After Two Years of Horrors in Burma, the U.S. Is Still Doing Too Little, Too Late

Credit: UN

By Nadine Maenza and Anurima Bhargava
WASHINGTON DC, Aug 26 2019 – Monsoon season is currently wreaking havoc on the more than 911,000 Rohingya refugees displaced from their homeland in Burma (Myanmar) to the ramshackle camps of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Two years ago, in August 2017, a brutal military crackdown pushed more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities from Burma’s Rakhine State to flee for safety. The Burmese military has shamefully denied and tried to hide its barbarism, which includes arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, displacement, rape, torture and arbitrary killings.

And, Burma’s government has repudiated the international community’s attempts to document the crimes committed under international law, all while denying Rohingya basic rights like freedom of movement, access to health care and basic necessities, and citizenship.

Shockingly, those responsible for these heinous crimes—either by the explicit actions of Burma’s military or the complicit indifference of Burma’s government—have thus far faced no serious consequences. Where is the U.S. government’s admonition and strong policy response?

First, it is imperative that the U.S. government decide whether the atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims, Christians and others in Burma constitute more than ethnic cleansing.

When the U.S. Department of State last year issued its report documenting atrocities in northern Rakhine State, it created an expectation that a more serious determination—either crimes against humanity or genocide—would be forthcoming.

The label “ethnic cleansing” unequivocally fails to capture the full extent of crimes that religious and ethnic communities in Burma have suffered at the hands of the military.

Second, the U.S. government must sanction Burmese military officials and the companies under the military’s control so that those who perpetrated these atrocities are held accountable for their crimes. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has imposed economic sanctions on five military officials and two military units under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, and the State Department placed travel bans on four other senior military leaders, including the commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

As commissioners on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) who recently travelled to Burma, we welcome these first steps.

Credit: UNHCR

But banning the ability to travel to the United States is paltry compared to the monstrous acts the military has undertaken against religious and ethnic minorities. Targeted tools like economic sanctions must also be imposed on military officials and other responsible parties.

Thanks to a recent report issued by the United Nations’ Independent International Fact-Finding Mission, the international community now has a comprehensive list of the military’s businesses to consider for sanctions.

The entities on the list—including two major holding companies: Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC)—are owned or influenced by Burma’s military and use the ill-gotten gains from their business ventures to commit human rights violations.

There may be legitimate concerns about the impact that sanctions or other bans will have on Burma’s economy and the overall bilateral relationship; for example, some fear that sanctions will push Burma into China’s arms.

These two countries are fair-weather friends: chummy when it’s advantageous and oppositional when it’s not. Sanctions by the United States and others will not change this calculus.

Tragically, Rohingya Muslims are not the only victims. Burma’s military and security forces have used the same playbook of ruthless tactics in Rakhine State as they have been using for decades against ethnic minorities—many of whom are Christians—in Kachin and northern Shan states and elsewhere. For two decades, USCIRF has tracked, monitored and raised these abuses with the U.S. government.

For these and other systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom, we call on the State Department to re-designate Burma as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act.

This designation acknowledges that Burma is not living up to its commitments under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that protects the fundamental right to thought, conscience and religion.

Accountability is paramount, and the U.S. government must lead the way with a strong and substantive response. Yet for Rohingya Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities, their future also is about justice and the ability to safely and voluntarily return home with dignity.

Rohingya Muslims need to know that they can return—either from refugee camps in Bangladesh or from the internally displaced persons camps in Rakhine State—to their homelands.

Plans by the governments of Bangladesh and Burma to repatriate Rohingya refugees should not move forward until conditions are independently verified as safe and Rohingya are consulted about their return, neither of which has happened. Other religious and ethnic minorities that face ongoing threats from the military and ethnic armed organizations require similar safe returns.

But first, the impunity and cycle of violence in Burma must end, and that starts when the U.S. government—including both the Administration and the U.S. Congress—steps up and leads the way for the international community to take a stand against such horrific human rights abuses.

* This opinion piece was written by the two authors who recently traveled to Burma and spoke with Rohingya Muslims and others.

