Human-rights violations committed in Myanmar constitute “the gravest crimes under international law,” a United Nations fact-finding mission said on Monday, unveiling a report that demanded action by the international community to hold accountable top military officers it says should be investigated and prosecuted for “genocidal intent.”
The independent fact-finding mission on Myanmar found “reasonable grounds” that serious crimes have been committed in the country’s Rakhine state, which has been home to the Muslim Rohingya, an ethnic minority largely denied citizenship in the Buddhist country. The report to the UN Human Rights Council pointed to the spread of hateful rhetoric, statements by Myanmar commanders, policies to alter the demographic composition of Rakhine state and “the extreme scale and brutality of the violence” that has taken place, particularly in the past year when nearly 725,000 people have fled the country. Most are now living in crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh.
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Of five acts deemed genocide under international law, four were present in Myanmar, the fact-finding mission found. What took place in Rakhine resembles the actions found to constitute “genocidal intent” elsewhere in the world, the mission found. It named a half-dozen “alleged perpetrators,” among them some of the most senior members of the Myanmar military, including commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing.
“The only way forward is to call for his resignation and stepping down immediately,” said Marzuki Darusman, who chaired the independent international fact-finding mission on Myanmar.
The report’s focus on genocide should drive the Rohingya to the top of the international agenda, human-rights advocates said, although it does little to resolve questions of how the UN will pursue international justice. Myanmar has not signed the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and so does not automatically fall under the jurisdiction of the court, complicating prosecution of the country’s officials.
But open discussion of genocide by an international body on Monday renewed calls for action against Myanmar, including an arms embargo and criminal proceedings.
“Governments have been loath to support efforts toward international justice. This report makes that position completely untenable,” said Matthew Smith, founder of Fortify Rights, a human-rights organization based in Southeast Asia. “Inaction at this point is indefensible.“
The fact-finding commission spread blame broadly. It specifically faulted Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is the country’s effective civilian leader, for failing to use her position, or her “moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events, or seek alternative avenues to meet a responsibility to protect the civilian population.”
“Through their acts and omissions, the civilian authorities have contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes,” the report added.
It also named social-media company Facebook as a “useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate,” and said the United Nations “demonstrably failed” in protecting human rights in Myanmar.
Facebook on Monday acknowledged it was “too slow to act,” but said it had removed 18 Facebook accounts, one Instagram account and 52 Facebook Pages. It also banned 20 people and organizations, including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and military-owned television network Myawady.
“We want to prevent them from using our service to further inflame ethnic and religious tensions,” Facebook said in a statement.
The online spread of hate speech was a contributor to violence against the Rohingya and an independent and thorough examination is needed of “the extent to which Facebook posts and messages have led to real-world discrimination and violence,” the fact-finders said.
The fact-finding mission interviewed 875 people, scrutinized satellite images and browsed public statements by Myanmar officials. Only 20 pages long, the initial report delivered this week is nonetheless a catalogue of atrocities that include mass rape, mass burning of homes and mass killings. “Bodies were transported in military vehicles, burned and disposed of in mass graves,” the report finds, calling estimates of 10,000 deaths “conservative.” At least 37,700 structures were wholly or partly razed, and in some places the charred remains have been removed to make way for new roads and mines.
The report also points to human-rights violations by security forces elsewhere in Myanmar, and says actions by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, an armed Rohingya group accused by Myanmar of sparking the violence, “may also constitute war crimes.”
But the language and specificity delivered by the fact-finding mission against the Myanmar military surprised Rohingya and human-rights researchers alike.
“I am still pinching myself,” said Razia Sultana, a Rohingya lawyer. “From 2012, we have been trying to tell the international community that what is happening is genocide and a crime against humanity. We didn’t get any response, just the word ’ethnic cleansing,’ which has no value,” she said.
The new report “is only a small step, but I believe this time we will not lose our hope.”
The report marks “the strongest accusation of genocide that we’ve seen from the United Nations,” added Laura Haigh, Myanmar researcher for Amnesty International. “It’s hugely significant, and I think it really sends a message about the level of evidence they have collected over the last year.”
Canada and the European Union have issued individual sanctions against Myanmar military officials, and have blocked weapons sales to the country.
But Ms. Haigh called for a global arms embargo against the Myanmar military, pointing to a recent trip by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to Russia, where he attended defence exhibitions.
“We really are looking at allegations of all of the major international crimes being committed by one institution in one country,” she said.
Still, Bob Rae, special envoy to Myanmar for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said the “challenges ahead are very great.” Because Myanmar has not signed on to the International Criminal Court, “it’s exceptionally difficult to get it in front of the ICC,” he said. The UN Security Council can refer the matter to the ICC, but that has not happened; critics blame China, which holds a veto, for being obstructionist.
But the UN fact-finding mission echoed calls by Mr. Rae and others to nonetheless begin assembling the components for a legal case, as countries attempt to use the Security Council or other mechanisms to launch international criminal proceedings.
“There needs to be some kind of independent mechanism which will pull together the evidence, make sure it is maintained and make sure it is brought together for whatever tribunal can be found to deal with it,” Mr. Rae said.
Still, those on the fact-finding mission acknowledged the limitations of their work. “Like almost all circumstances of genocide, there is no smoking gun. We do not have a copy of a direct order that says, ‘Undertake genocide tomorrow, please,’ ” mission member Christopher Sidoti said.
But the co-ordinated nature of attacks on the Rohingya – who Myanmar authorities call “Bengalis” – as well as the clear chain of military command, implicates senior officers, he said.
The report cites as evidence a September, 2017, Facebook post in which Senior General Min Aung Hlaing says, “The Bengali problem was a long-standing one which has become an unfinished job despite the efforts of the previous governments to solve it. The government in office is taking great care in solving the problem.”
“It’s a clear indicator,” Mr. Sidoti said.
Another citation comes from 2012, when the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party “cited Hitler, arguing that ‘inhuman acts’ were sometimes necessary to ‘maintain a race,’” the report found.