March 17, 2018

Book Review: “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide”

Usman Butt

March 14th, 2018

There are many groups who can claim the dubious honor of being the world’s forgotten people, but Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya population is arguably the current front-runner for the label. Over the last several years, the plight of the Rohingya has occasionally made it into the international news. But, the global community has done little to intervene in the ongoing genocide.

For the most part, there has been confusion about who the Rohingya are and why they are being targeted by the Myanmar regime. Azeem Ibrahim, an international research fellow affiliated with Harvard, Yale, and the U.S. Army War College, argues that the persecution of the Rohingya is historically rooted in the situation of postcolonial Myanmar and the normalized “otherness” of the Rohingya people within the country’s culture. Ibrahim’s new book The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide traces this troubling history of persecution and explains its origins.


As the book recounts, there is a popular belief in Myanmar that the Rohingya are Bengalis who came to Arakan province (also known as Rakhine province) in western Myanmar after the British annexed the region in 1824, and that they displaced the local Buddhist population. In addition to being a so-called alien population, it is frequently assumed that the Rohingya are dangerous and a vehicle for Islamist extremism. These prejudices have been encouraged by Myanmar’s ruling military and political elite through the media and education system.

Ibrahim argues that popular beliefs about the Rohingya are incorrect and that their history in the Arakan region dates back to migration from India to Arakan 3,000 years ago. The Rohingya became the region’s majority group, coexisting with other populations, including Buddhists. After Islam arrived in India, it quickly came to Arakan, which was an important trading region. Arakan had been a largely independent region and only became part of Myanmar when the Kingdom of Burma (a precursor to the Myanmar state) expanded and took the area in 1784.

After the British annexed the region in 1826 and the rest of Burma in the following decades, they ruled over an ethnically and religiously diverse Burma. Over time, British rule would divide Burmese society. Some groups favored British rule, while others did not. This division sharpened when the British brought in Indians, some of whom were Muslim, to work in the local administration and run rice fields. Even though the Rohingya never joined the British administration en masse, the rest of Burmese society conflated foreign Muslims with local ones, a phenomenon that likely played a role in contemporary discourse on the Rohingya in Myanmar.

The Second World War worsened relations between the country’s ethnic communities, as different groups choose between the British and the Japanese, who were competing for control of the region. Hoping to rid themselves of the British, many Burmese sided with the Japanese. The Rohingya, however, decided to remain loyal to the British, which caused friction between them and the Rakhine (Burmese Buddhists), who were committed to the nationalist cause of liberating Burma from British rule. Siding with the British was not an ideological commitment to empire, but rather came naturally as the Rohingya had gotten accustomed to the British during their long-time rule. By the end of World War II, a new nationalist elite had formed in Burma and eventually forced theBritish out. The formation had been gradual and included different factions and elements from left to right-wing groups. Some within these movements were aided with a British education, which was meant to train them to be administrators, but like elsewhere in the British Empire, local elite formed to oppose the empire.

After Burma became an independent country in 1948 (and changed its name to Mynamar in 1989, allegedly to be more ‘inclusive’ of the countries minorities), ethnic diversity and fears about holding the country together accelerated the search for a common identity. As Ibrahim argues, because of the country’s Buddhist majority, Buddhism quickly became an important marker of belonging in Myanmar. Still, debates over whether the country should be a secular or Buddhist state raged until the 1960s, when the military took full control of the government and promoted Theravada Buddhism, whose followers claim to be strict adheres to Buddha’s teachings. It is a fundamentalist movement with an emphasis on purity. while it generally abhors violence, its strict and reductive ideas appeal to nationalists trying to nation build. Notwithstanding these debates, throughout the history of post-independence Myanmar, from civilian to military control, communism to democracy, one thing remained constant: the Rohingya were marginalized and oppressed, to varying degrees, by all the country’s ruling regimes.

Ibrahim argues that one of the key motivating factors for targeting the Rohingya was failing economic and political policies under Myanmar’s successive governments. These failures sparked hostile government rhetoric against the Rohinghya, with the intent of distracting the rest of the population from the government’s shortcomings. The Rohingya were an easy target for such scapegoating, as they were known not to actively resist or oppose their persecution.

Recent attempts to wipe out the Rohingya demonstrates how successful this targeting has been, Ibrahim argues. Whether through propaganda, emphasis on ‘officially’ approved history (which casts Rohingyas as dangerous foreigners), or the use of war-on-terror rhetoric that portrays the Rohingyas as Jihadists, while banning the Rohingyas from voting in elections, state sponsored marginalization has come full circle with recent events.

