Populations in Myanmar (Burma) face the ongoing threat of mass atrocity crimes.
Populations in Myanmar remain at risk of genocide and other atrocity crimes perpetrated by the security forces and as a result of discriminatory laws and policies.
Since November 2018 Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army (AA), an armed group seeking greater autonomy for the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist population, have engaged in an armed conflict in Rakhine State. Myanmar’s security forces have shelled villages, blocked food supplies and arbitrarily detained civilians. AA members have also been accused of violations and abuses. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at least 77,700 people are currently displaced in Rakhine and Chin states as a result of the fighting. Although the AA declared a unilateral ceasefire due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the military rejected ceasefire calls and over 100 civilians were killed during April. On 29 April the outgoing UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said the military’s “conduct against the civilian population of Rakhine and Chin States may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
The latest conflict in Rakhine State ignited roughly a year after the military launched so-called “clearance operations” on 25 August 2017. Since then an estimated 745,000 people – the majority of the Rohingya population – have been forced to flee Myanmar, bringing the total number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to over 900,000 people. In its 2018 report, the Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Independent International Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Myanmar concluded that the military has committed crimes against humanity and war crimes in Rakhine State, as well as acts of genocide against the Rohingya. The FFM concluded in September 2019 that Myanmar had breached its obligations under the Genocide Convention and “continues to harbor genocidal intent” towards the Rohingya.
On 11 November The Gambia, on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, filed a lawsuit with the International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing Myanmar of violating its obligations under the Genocide Convention. On 23 January the ICJ ordered Myanmar to comply with four provisional measures – prevent genocidal acts, ensure military and police forces do not commit genocidal acts, preserve all evidence of genocidal acts, and report on compliance with these measures. Myanmar’s first report is due on 23 May. On 8 April the Office of the President of Myanmar issued three directives requesting all ministries and local authorities to no commit genocide, to ensure that people do not destroy evidence of acts described in Article II of the Genocide Convention, and to prevent hate speech.
The Rohingya, a distinct Muslim ethnic minority group in Myanmar, have been systematically persecuted for generations. Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law rendered most of the population stateless. The rights of the Rohingya are further limited by the so-called “Protection of Race and Religion” laws that place harsh restrictions on fundamental religious freedoms, as well as reproductive and marital rights. An estimated 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Rakhine State are subject to severe restrictions on their freedom of movement and more than 100,000 Rohingya have been confined to camps since 2012.
Although the government of Myanmar issued directives not to commit acts of genocide and to preserve evidence, it has failed to repeal or amend laws and policies that systematically discriminate against the Rohingya. Until these change and the perpetrators of past crimes are held accountable, the threat of atrocities endures.
A government-imposed information blackout in Rakhine and Chin states makes it difficult for the international community to verify Myanmar’s compliance with the ICJ ruling. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, internet restrictions also prevent populations from accessing crucial information, leaving them vulnerable to infection.
The government of Myanmar has manifestly failed to uphold its responsibility to protect the Rohingya and other minority populations, and bears responsibility for the commission of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
The only formal response of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to the genocide against the Rohingya was the adoption of a Presidential Statement on 6 November 2017 that stressed the “primary responsibility of the Myanmar government to protect its population.” On 4 February 2020 the UNSC discussed the ICJ’s provisional measures order.
Since August 2017 individual states and regional organizations have responded to atrocities in Rakhine State. The European Union (EU) has reinforced its arms embargo on Myanmar and imposed restrictive measures on 14 individuals, while Canada, Australia and the United States have imposed targeted sanctions on senior military officers. During May Germany announced that it was suspending development cooperation with Myanmar. A number of countries have also recognized the crimes against the Rohingya as constituting genocide, including the parliaments of the Netherlands and Canada.
During September 2018 the HRC created an Independent Investigative Mechanism to “collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law” committed in Myanmar. The mechanism has been operational since August 2019.
During November 2019 the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, supported by Argentinian organizations, filed a case in an Argentinian court under the principle of universal jurisdiction, urging the prosecution of senior Myanmar officials responsible for the Rohingya genocide. On 14 November Pre-Trial Chamber III of the International Criminal Court (ICC) authorized the Chief Prosecutor to proceed with an investigation into crimes against humanity that may have been committed against the Rohingya, resulting in forced deportation across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.
Eighteen ambassadors to Myanmar issued a joint statement on 1 April expressing concern about the situation in Rakhine and Chin states, and calling for a ceasefire, as well as the lifting of media and internet restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Myanmar must fully comply with the ICJ order and address all underlying conditions that led to the genocide, including by repealing or amending laws that systematically discriminate against the Rohingya. The UNSC should monitor Myanmar’s compliance with the provisional measures order, including by requesting the transmission of Myanmar’s progress reports from the ICJ.
The UNSC should immediately refer the situation in Myanmar to the ICC and impose an arms embargo.
All states in the region should ensure the safe arrival of Rohingya refugees and abide by the international obligation of non-refoulement.
Myanmar’s military should declare a ceasefire in its armed conflict with the AA and provide unfettered access to Chin and Rakhine states for humanitarian actors.
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