What Would It Really Take to Plant a Trillion Trees?

Photo by Unsplash

By Tim Christophersen
Aug 26 2019 – Tree planting is capturing the minds of those who look for fast climate action. Earlier this month, the Ethiopian Government announced a new world record: thousands of volunteers planted 353 million trees in one single day. This came shortly after a team of scientists identified suitable places in the world where up to 1 trillion new trees could be planted. Such a massive effort could absorb about 20 years’ worth of global greenhouse gas emissions. And on 8 August 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change launched a Special Report on the importance of land use for the climate. About 23 per cent of all emissions come from the agriculture, land use and forest sector. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change outlines land management opportunities with benefits for food security, biodiversity, and the climate, such as agroforestry.

The growing enthusiasm for forests and trees is a good thing. Ecosystem restoration will be critical in turning the tide against climate change, and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. But we need to be mindful of some pitfalls lurking along the way. We have learned valuable lessons over the past decades in afforestation and other restoration projects across dozens of countries. A few basic principles outlined by the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration can help us to reduce costs and minimize future risk as the world embraces the need to plant more trees.

Stop the bleeding
The first rule for ecosystem restoration is to stop the further destruction of forests, wetlands, and other critical ‘green infrastructure’. Conserving natural habitats is always cheaper than restoring it later.

Most new trees do not need to be planted
Most ecosystems in the world have remnant seeds in the soil and natural regrowth can be cheaper and more successful than tree planting. The most cost-effective type of restoration is to work with the forces of nature. For example, across the Sahel, a successful and fast landscape restoration technique is called ‘farmer-managed natural regeneration’. It uses the existence of remnant root stocks below the surface, where the trees above ground have disappeared long ago. Farmers nurture those roots and trees back to life. The results are stunning—within a few years, large trees dot the surface of the once barren and dry savannah, bringing back water, productivity and life.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel
There is already an impressive body of knowledge on which trees to plant, when and where. Under the Bonn Challenge, a global restoration goal initiated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Government of Germany, 59 governments, private associations and other entities have pledged to bring 170 million hectares into restoration by 2020, and 350 million by 2030. Dozens of countries have already detailed maps of where the best restoration opportunities can be found, and how to restore forests and landscapes. Usually, indigenous tree species are preferable, but in a rapidly changing climate, we need to keep in mind that the natural ranges of trees are shifting.

Social inclusion is essential
Forest and landscape restoration is mostly about social transformation, rather than technological solutions. However, this transformation is hard work and requires patience. It is tempting to just stick a few tree seedlings in the ground and hope for the best, but real restoration across an entire landscape is the work of years or even decades. Large-scale restoration successes such as the Shinyanga landscape in Tanzania or the Loess Plateau in China have shown that results of well-planned restoration can yield very high returns for society over a long time.

We must remove the bottlenecks
Some ingredients for success are essential, and their availability varies across countries. The most important one is political will. Fortunately, political will is now growing as protests for more climate action are spreading. Another major ingredient is clarity over ownership and management rights. The estimated 1 billion smallholder farmers in the world will be key. We need to empower them, and give them access to the tools and the finance for improved farming, such as agroforestry. A third key ingredient is availability of a variety of high-quality tree seedlings, in particular for planting trees on farms.

Finally, perhaps the most critical ingredient are massive public and private investments into land restoration. We need to achieve a similar trajectory for a shift in agriculture and forestry as is happening in renewable energy. And just like the shift in renewables, it will take a massive push from both public and private actors to establish restoration as a new financial asset class. It is estimated that every dollar invested in ecosystem restoration can yield more than US$10 in return through ecosystem services. Fortunately, we see growing interest from the finance industry to invest in ecosystem restoration and regenerative agriculture.

Ecosystem restoration and other nature-based climate solutions will be highlighted at the UN Climate Action Summit on 23 September. And the UN General Assembly has just proclaimed a UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration from 2021 to 2030. With the right approach, we can make the conservation and restoration of ecosystems, including the planting of billions of new trees, a major step in building the sustainable future we all want.