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 self-determination for the ethnic Rakhine population, have engaged in an armed conflict in Rakhine State. Myanmar’s security forces have shelled villages, blocked food supplies and arbitrarily detained civilians. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has said that targeted and indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Rakhine and Chin States may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. AA members have also been accused of violations and abuses. An estimated 90,000 people are currently displaced in Rakhine and Chin states due to the conflict.
The latest conflict in Rakhine State ignited roughly a year after the military launched so-called “clearance operations” on 25 August 2017. An estimated 745,000 people – the majority of the Rohingya population – were forced to flee Myanmar, bringing the total number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to over 900,000 people.
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. The 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.
In its 2018 report, the Human Rights Council-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 has also asserted that Myanmar breached its obligations under the Genocide Convention and “continues to harbor genocidal intent” towards the Rohingya.
On 11 November 2019 The Gambia 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 – to 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 submitted its first report to the ICJ on 23 May. The contents of the submission have not been disclosed to the public.
Myanmar will hold general elections on 8 November. The majority of the Rohingya population will be unable to vote or run for office due to Myanmar’s discriminatory laws and policies. On 30 July the Union Election Commission said that the elections may be postponed in Rakhine State due to ongoing insecurity.
The Myanmar government has failed to address the root causes of the Rohingya genocide, including 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.
Ongoing military operations in Rakhine State leave civilians at risk of atrocities. A government-imposed information blackout in parts of Rakhine and Chin states makes it difficult for the international community to verify Myanmar’s compliance with the ICJ ruling.
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 by 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 14 May and 11 September 2020 the UNSC discussed the situation in Myanmar in a closed video teleconference.
Since August 2017 various individual states and regional organizations have responded to atrocities in Rakhine State. The European Union has reinforced its arms embargo on Myanmar and imposed restrictive measures on 14 individuals, while Canada, Australia, United States and United Kingdom have imposed targeted sanctions on senior military officers. During May Germany announced that it was suspending development cooperation with Myanmar. On 2 September 2020 the governments of Canada and the Netherlands announced their intention to intervene in support of The Gambia’s case against Myanmar at the ICJ.
During September 2018 the HRC created an Independent Investigative Mechanism (IIMM) 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.
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.
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 29 May the Argentinian court formally requested information from the ICC.
On 8 September the New York Times reported that two Myanmar soldiers have been taken to The Hague after defecting from the army and confessing to being ordered to perpetrate atrocities and other crimes against the Rohingya during the 2017 “clearance operations.”
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. The UNSC should also refer the situation in Myanmar to the ICC and impose an arms embargo.
In advance of the November elections, Myanmar’s military should declare a nationwide ceasefire. The authorities must ensure that no community is excluded from voting due to discriminatory policies that violate universal human rights.
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