Ibrahim’s book is a welcome contribution to our understanding of the ethnic cleansing taking place in Myanmar. Accessible and requiring no prior knowledge, it is required reading for anyone who wants to learn more about the plight of the Rohingya

March 16, 2018

#CyberMediation initiative launched to address potential and challenges of digital tools in peace mediation

Editor  15 Mar, 2018  

 downloadadthe Press Release in PDF format


Geneva, Switzerland, 15 March 2018: The #CyberMediation initiative was launched on 13 March to explore how digital technology is impacting the role of mediation in the prevention and resolution of violent conflict, how digital tools can be used by peace mediators and what safeguards are needed to protect the integrity of the mediation process.

The initiative was launched by the UN Department of Political Affairs, DiploFoundation, the Geneva Internet Platform, the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, swisspeace, and researchers from Harvard University. The initial phase of the initiative lasts until the end of 2018, and will explore four main thematic streams: the impact of new technologies; the role of social media; the use of data for mediation; and the use of artificial intelligence (AI), including text mining. The initiative will also explore the challenges stemming from the misuse of technology through a research endeavor.

In his address to close to 200 participants, both online and in Geneva, representing a wide range of stakeholders, the Director-General of UN Geneva (UNOG), Michael Møller, said that today’s mediation processes are already being impacted by Internet and communication technologies (ICTs), adding that ‘mediators should have the sharpest tools at their disposal and that technology can certainly provide them with innovative solutions.’ He encouraged participants and other relevant actors to contribute to the upcoming discussions in the framework of the #CyberMediation initiative.

In introducing the initiative, Enrico Formica, from the Mediation Support Unit of the Department of Political Affairs, explained that #CyberMediation does not mean replacing mediators with robots or machines, but rather, providing them with additional tools to perform their difficult jobs.’ Digital technology is already impacting the mediation field in several ways.

Joelle Jenny, associate at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, introduced the thematic group looking at new technologies and noted that ‘mediators need to assess the trade-offs between convenience, security and ethical responsibilities, while using new technologies as support for mediation’. The aim of this work stream is to develop a framework to help mediators assess the risks associated with the use of digital means.

Introducing the thematic group on social media, David Lanz, head of the swisspeace Mediation Program, explored different implications of social media for mediators. He highlighted the potential of social media for mediators to promote inclusivity and ease communication with parties, while pointing to challenges in terms of ensuring the confidentiality of negotiations.

Barbara Rosen Jacobson, programme manager at DiploFoundation, addressed the topic of data for mediation by pointing out that the use of data for mediation purposes in itself is not a new phenomenon. Along with all the possibilities that data gathering and analysis offers to the negotiators, such as through the identification of trends or geo-mapping, she highlighted the importance of understanding the limits of data.

According to Jovan Kurbalija, director of DiploFoundation and head of the Geneva Internet Platform, the use of AI in the mediation field will be limited, due to the complex dynamics of mediation, which mixes facts, knowledge, emotions, and perceptions. However, some recent breakthroughs could generate interesting findings for mediators. For example, machines are getting better in playing complex games like poker that, in certain ways, present similarities with multistakeholder negotiations. Research shows that automated systems could be fairer and more skillful in reaching compromise, which offers interesting learning points for mediators

State behaviour in cyberspace: moving away from a military discourse

 Francesca Casalini and Stefania Di Stefano 15 Mar, 2018  0 Comments Diplomacy, Internet Governance


Microsoft has acknowledged that ‘the world needs new international rules to protect the public from nation state threats in cyberspace, and that ‘in short, the world needs a Digital Geneva Convention’.

Mr Brad Smith, President and Chief Legal Officer of Microsoft, has acknowledged that the idea of a Digital Geneva Convention, as the name betrays, takes inspiration from the 1949 Geneva Conventions (GCs). Smith explains this analogy by affirming that, as the first responders during the battle of Solferino (the battle that inspired the creation of the ICRC) were the doctors of the respective armies and the civilian volunteers that worked with them, today, in the context of cyberattacks, the first respondents with the expertise are tech companies.

This piece would like to stress that this analogy cannot be taken too far, and that it might  actually be problematic, as it assimilates state-led cyber-operations to armed conflicts. Moreover, as already highlighted in the previous blog post, there is a need for cybersecurity to be developed as a separate system, without simply attempting to borrow from existing laws or any other legal regimes. For these reasons, we suggest that it is necessary not to articulate cybersecurity concerns against an international humanitarian law (IHL) background.

