Around the world, there is profound concern that America is giving up the mantle of global leadership. Our steady retreat over the past decade has contributed to a wide array of complex global challenges — a dangerous erosion of the rule of law, gross human rights violations and the decline of the rules-based international order that was designed in the aftermath of two world wars to prevent conflict and deter mass atrocities.
We’ve seen this unfold in Syria, where the United States and the international community have shamefully failed to address brutal violence that has engulfed the country for seven years, led to hundreds of thousands dead and contributed to the worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II.
And sadly, we are seeing now this same lack of effective diplomacy in Myanmar, formerly Burma, where since last summer 680,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced to flee a systematic military campaign of killings, arson, rape and other mass atrocities amounting to ethnic cleansing.
Attacks against the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship under Burmese law, are not new. They have faced decades of repression, discrimination, harassment and violence. In recent months, thousands of Rohingya have been slaughtered, countless women and girls have been gang-raped, civilians have been burned alive, and villages have been razed. Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of horrific cases, including that of a 15-year-old girl who reported being tied to a tree and raped repeatedly by a group of armed men. Other survivors described children and the elderly locked in their homes and burned alive.
For more than three decades, America stood with our allies to support democracy in Myanmar and demand freedom for thousands of Burmese political prisoners. That unified stand ultimately led to the election in 2015 of the country’s first civilian government after a half-century of direct military rule. Unfortunately, such promising progress has been squandered.
We need to show equal resolve now to stop the violence and safeguard the rights and freedoms of all Burmese peoples. The United States should take the lead in four ways, and ask our partners and allies to join us.
First, we must demand an end to impunity in Myanmar and hold the perpetrators of these most recent atrocities accountable. The coordinated decision by the State Department and the European Union to cease consideration of travel waivers for current and former senior leaders of the Burmese military is a good start, but it is not enough.
Passing the Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act, a bill sponsored by Senator McCain, would impose sanctions on Burmese military and security forces responsible for the bloodshed and send the strong message that those who commit atrocities will pay a price. There can be no free and peaceful future for the country built on impunity for war crimes and persecution.
Second, we must support efforts to properly investigate human rights violations. The Burmese military has issued an official report exonerating its forces of all accusations, and Burmese officials continue to dismiss allegations of wrongdoing as militant propaganda. America should champion and lead international efforts to ensure a credible, independent mechanism outside Myanmar to investigate and ultimately prosecute human rights violations and other crimes against the Rohingya, and encourage other countries to contribute to such efforts.
Third, we must support increased medical assistance for the Rohingya who have been subjected to unspeakable abuse. According to recent reports, many survivors are still not getting proper assistance because of a lack of funding for gender-based-violence programs. Addressing these shortfalls and taking steps to protect Rohingya refugee women and girls from further sexual violence should be a priority for the United States and like-minded countries. We must also take urgent steps to get medical care and assistance to Rohingya families in desperate need in Rakhine State in Myanmar.
Finally, the United States must lead efforts to resolve decades of ethnic strife throughout Myanmar, including by carrying out the recommendations of Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State and extending citizenship to the Rohingya people. This cannot be achieved while the Burmese authorities continue to deny humanitarian access to large parts of Rakhine. It will take robust diplomacy to overturn this; to keep the peace talks begun in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, a year and a half ago moving forward; and to bring more groups into the process.
While politics have left Americans deeply divided, we can all unite around the belief that a commitment to freedom, justice and human rights has distinguished the United States as a great nation. Our failure to hold accountable those who commit mass atrocities and human rights abuses will lead to more violence and instability.
As the humanitarian crises in Myanmar, Syria and elsewhere intensify, the world is closely watching whether the United States will reclaim the mantle of international leadership and take action. For the sake of all people who still look to America as a beacon of hope and yearn for a future based on shared values, it’s critical that we do.
John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Angelina Jolie is a filmmaker and a co-founder of the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative.