The World of International Organizations

U.N. expert: Myanmar atrocities continue

Kutupalong, the world’s largest refugee settlement, where 850,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar live near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh (ARÊTE/Russell Watkins)

GENEVA — A U.N. human rights investigator urged the world body on Wednesday to “step up its efforts” to protect ethnic and religious minorities from the Myanmar military’s continuing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar, called for an investigation into allegations of “ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity” by Myanmar’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw, in Rakhine and Chin states.

“While the world is occupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Myanmar military continues to escalate its assault in Rakhine state, targeting the civilian population, ” said Lee, a human rights expert, developmental psychologist and professor at South Korea’s Sungkyunkwan University. The U.N. Human Rights Council appointed her in 2014 to examine Myanmar.

“Instead, the Tatmadaw is inflicting immense suffering on the ethnic communities in Rakhine and Chin,” she said. “The Tatmadaw is systematically violating the most fundamental principles of international humanitarian law and human rights. Its conduct against the civilian population of Rakhine and Chin States may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Lee said Myanmar’s military forces continue to operate with impunity despite the International Court of Justice ordering Myanmar’s government in January to do everything it can to prevent more atrocities and genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority of hundreds of thousands of people.

An opinion from ICJ, the United Nations’ top court, instructed the Southeast Asian nation to “take all measures within its power to prevent the commission of all acts” that would violate the 1951 U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

The court described its instructions to Myanmar as “provisional measures” that will remain in effect at least until the court delivers its final decision in the case, a process that could go on for several years.

Accountability is critical to ending the conflict, Lee said, but “having faced no accountability, the Tatmadaw continues to operate with impunity.”

Civilians, journalists, aid workers targeted

Last September, a special U.N. fact-finding mission wrapped up two years of investigation by urging the international community to hold Myanmar’s military responsible for “genocidal acts” against the Muslim Rohingya minority.

The Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar said 600,000 Rohingya remaining inside Myanmar face systematic persecution and live under the threat of genocide, while Myanmar’s 2017 “clearance operations” killed thousands and caused more than 740,000 Rohingya to flee for their lives to Bangladesh.

In December, Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, once an icon of democracy and human rights, stood before the ICJ in The Hague, Netherlands, where she denied that her nation’s military has committed genocide against the Rohingya ethnic minority. Her father, the late General Aung San, is considered the father of independence in the former British colony of Burma.

“The situation in Rakhine is complex and not easy to fathom,” she told the court. “But one thing surely touches all of us equally: the sufferings of the many innocent people whose lives were torn apart as a consequence of the armed conflicts of 2016 and 2017 — in particular, those who have had to flee their homes and are now living in [Bangladesh refugee] camps in Cox’s Bazar.”

The Rohingya have long suffered widespread discrimination, denial of citizenship and other losses of basic human rights in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, which views them as Bangladeshi immigrants even though they settled long ago in the Rakhine region.

Since December 2018, Myanmar’s military has fought Arakan Army separatist insurgents in Rakhine and Chin states. The Arakan Army kidnapped local officials, Lee said, while the Tatmadaw in recent weeks “ramped up attacks on civilians,” killing and wounding hundreds and displacing 157,000 in all.

The Myanmar military’s air and artillery strikes in civilian areas of Rakhine and Chin states killed and injured scores of adults and children, then prevented some of the injured from getting urgent medical care, she said. Schools, a Buddhist temple and a village of 700 homes were burned or destroyed. A teenage boy with severe injuries died on his way to a hospital because the military blocked his vehicle.

Some ethnic Rakhine journalists have gone into hiding, fearing they will be arrested for reporting on the conflict. Aid workers have been targeted, including a health ministry staffer who was injured and a World Health Organization driver who died after soldiers shot at their United Nations-marked car.

“Humanitarian workers should not be a target; attacking them is a serious violation of international humanitarian law,” said Lee.

“There must be an investigation into who was responsible for the attack, with perpetrators held accountable,” she said. “I also call on the United Nations to step up its efforts to protect civilians in Rakhine and Chin and ensure that there is not another systemic failure like in 2017.”

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