Human rights organization Fortify Rights has released a new report highlighting the roles of specific personal identity documents and, most recently, digital IDs as tools of persecution towards minorities across three different case studies.
According to the document, perpetrators of genocides have historically used identification documents to “discriminate, dehumanize, and then carry out mass violence against protected groups.”
Fortify Rights analyzed these tactics in relation to the Holocaust of the Jewish population, the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsi population, and the ongoing genocide of the Rohingya, an ethnic minority in western Myanmar.
The ‘Genocide by Attrition’ report opens by defining genocide as an “identity-based international crime” and quoting findings from the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention.
“‘Increased politicization of identity’ and discriminatory ‘measures or legislation’ targeting protected groups serve as indicators in creating ‘an environment conducive to the commission of atrocity crimes,’” reads the report.
The instrumental role of identification
The first chapter of the Fortify Rights report examines the instrumental role that identity documentation played across the three case studies mentioned above.
“Identification documents make it bureaucratically easier to identify, persecute, and kill targeted populations on a widespread, systematic, and massive scale,” reads the report.
According to the human rights organization, genocide by attrition, defined as “the gradual destruction of a protected group by reducing their strength through sustained, indirect methods of destruction,” must be acknowledged in order to understand past genocides and prevent future ones.
“For example,” the document explains, “the Holocaust would not have been logistically feasible on such a rapid and mass scale without the initial definition and registration of Jews.”
Similarly, identity documentation also facilitated the Rwandan genocide which, Fortify Rights sustains, started shortly after the airplane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down in 1994.
“Initial reports accused a Tutsi-led rebel group of being responsible for the killings and, within hours of the plane crash, state-sponsored radio announcers called on Hutu ‘patriots’ to kill members of the minority Tutsi population, who constituted approximately 14 percent of the country’s then 7.9 million people.”
To carry out these killings, Hutu perpetrators in some cases relied on the Rwandan national identification card that included the holder’s ethnic profile.
And just like the Hutu authorities, Fortify Rights argues, Myanmar governments have and continue to rely on identification documentation to commit international crimes against the Rohingya minority.
“For the past half-century, union-and state-level discriminatory laws, policies, and practices in Myanmar marginalized and dehumanized Rohingya people.”
‘National Verification Cards’
The second chapter of ‘Genocide by Attrition’ focuses on the facts connected to the deadly attempted military coup d’état in Myanmar launched on 1 February, 2021.
“[Since the attack], the Myanmar junta continues to deny the existence of the Rohingya and is forcing or coercing Rohingya to accept National Verification Cards (NVCs) — a document that confers no rights and identifies Rohingya as ‘foreigners’ in Myanmar.”
Following the issuing of NVCs, soldiers led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing are reported to have murdered and imprisoned thousands of people throughout the country while also intensifying attacks on ethnic armed organizations.
“Amid these attacks, Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where the majority of more than 600,000 Rohingya remaining in the country reside, told Fortify Rights how the junta is using NVCs to prevent them from identifying as ‘Rohingya,’” Fortify Rights writes.
“Instead, the junta identify the Rohingya as ‘Bengali’ or another foreign identity, fueling a dangerous falsity that Rohingya are interlopers from Bangladesh.”
Despite important contextual differences, the report claims that the three analyzed case studies suggest that Rohingya are indeed experiencing a genocide in Myanmar that resembles what the Jews underwent in Nazi Germany before the official start of the ‘Final Solution’ as well as what the Tutsis endured in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
According to the human rights advocates, all three cases share the metaphor of “invasion,” which will continue to hinder constructive efforts to find a sustainable solution to the ongoing Rohingya crisis.
“Finally, and most broadly, as all three cases make clear, identification cards and other forms of official documentation that ‘force a person to be affiliated with a governmentally-defined group and expose persons to profiling and human rights abuses based upon their group identity’ can play an instrumental role in the genocidal process.”
The Fortify Rights report concludes by providing a series of key recommendations aimed at raising awareness about the instrumental role of ID documentation in genocides, particularly in relation to the current situation in Myanmar.
In particular, Fortify Rights calls the Myanmar Junta and the National Unity Government of Myanmar to immediately abolish the NVC process, cease identifying Rohingya as “Bengali,” and end all restrictions on freedom of movement for Rohingya people. Instead, the Government should accept all ID documents, including those issued by the United Nations.
The organization also asks the United Nations and International Organizations in Myanmar and Bangladesh to “establish a common position and a coordinated, rights-respecting response to the [NVC] process that protects the rights of Rohingya and other communities and enables Rohingya to opt out of the [NVC] process, if they choose, without fear of reprisals or loss of opportunities.”
The full list of recommendations can be found here.