighbouring countries that have taken in hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees such as Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and so on. The government of Bangladesh is justified in trying to ensure that the Rohingya do not become a permanent presence in their own country, as they simply don’t have the resources to absorb the kinds of numbers that are fleeing. The OIC could therefore organise a coordinated global effort to provide countries like Bangladesh the basic essentials to ensure the Rohingya are comfortable during their short tenure before they are able to return to their homeland.

The OIC does not have the happiest history when it comes to living up to its own founding principles. But on this occasion, they may well be able to succeed where the UN has failed. The Rohingya situation is providing it with an opportunity to redeem itself. And it can start with such simple measures which will have a real positive impact on the lives of so many people. Let us hope it seizes this opportunity with both hands.


Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim