Betel leaves cover the face of 11-month-old Rohingya refugee Abdul Aziz whose wrapped body lay in his family shelter after he died battling high fever and severe cough at the Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh on Dec 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters/ Damir Sagolj
Betel leaves cover the face of 11-month-old Rohingya refugee Abdul Aziz whose wrapped body lay in his family shelter after he died battling high fever and severe cough at the Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh on Dec 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters/ Damir Sagolj

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has vowed to play a “stronger” role on the Rohingya crisis to try to bring the Myanmar military to book for ousting the Muslim minority from their homeland in Rakhine state.

Top officials from the influential group, which has 57 member states and is the second largest inter-governmental body after the United Nations, have agreed to set up a Ministerial Committee on Accountability for Crimes against Humanity.

They took this stance during the 45th session of the OIC’s Council of Foreign Ministers in Dhaka on the weekend. This was just the second time representatives of the group have got together in the Bangladeshi capital, 35 years after they first met there in 1983.

While crises in other Muslim nations such as Palestine, Yemen and Syria are serious and were discussed in Dhaka, the Rohingya crisis became the “top agenda item”, partly because of the meeting’s location.

Bangladesh has given refuge to more than a million Rohingya refugees, including 700,000 who arrived last August after a violent crackdown which United Nations officials have described as “acts of genocide”.

‘Prioritizing Rohingya crisis’

Before the two-day meeting, an OIC delegation visited Rohingya refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar in the south of Bangladesh on Friday.

After observing the plight of Rohingya refugees firsthand, Hesham Youssef, the OIC’s assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told the media: “We have heard their tales of sufferings and collected information about brutalities inflicted on them by the Myanmar army.”

Youssef said the OIC “regretted” not responding “strongly enough” and “immediately” after the huge exodus of Rohingya from their troubled homeland last August.

“We will play a strong role along with Bangladesh, the United Nations and the international community,” he said, adding that the “The Rohingya crisis will be one of our main agenda [issues] in the OIC foreign ministers’ conference.”

Foreign ministers and diplomats of the 53-member Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) attend a conference in Dhaka on March 6, 2018. Islamic foreign ministers on May 6 launched a campaign to mobilise international support for action against Myanmar over the Rohingya refugee crisis, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / -
OIC foreign ministers meet in Dhaka on May 6. They launched a campaign to mobilize support for action against Myanmar over the Rohingya refugee crisis. Photo: AFP

The following day, OIC Secretary-General Yousef bin Ahmad Al-Othaimeen said all member countries should remain united in defending the rights of Muslim minorities targeted in the way the Rohingya were.

“We affirm the commitment of the OIC to continue to act at all international and regional levels in support of the cause of the Rohingya people,” Al-Othaimeen said.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who inaugurated the OIC foreign ministers’ meeting, urged the Muslim leaders to keep pressure on Myanmar, to ensure that it acts on the agreed safe return of  Rohingya refugees from her country.

“The Rohingyas deserve the right to life, dignity, and existence like us all,” Hasina said.

She said that with one-fifth of the world’s population, more than a third of is strategic resources and many rising economies with immense prospects, the Muslim world had the capacity to achieve anything.

Committee on crimes against the Rohingya

On the second day of the summit, the OIC foreign ministers decided to set up a “ministerial committee on accountability for crimes against the Rohingya” as a part of its “strong stance.”

Gambian Minister of Justice Abubacarr Tambadou proposed doing this to mobilize and coordinate international political support.

AH Mahmood Ali, Bangladesh’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, who now chairs the OIC foreign ministers group, said: “The committee will help systematically gathering support and evidence for getting justice for the crime committed against the Rohingya.”

OIC Secretary-General Al-Othaimeen said: “This is very important. This is one of the concrete steps taken to alleviate the problem for our [Rohingya] brothers and sisters.”

At the end of the meeting, OIC member-states unveiled the “Dhaka Declaration”, which said that “systematic acts against the Rohingyas by the Myanmar security forces constitute a serious and blatant violation of international law”.

The declaration also pledges to seek “strong International support to resolve the crisis and full implementation of the recommendations put forward by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State [otherwise known as the Annan Commission].”

United for a cause?

After the latest crisis unfolded, Dhaka has been busy working its diplomatic channels to garner support for repatriation of the Rohingya to their homeland. Experts on international relations believe back-to-back visits by a delegation from the UN Security Council and OIC foreign ministers will help yield a sustainable solution to the crisis.

Dr Delwar Hossain, director of the East-Asian Study Center at Dhaka University, said the OIC has urged Myanmar and the international community to resolve the crisis ever since it erupted. Its members believe Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya is akin to ethnic cleansing, just as the UN as observed.

Hossain said the OIC is dealing with a lot of problems and most are being dealt with in the troubled Middle East. “But the Rohingya crisis is not a problem of the Middle East and it is independent of Saudi-Iran or the more complex Shia-Sunni feuds. So, I am hopeful that the leaders of Muslim nations will stay united in the cause here.”

However, Dr Azeem Ibrahim, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy in Washington, was skeptical about whether the OIC could be united and determined enough to be successful.

He told Asia Times: “The OIC has a habit of making highbrow grand statements with little authority to actually implement them. They are designed essentially to pacify their domestic populations by showing they are doing something.

“I certainly hope this time it is different. They have a new Secretary- General, who seems energetic and ambitious. I hope he can see this through,” said Ibrahim, who authored the book “Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s hidden genocide.”

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