Monthly Archives December 2019

Marie Antoinette rules in Colombia as the masses protest against inequality

Marie Antoinette rules in Colombia as the masses protest against inequality

By Fabio Andrés Díaz Pabón and María Gabriela Palacio Since late November, Colombia has seen unprecedented mass protests, the longest since 1977. These protests illustrate the awakening of a muffled civil society. ...

Death and torture in the Life Esidimeni cases in South Africa: avenues for accountability by Meryl du Plessis

Death and torture in the Life Esidimeni cases in South Africa: avenues for accountability by Meryl du Plessis

In 2015 the lack of attention to mental health care in South Africa made news headlines when 1,711 mental health care users dependent on assistance were forced out of state-sponsored ...

Holding Myanmar accountable for acts of genocide is just the start of a long process of justice for the Rohingya by Lize Swartz

Public hearings are currently underway at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where Myanmar stands accused of committing genocide against the Rohingya minority after violent crackdowns since 2012 left thousands dead and forced more than one million Rohingya to flee the country. This follows shortly after the Minister of Justice of The Gambia at the International Conclave on Justice and Accountability for Rohingya held at the ISS in October declared that what has transpired in Myanmar over the past years must be named genocide and that The Gambia would lead efforts to hold the Myanmar state accountable through international legal mechanisms. However, this is just the first of several steps to ensure justice for the Rohingya—the human side of what has become a ‘refugee crisis’ needs to be acknowledged, writes Lize Swartz.

The desire to hold perpetrators accountable for crimes committed against the Rohingya[1], to improve the living conditions and well-being of Rohingya refugees[2], and to ensure their eventual safe return to Myanmar was unanimously expressed at the recent International Conclave on Justice and Accountability for Rohingya. At the conclave, a number of high-level dignitaries and specialists working on justice for the Rohingya at both the international and local level came together at the ISS in October this year to discuss key short-, medium- and long-term objectives in ensuring the eventual safe return of the Rohingya to Myanmar and ways in which to reach them.

His Excellency Abubacarr Marie Tambedou, Minister of Justice of The Gambia, at the conclave declared to a sizeable audience that The Gambia would lead the process of holding the Myanmar state accountable—a declaration that was enthusiastically welcomed by attendees as an important first step in ensuring justice for the Rohingya. The Gambia accordingly instituted proceedings [3] against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice, the principal judiciary organ of the United Nations, in November this year. Laetitia van den Assum, an independent diplomatic expert who was previously part of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State and who also attended the conclave[4], told a Dutch news website that The Gambia had launched the application because the UN Security Council due to resistance from Russia and China had not undertaken any action in this regard over the past few years.

While the declaration of genocide and the filing of the recent application are steps in the right direction, the complexity of processes of ensuring justice and accountability have not been sufficiently recognized at the conclave, where discussions focused on holding perpetrators accountable and returning Rohingya refugees to Myanmar under safe conditions. Bangladesh, who has assumed a leadership role in housing Rohingya refugees, was praised at the conclave for its hospitality, while representatives of Bangladesh highlighted the difficulties of housing almost a million refugees.

The discussions made me wonder whether the humanity of the Rohingya is sufficiently recognized by those working on ensuring justice for them. In particular, the Rohingya genocide has become a ‘refugee crisis’, gaining increasing attention due to the sheer numbers of refugees residing in host countries. This is transpiring while the Rohingya in fact have been victims of policies of exclusion and direct violence within Myanmar for over forty years. It seems that it is only now that the issue is receiving attention—but perhaps for the wrong reasons.

At the conclave, it became clear that the Rohingya were seen as temporary residents hosted by benevolent neighbouring countries. However, it became evident during the conclave that repatriation is not straightforward, as changes in national policies, laws and leadership in Myanmar are crucial for the creation of conditions of safety and security as a sustainable solution to the long-term crisis. Conference attendees agreed that without such conditions, the cycle of violence and exclusion is likely to repeat itself as it has done before.

While the proceedings against Myanmar at the ICJ are a first step, host countries and the international community all have to come to terms with the fact that the process of ensuring justice could span several decades and that ongoing collaborative effort is required for the entire duration of the process. It is important to recognize the human side of the ‘refugee crisis’ and to ensure that besides holding perpetrators accountable through formal international legal mechanisms, the well-being of the Rohingya should be prioritized now—whether they are temporary or permanent residents of host countries. The following things should be kept in mind:

Bangladesh and other host countries are now the Rohingya’s home, and they may remain so for many years to come.