Why the peacetime qualification should be disregarded

The Microsoft proposal specifies that the rules it envisages would be applicable in times of peace, and it would therefore leave the regulation of cyber-activities to the realm of IHL if the threshold of armed attack is attained. Indeed, the ICRC considers that IHL is already capable of regulating cyber-warfare (see this example). At the same time, by making this specification, Microsoft underlines that its Digital Geneva Convention would govern behaviour in cyberspace in scenarios that remain well below the use of force or armed attack (which triggers the laws of war).

Since it remains unclear when a cyber-operation attains the level of armed attack for the purposes of IHL, and since the aims pursued by Microsoft’s proposal are largely different from those pursued by the laws of war, it would seem more appropriate to re-think the Microsoft proposal as an instrument that would seek to establish a system of Internet governance, and that does not aim at affecting or replacing any other existing legal regime. It could simply represent the acknowledgment that there are new phenomena that are in need of regulation. In this sense, the ‘peacetime’ qualification does not add value, and generates a risk that the proposed rules would be considered displaceable in times of war, whereas the particular relationship that exists between the state and the private sector in the cyber realm would persist even during an armed conflict. For these reasons, we suggest removing the peacetime qualification altogether.

Why the underlying ideological underpinnings of the Digital Geneva Convention are different than those of IHL

The ideological underpinnings behind the GCs are different than the ones behind Microsoft’s proposal, as the former are driven by the need to balance military necessity and the protection of civilians in the context of armed conflict, whereas the latter, as explained in the previous section, would also be applicable in a context that does not amount to armed conflict. This underlying difference leads to a series of difficulties when trying to frame the issue of state-led cyber-operations within a military discourse.

This quagmire is mostly evident when trying to transpose the principle of distinction, one of the basic principles of IHL, in the context of Microsoft’s proposal. The principle of distinction is based on the presupposition that there is a category of people that is always a lawful target, the military, and another category of people that enjoys protection from attacks, the civilians. This idea that combatants and military objectives are targetable at all times during armed conflict, finds its rationale in the principle of military necessity, which arises from a state of hostilities. States can use lethal force against human beings, and destroy military targets, as a matter of warfare.

Obviously, in the case of cyber-operations, the distinction would have to be made between categories that are different than those recognised by IHL. However, a similar notion of distinction, and of different categories of people and objects, currently does not exist in peacetime, as in times of peace all people are human beings entitled to the same rights and protections. In this context, the notion of military target simply has no raison d'être. While, from a theoretical point of view, it is possible to infer that Microsoft’s proposal seeks to operate a distinction between the private citizen and governmental objects (which allegedly are the main target of state-led cyber-operations), in practice, it is not obvious to predict that states would be willing to introduce the principle of distinction in a potential legal instrument applicable outside of hostilities, as this would imply that some categories of objects or people would become lawful targets of cyber-operations in peacetime.

Put simply, the result of a transposition of the principle of distinction in the context of cyber-operations would amount to transforming the digital space into a battlefield per se, and certain hostile acts in international relations could no longer be considered as wrongful acts. Aside from the dubious compatibility of such a scenario with existing international law, transforming cyberspace into a space where hostile acts can be lawfully executed, is manifestly undesirable from a policy perspective as well, if anything, for the evident risk of escalation that would emerge.


As we have seen, framing the regulation of state-led cyber-operations within a military discourse is not desirable. Moving away from a military discourse is necessary for two reasons: first, technology creates new legal challenges that are unregulated by the current international regulatory framework, and, second, the principle of military necessity, one of the ideological underpinnings of IHL, is not always applicable in cyber-operations.

Francesca Casalini and Stefania Di Stefano are master's student in International Law at the Graduate Institute of Geneva

The Indo-Pacific – A passage to Europe?

15 March 2018

Eva Pejsova

The new 'Indo-Pacific' is headed for an era of more open strategic rivalry. At the forefront, China’s progressive expansion into the Indian Ocean to secure its interests along its Maritime Silk Road connectivity initiative is raising concerns about its assertive foreign and security policy. On the other side, a more robust collaboration is emerging between the status quopowers (US, Japan, India and Australia - the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), which are wary of preserving a rules-based liberal democratic order. The focus on connectivity and maritime security puts Europe on the spot: as the greatest trading power with an interest in regional stability, Brussels will have to take a stance.

This Brief sets the stage for an upcoming EUISS series entitled ‘Along the road’, which will examine the security implications of China’s Belt and Road (BRI) connectivity initiative. Through a collection of case studies from infrastructure projects and countries situated ‘Along the road’, this will seek to gather concrete evidence of the success or failure of Beijing’s new geopolitical project.

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