Myanmar human rights investigator's lament
The Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar have been described as the world’s most persecuted ethnic minority. Impact spoke to human rights law expert Chris Sidoti about his role in the UN investigation into the crisis, and of the pitfalls of working at the coalface of human rights.
Few people have kept a watchful eye on the politics of Myanmar so intensely as the Australian human rights lawyer Chris Sidoti.
His first visit to the southeast Asian nation was in 1999 — long before the persecution of its ethnic Rohingya Muslims became cause for concern in the international community.
“I've worked on Myanmar for 20 years and I've been there around 15 times during that period, so I thought I knew the country pretty well,” Mr Sidoti said.
In 2017, his experience and expertise saw him chosen as one of three international investigators for the United Nations independent fact-finding mission on Myanmar, a 15-month probe into widespread and systematic violence in Rakhine State and neighbouring regions.
Despite Mr Sidoti’s background, he admitted he was “surprised by the depth and the extent of the brutality” he encountered.
“I didn't expect when we started this work that by the end we'd be discussing genocide — that came as a surprise to me,” he said.
“The people who spoke to us had survived the worst kind of brutality that anyone could imagine.
"They had witnessed ruthless killings, including the deaths of very young children, many of the women had been raped and often gang-raped, and many bore physical injuries and had only just started to come to terms with what had happened.”
Chris at Cox’s Bazar camp in Bangladesh
Between August and December 2017, some 725,000 Rohingya fled violence in Myanmar in what has been described by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
The fact-finding mission released its explosive report in September 2018, concluding that Myanmar’s armed forces had committed “the gravest crimes under international law”, and calling for the prosecution of six military generals for genocide.
Based on interviews with 875 survivors and evidence from videos, photographs, documents and satellite imagery, the investigation found the conflict had seen more than 10,000
Rohingya killed and 390 villages destroyed, and that rape and sexual violence were “part of a deliberate strategy to intimidate, terrorise or punish … and are used as a tactic of war”.
‘The most haunting question of all’
The persecution of the Rohingya is not new, with evidence suggesting it began in the late 1940s, when Myanmar achieved independence from Britain, and certainly no later than the early 1960s.
More recently, the UNHCR documented the oppression of the community and its exodus from Myanmar in 2012. The Rohingya persecution in 2016, which included extrajudicial killings, gang rapes, arson and infanticide, was a clear warning of the level of brutality that was to come a year later.
In its report, the UN fact-finding mission declared the international community had failed by not acting to stem the violence earlier. “Let us now resolve not to fail the people of Myanmar again,” Mr Sidoti and his fellow investigators said.
So why didn’t the international community act sooner?
This, says Mr Sidoti, is "the most haunting question of all”.
“The military’s ‘clearance operations’ in northern Rakhine State in 2016, while nowhere near as brutal or extensive as the following year, were still very serious, and unfortunately there was hardly any international response at all,” he told Impact.
“The message given to the military leadership of Myanmar was effectively that they could do this and get away scot-free.”
While Mr Sidoti acknowledged it was “easy to be wise in retrospect”, he expressed deep concern at the international community’s lack of action.
“When we look at the history of the Myanmar military, it really should have been obvious what they were capable of,” he said.
“However it’s also true that the nature of international politics makes international responses very slow and precarious.”
This sluggishness is one of the hardest parts of working in human rights, Mr Sidoti said.
“Human rights people encounter on a daily basis the suffering of other human beings, and what we can do about it is very limited, it’s very difficult work and it takes time, but the concern and the frustration is greatest in relation to prevention, because it's not as though we are totally ignorant,” he said.
“What happened in Myanmar was entirely predictable. While its intensity and the level of brutality surprised me, the military has been seeking to get rid of the Rohingya for 50 years, and there are human rights situations like that around the world where we know what's going on, we know the damage that's being done, and yet we seem to be powerless to do anything about it.”
Australia’s human rights ‘shame’
While Myanmar’s record on the Rohingya is a blight on the southeast Asian nation, Mr Sidoti pointed out that Australia’s human rights record has also come under scrutiny.
The UN has described our indefinite detention of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island a “shame” and condemned it as illegal, with the UNHCR calling for the immediate evacuation of all remaining refugees stranded there. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s Forgotten Children report found prolonged detention was having “profoundly negative impacts on the mental and emotional health” of children.
This “regrettable” situation is another example of the pitfalls of working in human rights, said Mr Sidoti, one of more than 50 academics to sign an open letter endorsing the Commission’s report.
“The most painful part is seeing these things happening and being unable to stop them,” he said.
“We know that we are taking children, women and men who are already highly traumatised, who have been recognised as refugees, and we are treating them with a level of brutality that in my opinion constitutes a crime against humanity.
“That's where determination and hope has to come into play. No matter what, those working in human rights need to persist, because when you do keep going, in time you do see successes.”
A ‘painful’ career
Chris Sidoti’s experience in human rights law has earned him an international standing in the field.
He was Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner for five years in the 1990s, having already served as Australian Law Reform Commissioner and as the Foundation Director of the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. In recent years he has worked as a consultant alongside a number of national human rights institutions in the Asia Pacific region.
Chris at the UN.
Despite these achievements, he baulks at the suggestion he’s had a “successful” career.
“I think I'd call it painful rather than successful,” he joked, adding that the nature of human rights work left practitioners open to criticism from the politically powerful.
“Criticism can be fair, but it can also be totally outrageous, and you only have to look at the way in which Gillian Triggs was treated as president of the Australian Human Rights Commission to see evidence of that.
“The pain of this type of outrageous treatment is not torture and murder as it in some other countries, so in that respect we've got it easy. But the truth is that no matter where you are, human rights work is never like lying on a bed of roses. It's the opposite. It's always hard, and it always has costs.”
His cites his family background, the influence of Catholic social teaching and the principles of the Gospel as his prime motivators for pursuing a human rights career.
“When I was at university it was inconceivable that I would do what I've actually done. I never imagined I could work full-time in human rights and earn enough money to be able to support a family, so I’ve been very fortunate,” he said.
To students hopeful of forging a career in human rights, Mr Sidoti has some simple advice.
“Persist!” he said. “There are hundreds of thousands of highly talented, highly motivated and deeply committed young people who want to do this work. And that's fabulous for human rights causes. But it also means it’s highly competitive, so I always tell university students that if they want to succeed, they’ve got to build expertise, build experience, and, most of all, persist.”
Christopher Sidoti is an adjunct professor at Australian Catholic University.
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