When humans settle somewhere, they grow new roots that anchor them to a place. The international community may not want to recognize that the Rohingya has already grown roots in host countries and that they will continue to do so until their return to Myanmar, if they choose to return. It is crucial for host countries to accept that the Rohingya might not be going anywhere anytime soon and that their integration into host communities is crucial, whether temporarily or permanently. Host countries have already been generous in providing resources and a safe space for the Rohingya, but they now needs to direct their gaze towards the social dimensions of well-being among the Rohingya, including the creation of a sense of belonging and the creation of education and employment opportunities by doing the opposite that the Myanmar state has done—by acknowledging the Rohingya minority as part of their society and accepting them despite their origin or citizenship status. At the conclave it became clear that the lack of access to education was one of the most pressing problems facing the Rohingya.

The Rohingya should acquire an understanding of the process of change, not only in repatriation, but also in holding the perpetrators responsible.

Importantly, the Rohingya also need to understand that their return to Myanmar, even though desired by some of them, may not take place in the coming year or years, which will help them make long-term decisions about where they could settle. CSOs and local grassroots actors working with Rohingya on the ground can play a crucial role in helping the Rohingya understand why the cogs are turning slowly and why their return to Myanmar is being delayed. In addition, information on the proceedings and outcome of pending ICJ or ICC cases will play an important role in the Rohingya’s gauging of the level of safety and security of Myanmar and, therefore, in their willingness to return to Myanmar when it is possible.

The process of justice and accountability does not end when the Rohingya return to Myanmar – it only begins then.

The long-term objective of helping the Rohingya deal with trauma should be highlighted; this shows dedication to the cause of the Rohingya and not just to addressing the immediate refugee crisis. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was discussed at the conclave, is effective not only in gathering evidence of crimes against humanity, but also in helping victims of crimes against humanity deal with trauma. The wounds that have been created over the last forty years will not heal instantly, but they can heal more effectively with the creation and efficient functioning of such mechanisms and institutions that facilitate dialogue and interaction among all ethnic groups in Myanmar.

[1] Following violent crackdowns on the Rohingya starting in 2012, more than one million Rohingya have fled Myanmar, many to neighbouring country Bangladesh.

[2] At present, Cox’s Bazar near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border houses more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees in what has become a massive slum.

[3] According to ICJ Press Release No. 2019/47, available at, The Gambia alleged “violations of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the ‘Genocide Convention’) through ‘acts adopted, taken and condoned by the Government of Myanmar against members of the Rohingya group’ ”.

Image Credit: Zlatica Hoke on Wikimedia

16177487_1348685531818526_4418355730312549822_oAbout the author:

Lize Swartz is a PhD researcher at the ISS working on the intersection of sustainability and climate crises and the influence of power on understandings of and responses to such crises. She was a conference reporter at the International Conclave on Justice and Accountability for Rohingya. 

EADI/ISS Series | Limits to learning: when climate action contributes to social conflict

EADI/ISS Series | Limits to learning: when climate action contributes to social conflict

By Dirk Jan Koch and Marloes Verholt REDD+, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, has been one of the holy grails of international efforts to combat climate change for ...

Brexit tales of discontent: the revenge of Empire by Helen M. Hintjens

Brexit tales of discontent: the revenge of Empire by Helen M. Hintjens

Nobody knows what happens after UK general elections on 12 December 2019: Brexit, a referendum on Irish unity, on Scottish independence, or a No-Deal exit from the EU?  In 1977, ...

Reporting or turning a blind eye? Police integrity in Uganda by Wil Hout and Natascha Wagner

Imagine that you are a police officer and witness a close colleague accepting a bribe. Would you report this behaviour or turn a blind eye to it? 600 police officers in Uganda answered similar questions relating to a variety of cases of undesirable police conduct. A series of recent publications by Dr Natascha Wagner and Professor Wil Hout, with ISS alumna Dr Rose Namara, shows that officers who participated in an accountability project were influenced positively in their attitudes towards desirable and undesirable police behaviour.

The arrest of Ugandan musician, businessman and opposition politician Bobi Wine in August 2018 caused world-wide attention to the brutal behaviour of the Ugandan police force. This crackdown on a popular figure in the country added to the already bad reputation of Uganda’s police, which is commonly seen as violent and corrupt.

Democratic theory sees the police, next to the army, as the ‘strong arm’ of the state. These institutions are faced with a ‘paradox of power’: they possess important coercive tools that should be used to protect the state and its citizens, but could also be employed to attack those whom they should protect. For this reason, accountability mechanisms are created to ensure that police behaviour respects the principles of the rule of law. Countries with a robust rule of law mechanism, such as The Netherlands, subject the police to strict political and legal oversight. Police officers who ‘cross the line’ and engage in unacceptable behaviour will likely be punished, although recent reports on the code of silence in the police force in The Hague suggest that this may not always be self-evident.

