America Has a Shameful Double Standard on Human Rights

September 29, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: Human RightsChinaRohingyaIndo-Pacific RegionPolitics

America Has a Shameful Double Standard on Human Rights

The fact that the United States is keen to avoid annoying the Myanmar military, in the hope of getting this nation to join the Indo-Pacific anti-China coalition, should not have stopped the United States and its allies from condemning the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas.


The double standard that has long plagued U.S. human-rights policies has changed. It is no longer based on whether a nation is aligned with the communist block that was led by the Soviet Union; now, China and its allies are pilloried, while those that are courted to become part of the anti-China camp are often given a free pass. This seems to be the reason that recent Indian gross violations of the rights of some two hundred million Muslim citizens and Myanmar’s atrocities have receive much less condemnation than Chinese human-rights abuses, and neither country is subject to sanctions. A person could argue that China’s violations of human rights are more egregious, but surely no one can seriously claim that those of India and Myanmar are to be taken lightly.

On August 5, 2019, the Indian government took action against the predominantly Muslim Kashmir region, “strip[ing] Kashmir of its constitutionally guaranteed special status and split[ting] the region into two federally-run territories.” Claiming that its actions were required to forestall militant attacks and violent protests, the government “restricted all movement, detained thousands of people—including Kashmir’s political leaders—and cut off all communications. . . . The Internet ban lasted more than two hundred days, the longest such shut down by a democracy.”  Security forces arrested prominent politicians, business people, activists, and lawyers. Journalists were arrested and forced to reveal sources. Thousands of people were arrested—so many that makeshift jails had to be set up. The lockdown lasted for over seven months. Schools have been shut down for most of the year.    


At the anniversary of the Kashmir annexation, the region is still struggling. Although India finally restored Internet access in January, it only allows access to government-approved sites and continues the ban on social media. The Internet ban also has caused severe damage to the already poor economy. The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry stated that at least 150,000 jobs were lost and local technology companies had to relocate or shut down. The blackout prevented patients from accessing government healthcare or insurance reimbursements. Students could not apply for fellowships or scholarships and families could not contact others on the outside. In the aftermath, the Internet has only been gradually restored, so it still greatly hampers the ability of citizens to stay informed and act. Additionally, the Jammu and Kashmir region is facing a shortage of doctors who can treat the over twenty-two thousand confirmed cases so far of the virus.

The annexation comes on the heels of growing anti-Muslim sentiment in India by Hindu nationalists, championed by high-ranking politicians, including those in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, which is led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. BJP member and state-level Indian politician T. Raha Singh claimed that Muslims are traitors, urging vigilante action against Muslims, and that immigrants from the Rohingya Muslim ethnic group should be shot.

In December 2019, the Indian government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, which breaks with India’s founding ideal of being a secular nation that welcomes adherents of all religions, instead allowing religion to factor into the granting of citizenship. Under this law, Afghani, Bengali, and Pakistani migrants who entered India illegally by 2014 may be able to secure Indian citizenship more quickly if they are either Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, or Zoroastrian. Muslim migrants are not eligible for the same consideration.

According to prominent Indian political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta, this represents “the first legal articulation that India is, you might say, a homeland for Hindus.” Modi’s second-in-command, minister of home affairs Amit Shah, believes the Citizenship Amendment Act is just the beginning. He is pushing to require every Indian to present proof-of-citizenship documents as part of the creation of a register of citizens. Many Indian Muslims fear that this effort will lead the government to strip them of their citizenship.

Hindu nationalists empowered by the Modi administration’s discriminatory laws have incited violent attacks against Muslims and other religious minorities. A report by India Spend found that “Muslims were the target of 51% of violence centered on bovine issues over nearly eight years (2010 to 2017)—and they comprised 84% of 25 Indians killed in 60 incidents. As many as 97% of these attacks were reported after Narendra Modi’s government came to power in May 2014.” In February 2020, mobs raided, burned, and looted mosques and Muslim homes and businesses. At least thirty-seven Muslims were either killed, burned alive, or beaten. An independent investigation looking into this string of attacks found that the police abetted the violence. Modi remained silent on the attacks, later making a vague appeal for “peace and brotherhood.”  

A person could argue that what China is doing in Hong Kong is worse. There are surely strong moral and legal arguments to pillorize China. However, while China has been roundly condemned and sanctioned, repeatedly, by leaders of both political parties, comparatively little has been said and less has been done about what the Modi government has done—and is doing.

The Rohingya people (an ethnic group that is primarily made up of people who are Muslim) is one of several ethnic minority groups in Myanmar long oppressed by the military, which is close to the dominant Buddhist ethnic group. The Rohingya had to flee Myanmar after violent attacks on their villages from security forces, which began in August 2017. After the Myanmar military deployed to Rakhine State two infantry divisions known for their brutality, where the Rohingya live, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group attacked thirty police posts on August 25, 2017. The military and Buddhist mobs then set fire to Rohingya villages. In the first month, the troops and mobs killed no less than 6,700 Rohingya, at least 730 of whom were children who were younger than five years old. A large number of Rohingya women and girls were raped. The number of burned or destroyed villages stands at approximately 392, including 37,700 buildings, which account for nearly 40 percent of all homes. Over seven hundred thousand Rohingya were forced to leave the area.

In one massacre that took place in Tula Toli, also known as Min Gyi, “[s]oldiers shot fleeing Rohingya and rounded up hundreds of others,” then spent hours murdering all the men and raping women and killing children. After the Rohingya fled, soldiers and police officers together went around burning Rohingya houses to prevent their former residents from coming back.

Bangladesh has taken in hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who were forced out of Myanmar. The Kutupalong refugee camp houses more than six hundred thousand refugees alone. The living conditions in these camps are miserable, however the Rohingya fear returning to Myanmar, lest they too be killed.

It matters little if what was done to these Muslims is less or more troubling than what China is doing to its Muslims. The fact that the United States is keen to avoid annoying the Myanmar military, in the hope of getting this nation to join the Indo-Pacific anti-China coalition, should not have stopped the United States and its allies from condemning this ethnic cleansing much more strongly and pressuring the military to allow the Rohingyas to be repatriated safely. This, in turn, requires that the Myanmar government reinstate the citizenship which it revoked. The United States went to war in Kosovo to stop what was by many measures a less horrendous ethnic cleansing—though no such violation of human rights should be tolerated, whatever the scale.  

Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of International Affairs at The George Washington University.

Image: Reuters