A different approach to curbing atrocities

The UN focus on Myanmar’s atrocities toward the Rohingya may need a new approach, one that speaks to the ‘ordinary virtues’ of the country’s majority.

AP Photo
A Rohingya refugee girl at a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Sept. 28.

We have seen this in too many places – from Rwanda to Bosnia to Syria – over recent decades. A country erupts in extreme violence between different groups. The rest of the world condemns the human rights violations and either intervenes with force, imposes sanctions, or does nothing. Afterward, lessons are drawn on how to fix the international moral order.

Now it is Myanmar’s turn. The majority Buddhist country, also known as Burma and still largely under the thumb of the military and not Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, is being condemned for recent attacks on the minority Muslims known as Rohingya. More than 480,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh. At least 1,000 have been killed.

On Sept. 28, the United Nations Security Council held its first open session to discuss the crisis. UN Secretary-General António Guterres called it a “humanitarian catastrophe.” Another UN official said Myanmar’s military operation is a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing. France went further and called it “genocide.”

Such responses by those upholding the universality of human rights presume that exposing such evil is good enough. That it will somehow shame the Myanmar government into submission. Or that extolling universal values such as tolerance will somehow persuade the Buddhist nationalists to view their country’s Muslims not as “the other” but as individuals in a shared society.

Yet, as in other crises with similar atrocities, this kind of condemnation or the assertion of rights does not always work.

Why is this too often the case?

A new book by a leading human rights advocate, Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian scholar and rector of the Central European University in Hungary, offers a compelling case for a different approach. The book, “The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World,” took him on a three-year, eight-nation journey to listen to vulnerable communities under stress. He talked to slum dwellers in Brazil, people in an isolated village in South Africa, those in a Japanese town devastated by a tsunami, former enemies in Bosnia, and people in the diverse neighborhoods of New York’s borough of Queens. He even talked to militant, anti-Muslim monks in Myanmar.

Dr. Ignatieff discovered that societies living under harsh social, economic, or physical conditions do indeed have their own inherent values, or “ordinary virtues,” such as compassion and mercy. But they may not regard this “moral operating system” as universal. They frame it as local. Such virtues – including equality – are seen not as an obligation but as a “gift,” negotiated between individuals, one at a time within society and in the spirit of reciprocity and solidarity. Whatever values are held in common are a result of transactions and are not a right. And gratitude is a necessary part of those transactions.

When outsiders such as the UN try to impose ideals and rights as universal, such communities often reject it. In the current case of Myanmar, the UN’s voice is not persuading the country’s majority. “At the moment, international human rights is a bystander on this story,” says Ignatieff. “It is not where we are right now.”

The real issue, he says, is how to change the political discourse in a country to focus more on its “ordinary virtues,” such as hospitality, in ways that will allow people to accept “the stranger” and break down stereotypes. In Bosnia, for example, Ignatieff found victims of a 1995 genocide were able to resume living side by side with perpetrators after dealing with them as individuals and not as people with a collective identity, such as “Serb.”

Too often a society with different types of groups is co-opted by leaders who exploit the ordinary virtues and create fear. They might claim one group has betrayed the other’s generosity. Or that a group’s current suffering is a result of those different from them. Or they use false categorization, such as the way Myanmar’s military and some monks claim all Muslims are terrorists.

To save the Rohingya, the UN and others may need to speak not to Myanmar’s military but directly to the people. They could try to use the language of “ordinary virtues,” and not the language of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They could listen carefully to fears of “the stranger” in Myanmar.

If such compassion can beget compassion in that country, ordinary virtues might someday become more universal. The world’s moral order might then become strong enough to prevent another mass evil.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to A different approach to curbing atrocities
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today