Decades of systematic dehumanisation. Life in an open-air prison. The resentment erupts into violence. A military pushback kills thousands of civilians, and forces hundreds of thousands more from their homes. The government calls it self-defence – a fight against terrorism.
This was the reality in Myanmar in 2017. The military violently expelled more than 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh, following decades of apartheid-like oppression. What Myanmar’s military claimed was necessary, the UN described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. The United States called it a genocide and crimes against humanity.
The parallels between Myanmar in 2017 and what is now happening in Gaza are striking, but the divergent international response has been baffling.
No state stood “shoulder to shoulder” with Myanmar’s military as it blatantly committed mass atrocities. International condemnation was widespread: There were calls not just for an immediate end to the violence, but for justice and rights for the Rohingya.
This unanimity is desperately needed again today in Gaza, to stop Israel’s indiscriminate killing, mass displacement, and deprivation of civilians. The international humanitarian system is at a crossroads – in Palestine, and in the many crises where humanitarian needs are intertwined with human rights abuses.
I worked in the humanitarian sector in Myanmar and Bangladesh as the Rohingya were driven from their homes. One of the most alarming elements, beyond the violence, was the discourse. The well-oiled military propaganda machine, backed by nationalist influencers and facilitated by Facebook, inflamed anti-Rohingya sentiment and obstructed voices of reason. To even use the word Rohingya – let alone discussing the links between decades-long oppression and contemporary violence – drew ire and protests.
The same frightening thing is now happening with Gaza. People are being silenced simply for opposing the widespread killing and displacement of civilians. When an Israeli member of parliament equates calls for a “humanitarian pause” with supporting al-Qaeda, our Orwellian dystopia solidifies by the day.
This raises existential questions for the international humanitarian system.
The international humanitarian system is at a crossroads – in Palestine, and in the many crises where humanitarian needs are intertwined with human rights abuses.
Its legitimacy has eroded: It was ill-prepared for the current crisis in Gaza, and remains largely unable to access affected populations – another parallel with Myanmar.
Longer-term, the system continues to fail Myanmar, and it risks doing the same in Gaza.
In Myanmar, humanitarians largely ignored issues of justice for Rohingya and other ethnic minorities across the country. Instead, international actors sought to placate the military to maintain a country presence; the military simply continued deploying indiscriminate violence and restricting humanitarian access. A simplistic notion of neutrality led to aid policies that propped up the long-term encampment of the Rohingya population, and undermined Myanmar’s dynamic civil society activism.
In Gaza, timid international humanitarian actors are narrowly appealing to humanitarian law, but they side-step the reality that a genocide is unfolding. Civil society are left to be the flag bearers for a commitment to justice. As Desmond Tutu put it many years ago:
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
How should the humanitarian system respond?
The importance of “humanitarian resistance” is growing by the day, and its expansion must be supported. This resistance approach views justice for affected populations as inseparable from humanitarian needs. The aid response can contribute toward resistance by recognising the systemic injustices that drive a crisis, and supporting local humanitarians that are committed to pursuing justice.
Forgoing a detached neutrality, humanitarian resistance resonates with those facing oppression, and enhances the legitimacy of those who practise it. Counter-intuitively, this can improve humanitarian access to affected populations because such legitimacy enhances trust and reduces scepticism, while the “neutralists” continue to be constrained.
In Gaza, humanitarian resistance is currently driven by community-based and civil society networks that remain locally embedded and are responding to immediate needs while calling for justice, as international humanitarian actors are largely sidelined. Although the Israeli state has systematically suppressed Palestinian civil society groups, they remain defiant. International humanitarian actors must align their support accordingly, such as ramping up flexible funding for grassroots networks that exemplify humanitarian resistance in practice.
International aid is routinely the last in and first out of emergencies. Resources, influence, and safety measures for local humanitarians must be dramatically expanded, as they bear the brunt of crises.
Gaza’s immediate humanitarian needs must be met – but the system must not return to propping up indefinite encampment without political solutions. Warehousing displaced populations is abhorrent; Gaza is as much an open-air prison as the barricaded camps that still confine some 130,000 Rohingya in Myanmar.
Fed by unchecked rights abuses, the decades-long humanitarian crises in Palestine and Myanmar have outlasted governments, peace accords, geopolitical strategies, and year-to-year aid appeals.
This shows why the humanitarian system’s influence must be leveraged not just for civilian protection, but also long-term justice and rights.
It must oppose all discourse justifying atrocities, including dehumanisation, while supporting those calling out perpetrators.
The legitimacy of the humanitarian system is ultimately at stake. Acquiescence is corrosive – but humanitarian resistance can be galvanising.