The World of International Organizations Explained

Prosecution urged in Myanmar ‘genocide’

Rohingya Muslims in a Bangladesh refugee camp (ARÊTE/Sabina Yasmin)

GENEVA — A panel of U.N. human rights investigators has identified six Myanmar military leaders that it said should be prosecuted for genocide against Rohingya Muslims.

The United Nations investigators looking into the mass killings of Rohingya people in Myanmar’s Rakhine State urged authorities to involve the prosecutor’s office of the International Criminal Court, or ICC, based at The Hague, Netherlands, or create a new “ad hoc international criminal tribunal.”

“There is sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior officials in the Tatmadaw chain of command, so that a competent court can determine their liability for genocide in relation to the situation in Rakhine State,” the investigators concluded in a report, using the official name for the nation’s armed forces.

In the meantime, they proposed assigning “an independent, impartial mechanism to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence of violations” and recommended that the U.N. Security Council vote to approve targeted individual sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible.

They also reproached Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi for her laissez-faire approach to the Rohingya crackdown, creating what humanitarian officials describe as the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis.

Investigators said Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former pro-democracy activist who lived under house arrest, “has not used her de facto position as head of government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events in Rakhine State.”

Leading up to the U.N. investigators’ statement, Fortify Rights, an international organization based in Switzerland and the United States that focuses on Southeast Asia, said it had evidence of a Myanmar military-led campaign of genocide against the Rohingya.

Myanmar’s government rejected any cooperation with the ICC, the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal, to which it is not a party because it has not signed the Rome Statute that underpins the court’s authority. When that treaty reached 60 ratifications, it entered into force in July 2002 — which is also when the court became operational.

The 15-nation Security Council, the most powerful arm of the world body, can refer a matter to ICC prosecutors for investigation, even in a country that does not recognize its jurisdiction. China, as one of the council’s five permanent members, has veto power to protect neighboring Myanmar’s government.

There was no immediate comment from Myanmar’s foreign ministry. But in a statement in April it said that “brutal attacks” by a terrorist group had “triggered the humanitarian situation unfolding today.”

“Myanmar categorically rejects the irresponsible labelling of ‘ethnic cleansing’ or ‘state backed violence’ to describe events in Rakhine State, the ministry said in a statement posted online. “The government has stated time and again that no violation of human rights will be condoned. Allegations supported by evidence will be investigated and action taken in accordance with the law.”

The three experts mandated by the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate in Myanmar said that a genocide was unfolding and “responsibility starts at the top” with Myanmar’s Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing; Deputy Commander-in-Chief Soe Win; Lieutenant-General Aung Kyaw Zaw; Major-General Maung Maung Soe; and two brigadier-generals, Aung Aung and Than Oo.

“Impunity is deeply entrenched in Myanmar’s political and legal system, effectively placing the Tatmadaw above the law,” the experts said in a joint statement. “The impetus for accountability must come from the international community.”

They reported that a longer list of names would be kept under lock and key by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, OHCHR, and could later be shared with “any competent and credible body pursuing accountability in line with international norms and standards.”

The United States and European Union have already imposed sanctions on some Myanmar military leaders, but not the commander-in-chief.

The U.N. experts — Marzuki Darusman, a former Indonesian attorney-general; Christopher Sidoti, a former Australian Human Rights Commissioner; and Radhika Coomaraswamy of Sri Lanka, formerly a special representative of the U.N. Secretary-General on children and armed conflict — traveled in July to Bangladesh, where they met newly arrived Rohingya refugees from Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

Their investigation has focused on a broad array of alleged human rights violations by military and security forces since 2011, including sexual and gender-based violence, torture, killings, arbitrary deprivation of liberty, severe restrictions on movements, forced labor and the use of hate speech.

The U.N.’s 47-nation Human Rights Council, based in Geneva, authorized the fact-finding mission in March of last year — nearly six months before rebel attacks on security and police posts set off a crackdown that drove an estimated 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee into neighboring Bangladesh.

The investigators said they found patterns of gross human rights violations and abuses committed in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan States that “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law,” principally by Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, but also by other security forces.

“Military necessity would never justify killing indiscriminately, gang raping women, assaulting children, and burning entire villages,” their report said. “The Tatmadaw’s tactics are consistently and grossly disproportionate to actual security threats, especially in Rakhine State, but also in northern Myanmar.”

In their report, the investigators described those tactics as “shocking for the level of denial, normalcy and impunity that is attached to them. The Tatmadaw’s contempt for human life, integrity and freedom, and for international law generally, should be a cause of concern for the entire population.”

The alleged crimes against humanity in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine States, which could be tried in the ICC, include murder; imprisonment; enforced disappearance; torture; rape, sexual slavery and other forms of sexual violence; persecution and enslavement. In Rakhine State, evidence was compiled that includes alleged crimes against humanity of extermination and deportation.

Among the horrors, the U.N. experts said, was the scorching of Rohingya settlements and large-scale gang rape and other sexual violence by Tatmadaw soldiers, often in public spaces in front of families, including children. “I was lucky, I was only raped by three men,” one women told the investigators. Many children had visible injuries that matched their accounts of being shot, stabbed or burned.

Satellite imagery also corroborated some of the accounts of widespread, systematic, deliberate and targeted destruction, the investigators said. Homes in Rohingya-populated areas were burned down, for example, while nearby ethnic Rakhine settlements were left undisturbed.

“The government and the Tatmadaw have fostered a climate in which hate speech thrives, human rights violations are legitimized, and incitement to discrimination and violence facilitated,” the report said, adding that abuses also were committed by non-government “ethnic” armed groups.

Investigators were never allowed access into Myanmar, but they based their conclusions on information they gathered from primary sources, including 875 interviews with victims and eyewitnesses, satellite imagery and authenticated documents, photographs and videos. They also traveled to Bangladesh, Britain, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to gather evidence.

They are scheduled to present the Human Rights Council with the results of their year-long investigation, including a significant amount of satellite imagery analysis, on September 18.

The world of international organizations explained.

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