State-sanctioned murder and mass radicalisation: why upholding our values matters
24 Oct 2018|

The alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi Arabia is one of four big events in our world this year showing that human rights and hard-edged national security have converged.

It’s not optional to protect human rights, because, if we don’t, our security suffers. National security ‘hawks’ need to be as interested in this as anyone else. Here’s why.

The events I’m talking about are really two packages of two—one about individuals and one about groups of people. First there’s the Saudi killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi national with US residency and three children who are US citizens. And there’s the case of Dawn Sturgess, a UK citizen killed as a result of the failed Russian attempt to murder former spy Sergei Skripal.

The second set of two are about acts being carried out against populations as the world’s leadership and institutions watch and fail to prevent atrocities.

I’m referring to Myanmar’s killing and brutalisation of around 700,000 Rohingya Muslims through a formal army campaign under state direction, and to the Chinese state’s forcible detention of a million of its Uyghur citizens for ‘re-education’ in hastily built camps in Xinjiang.

What these acts tell us is that the states involved—Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and Myanmar—feel empowered to act against core principles of humanity through arbitrary killings and by brutalisating and detaining people who have committed no crime or offence.

In part, this is because they fear no consequences. And they seem to be onto something.

The consequences for the rest of us? Others feel empowered to act as Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Aung San Suu Kyi and Mohammad Bin Salman have—and that makes it a more dangerous, less human world.

In the case of Russia, there have been widespread expulsions of Russian diplomats internationally, and further sanctions may be meted out against individual Russians associated with the murder—but Russia isn’t being isolated by the international community. In fact, Putin seems more welcomed and better travelled since the murder than during much of his reign if his travel program is a metric.

On Saudi Arabia, as former Chinese foreign minister Zhou Enlai said when asked about the French Revolution, it may be ‘too early to tell’. But it seems that if there’s any way for the US administration to express ‘discomfort’ over the murder of a US resident but keep the US$450 million in recent ‘deals’ between the Saudis and US companies, President Donald Trump will take it.

What does this tell us? Maybe not much that is new, but it seems to be a part of human history that we need to relearn lessons our ancestors knew well. Here, the lesson is that our actions matter far more than our words.

We license atrocities when we condemn them, while engaging with their perpetrators in ways that show we ‘understand’. Not cancelling the US$110 billion US arms sale to the Saudis would be an eloquent example.

On the actions of the Myanmar and Chinese governments, the failure of other states to act to prevent the brutalisation of 700,000 Rohingas and a million Uyghurs—or pressure these governments effectively—has many contributing factors.

Let me name a couple: narrow self-interest and fear.

Governments and institutions from the US, UK, Australia and EU have all issued statements of concern about the Myanmar government’s failure to prevent its army from killing and displacing Rohingya people.

But even now, more than a year since the crisis began, international action has been about providing humanitarian relief funding to help displaced Rohingyas. There have been no referrals of Myanmar leaders—like Aung San Suu Kyi or army commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing to the International Criminal Court.

At least one of the UN Security Council members—China—would probably veto such a reference or any move to set up a UN or regional intervention mission. But making Chinese leaders carry out such public vetoes helps build an international constituency and also demonstrates Chinese leadership perspectives.

Why haven’t we seen world leaders seeking such ICC action, or calling for a UN or regional mission to protect returned Rohingyas? One reason is that states fear driving Myanmar further into China’s authoritarian orbit and losing access and influence. Another is that economic engagement with Myanmar, given its natural resources, is very attractive. A third is ASEAN states’ adherence to the principle of non-intervention (against this, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has been a striking voice for action from within ASEAN). Narrowly conceived self-interest is trumping longer term interests.

On the Uyghurs, we see a similar pattern of international concern and failure to act. Xi is forcibly detaining around a million Uyghurs in a massive re-education camp system, and using his Ministry of Public Security to surveil and control the rest of China’s 13 million Turkic Muslims. And it’s all happening in plain sight, thanks to global satellite coverage and the efforts of investigative teams of journalists, human rights organisations and individual Uyghurs.

Whatever we each may think of the simple inhumanity of Myanmar and Chinese authorities’ treatment of their own citizens, we should all be as concerned that these two governments are creating large future security problems for themselves and for all of us in coming years.

Whether wittingly or not, Xi and Suu Kyi are creating the perfect conditions for the radicalisation of millions of Rohingyas and Chinese citizens who are very likely to cause both states and the broader region decades of security trouble.

Terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State are adept at taking advantage of such opportunities.

Being mesmerised by China’s power—and paralysed by a fear of losing trade benefits from China or Myanmar—is not reason enough to let these two states damage all of our security interests and affect the safety of all of our citizens in coming years.

So, whether it’s state-sanctioned murder or states creating generations of radicalised people, what we walk past is what we allow. Let’s look beyond our wallets and our noses and resurrect a sense of an international community, with the ability to intervene and punish, to hold to account and to act. Values matter, but only when they are made real through actions.