More Rohingya being moved to Bhashan Char is a win for national sovereignty

Posted on: December 30, 2020 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry, Hydra "privileging forces"

“Homo homini lupus [man is wolf to man]. Who in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion?

–Sigmund Freud Civilization and Its Discontents (1930)

More Rohingya being moved to Bhashan Char is a win for national sovereignty

Photo used with permission.

More Rohingya being relocated
Less than a month ago I wrote about the move of over 1600 Rohingya refugees being ‘voluntarily’ relocated from Cox’s Bazar to the small island of Bhashan Char. As I write this a second wave of 1,804 Rohingya have been transported to the island by the Bangladeshi navy. I put ‘voluntarily’ in quotations because there is reason to question how these families were chosen for the move.  The UNHCR has not been given access to key details about the move but has urged the Bangladeshi government to not relocate any refugees against their will.

Despite statements and pleas from the UN, ASEAN, and various humanitarian and human rights organizations, the Bangladeshi government is planning the relocation of up to 100,000 Rohingya to Bhashan Char in the coming months, ostensibly to ease the pressure on the existing refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar which now number nearly 1 million Rohingya. Just as they did when choosing to graciously receive the Rohingya genocide survivors, Bangladesh is a sovereign nation now taking action to address the complex problems in the camps.

Another win for national sovereignty
The 1648 the Peace of Westphalia ushered in the modern nation-state system in the west, and, ultimately, globally. One of its main tenants is that of national sovereignty, the idea that each nation-state is granted full control of its territory. Born as a solution to chronic wars, the emerging nation-state system slowly replaced an array of kingdoms, empires, and confederations.

Three hundred years later in 1948 the UN agreed upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with an emphasis on Humanity as a whole. Drafted by a distinguished international  panel and approved by vote of the UN, this historic document remains the beginning point for most international human rights law.

In many ways I see the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a historic moral high water mark motivated by, among other factors, the collective human angst generated by the horrors of the Holocaust. It was as if we, as humanity, realized that our species had the ability to rise above Freud’s warning, that homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man. Freud was right in that our history is darkly marked by countless wars and by unending and unimaginably cruel treatment of the marginalized other. Yet over time various agreements, treaties, policies and laws have been enacted both within and between nations that have functioned to slowly but surely ‘bend the moral arc toward justice.’1  Collectively these sociopolitical structural changes have positively impacted social norms. Perhaps we are taming our inner wolf.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights had the potential of countering the ultimately toxic support of nationalism -and hence ethnocentrism and racism- embedded in the concept of Westphalian sovereignty. But it failed not the nations of the world but humanity itself, doing so by not confronting the inherent paradox that just as ‘man is wolf to man’ one nation is wolf to other nations.  By not confronting the sacred cow of national sovereignty this document ultimately allows for what is happening just now in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Myanmar has been accused of genocide and is being tried in the international courts. Though ample evidence exists  that it acted and continues to act horribly toward religious and ethnic minorities, the best the international community can do is impotently shake its finger. Economic sanctions, as in other places around the world, make the lives of the poor worse but are no more than a nuisance to those in power.  International Court of Justice (ICJ) and UN mandates and urgings have failed to bring justice to the Rohingya.

Myanmar is acting as a sovereign nation. Bangladesh is acting as a sovereign nation. Both are acting the way they are despite pressure from transnational entities like ASEAN and the UN and from many human rights and humanitarian organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Fortify Rights.

Let me point our quickly that though I join together the nations of Myanmar and Bangladesh in the example above, they are far, far apart in terms of the degree of egregiousness. Myanmar is overtly genocidal where Bangladesh, in the case of relocating refugees to Bhashan Char, merely taking a reasonable -if questionable- action.

Beyond the nation-state model?
Can there be a time when the needs of humanity override the rights of nations?  Is it possible to add teeth to the ineffective rhetoric and action by actors like the UN and human rights organizations?

To be clear, I believe that nationalism is just thinly disguised ethnocentrism and that both, as Venn diagrams, overlap dangerously with racism and other forms of toxic othering.

Many have pointed out that in this age of globalization the nation-state system is little more than window dressing and that we have already gone back to a system of ‘kingdoms, empires, and confederations’, though this time more explicitly fed by money and power. These new entities are not really new. The heads on Hydra that is capitalism shape shift in name and form but remain the same in essence. The most powerful people in the world today are not the heads of state but rather corporate leaders and the super-rich.

There is reason for optimism. In many ways this shift is happening incrementally and is perhaps being accelerated by the climate change crisis we face as one planetary ecosystem, as one humanity. One notable example is the news from the city in Dayton, Ohio in the US. On December 30th the city leaders voted on the Dayton End Genocide Resolution, locally reported to be the world’s first municipal resolution condemning genocide and other crimes against humanity. This is one small but significant step in the right direction. I suspect the framers of this resolution know well about the genocide in Myanmar and the plight of the Rohingya.

In the short term, I believe, the best that we can do as individuals is to continually use our voices, our actions, and our votes to urge our leaders -national, international, and other important actors- to prioritize humanity over nation.

I’ll close with reference to another social philosopher, perhaps even more misunderstood than Freud. In The Gay Science Friedrick Nietzsche refers to “We who are without Fatherlands”, and he critiques those who are nationalistic, who seek

“…to advocate nationalism and race hatred and to be able to take pleasure in the national scabies of the heart and blood poisoning that now leads the nations of Europe to delimit and barricade themselves against each other as if it were a matter of quarantine.”

To fully realize our potential as humanity -and that includes surviving the increasingly real global climate crisis- we must find a way to put humanity over nation and find ways to reverse the economic system’s tendency to pool wealth (and hence power) into fewer and fewer hands. That this paradigm shift must happen is obvious to many, but as in much of life the implementation step is tricky and difficult.

Back to Bhashan Char
I argue above that at base, the issues in Bangladesh and Myanmar have the same source, nationalistic motivations. The solution to many global problems is a call to reason, a call to recognize that nationalism frequently and toxically reverts to racism in various forms. Perhaps the global #BlackLivesMatter movement is humanity crying out, hoping to confront  the social and economic forces that have served only to divide us.


1  Steven Pinker’s The Better Angel’s of Our Nature provides some good examples and arguments answering the question posed in his subtitle ‘Why Violence Has Declined’.

2  What I am leaving out here is that the dominant force of global neoliberalism makes the job of prioritizing humanity over the nation-state nearly impossible. We must aggressively challenge the assumption that neoliberal policies and practices are pro-Humanity. They are not.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He is currently working on a second book tentatively titled "Hearing Voices: Dispatches from the margins of the humanitarian sector".

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