Similar mechanisms do not apply to the same extent to Uganda, which is widely seen as an imperfect democracy, with many traits of so-called ‘competitive authoritarianism’. The country holds regular elections, but political liberties are seriously impeded by the rulers of the country. President Yoweri Museveni’s regime, which has ruled Uganda since the removal of Obote in 1986, regularly uses the police force to repress oppositional forces that may threaten its hold to power. The recent setup of a Field Force Unit for handling riots and demonstrations, according to some observers, is one example of the militarisation the Ugandan police, and could represent a further step to using the police for regime support.

In this seemingly hostile context, the Police Accountability and Reform Project was implemented by the Ugandese NGO HURINET with the financial help of the Dutch Embassy in Kampala. The project aimed to improve relations between civil society, the media and the police by organising dialogues, and inform the public about the work of the police. These activities were meant to strengthen police accountability mechanisms.

The evaluation department of The Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs brought in a team from ISS to assess, among others, the police accountability project. The ministry was interested to see to what extent its ‘good governance’ policies in various countries had been effective. Our aim in relation to the project on police accountability was to estimate whether it impacted the attitudes of Ugandan police officers. We concluded that the project in all likelihood contributed positively to the attitudes of police officers regarding desirable and undesirable police activities.

Our research project consisted of different activities. One important element was a survey among a large group of police officers, drawn from districts across Uganda, with the help of a dozen cases of police behaviour. Based on earlier research on police integrity, we let police officers evaluate a variety of cases (or ‘vignettes’), among others relating to police officers who take bribes, steal from a burglary site, and refuse to record a complaint about torture by one of the officer’s colleagues, and, to a District Police Commander who orders a violent response to a demonstration, leaving 20 people dead. Police officers who participated in the project appeared on average much more critical about the misbehaviour depicted in the cases, while they were also more likely to report a colleague for misbehaving. They were more inclined to see the behaviour as a violation of official policy and were more supportive of disciplinary action against misbehaving colleagues.

Interviews with 23 police officers, selected from the higher ranks, supported the findings from the survey. Overall, officers who participated in the accountability project had clearer ideas about human rights norms, the proper treatment of arrestees and relations with the community. The responses of those police officers were credible signs of the norm-setting impact of the accountability project.

Overall, our findings show that it pays off to engage police officers in discussions about acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour, even in a difficult environment such as Uganda. Obviously, the spreading of norms about police behaviour is just one element in creating a better functioning police apparatus. A shift in attitudes does not necessarily represent a reversal of behaviour, since the latter is influenced by many factors other than attitudes. The accountability project in Uganda demonstrated the usefulness of working with the police, although longer-term collaboration may be necessary for achieving permanent results. This may be an important lesson for improving police operations in other countries where accountability and rule of law are a concern.

Wil Hout, Ria Brouwers, Jonathan Fisher, Rose Namara, Lydeke Schakel and Natascha Wagner (2016) Policy Review Good Governance: Uganda Country Study, Report for the Policy and Operations Evaluation Department (IOB), Ministry of Foreign Affairs, available at This report contains the vignettes that were used in the survey among police officers.
Natascha Wagner and Wil Hout (2019) ‘Police Integrity and the Perceived Effectiveness of Policing: Evidence from a Survey among Ugandan Police Officers’, in Sanja Kutnjak Ivković and M.R. Haberfeld (eds) Exploring Police Integrity: Novel Approaches to Police Integrity Theory and Methodology, New York: Springer, pp. 165-191, available at
Natascha Wagner, Wil Hout and Rose Namara (2020, forthcoming) ‘Improving Police Integrity in Uganda: Impact Assessment of the Police Accountability and Reform Project’, Review of Development Economics, available at
Wil Hout, Natascha Wagner and Rose Namara (2020, forthcoming) ‘Holding Ugandan Police to Account: Case study of the Police Accountability and Reform Project’, in Sylvia Bergh, Sony Pellissery and Christina Sathyamala (eds) The State of Accountability in the Global South: Challenges and Responses, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, available at

_DSC4072-3.jpgAbout the authors:

Wil Hout is Professor of Governance and International Political Economy at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam. His research interests relate to international political economy, regionalism, development policies and issues of governance and development.



Natascha Wagner is associate professor of Development Economics at the ISS. Her research interests lie in international economics, development, health and education. She has participated in various impact evaluation projects and large scale data collections in Africa and Asia ranging from public health to good governance and sustainable development.

Blame games won’t help us address the climate crisis by Lize Swartz

Blame games won’t help us address the climate crisis by Lize Swartz

The climate crisis is forcing us to rethink our relationship with the world around us and the effect of our own actions (or inaction) on this massive collective action problem. ...