Yesterday, 25 August, marked three years since Myanmar’s security forces launched so-called “clearance operations” against the ethnic Rohingya population in Rakhine State. The operations were characterized by widespread mass killings, sexual violence, torture, the destruction of more than 300 Rohingya villages and the forced displacement of more than 745,000 people. The UN Human Rights Council-mandated Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (FFM) found that the security forces committed crimes against humanity and war crimes in Rakhine State, as well as genocide against the Rohingya. The FFM also identified senior officers who were responsible for these atrocities.
The genocide was the culmination of decades of institutionalized persecution targeting the Rohingya, including the denial of citizenship, severe restrictions on freedom of movement, marriage and reproductive rights, as well as access to employment and education. Although the “clearance operations” mostly ended in December 2017, almost one million Rohingya are still living in refugee camps in Bangladesh and are unable to safely return to Myanmar.
Myanmar is currently defending itself at the International Court of Justice, after The Gambia lodged a case accusing Myanmar’s state authorities of violating their obligations under the Genocide Convention. On 23 January the Court 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.
Despite the Court’s order, the laws and policies that systematically discriminate against the Rohingya remain in place, preventing the vast majority of the Rohingya from voting or running for office in the national elections scheduled for November. On 15 July the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Thomas Andrews, commented that, “the people of Myanmar deserve a free and fair election this November…and this includes respect for the right to vote regardless of one’s race, ethnicity or religion.”
Three years since the August 2017 “clearance operations” were first launched – and despite extensive evidence collected by the FFM and other credible sources – no senior officer from Myanmar’s security forces has been punished for committing atrocities against the Rohingya. The existential threat facing the Rohingya will continue until Myanmar ends this culture of impunity and addresses the underlying conditions that led to the genocide. This includes repealing or amending all laws that systematically discriminate against the Rohingya.
Nadira Kourt, Program Manager at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said that, “the UN Security Council fundamentally failed to uphold its responsibility to protect the Rohingya in 2017, but it is not too late to hold accountable the perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The UN Security Council should immediately impose targeted sanctions on all senior military officials responsible for the so-called ‘clearance operations’ and refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court.”
On Tuesday, 18 August, the Islamic State West Africa (ISWA), an offshoot of the armed extremist group Boko Haram, took hundreds of residents of Kukawa town in Borno State hostage, following a gunfight with the Nigerian military. Many Kukawa residents had only recently returned to their homes, having lived in displacement camps since a deadly attack in November 2018.
Boko Haram and ISWA have steadily intensified their attacks in the north-east of Nigeria over the past year, killing hundreds of people. Boko Haram has also increased its recruitment of child soldiers from displacement camps. The Governor of Borno State, Babagana Zulum, said that, “if IDPs living in camps and host communities are not given the opportunity to return to their communities to resume farming, they may be forced to join Boko Haram.”
Since 2009 Boko Haram has pursued a violent campaign aimed at overthrowing Nigeria’s secular government. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 35,000 people have been killed since 2009 and 2.4 million remain displaced in north-eastern Nigeria as a result of insecurity caused by Boko Haram.
In recent years Boko Haram has also expanded its operations into neighboring states, killing and displacing thousands of civilians in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. On 2 August Boko Haram killed 18 people when fighters threw a grenade into a displacement camp in the Far North of Cameroon.
The government of Nigeria must urgently implement measures to more effectively protect civilians against attack, recruitment and abduction by ISWA and Boko Haram. In addition to enhancing local security, the Nigerian government should continue to undermine the appeal of violent extremism through socio-economic initiatives and political reforms that combat corruption, poor governance and land rights.
Some governments are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to silence critical voices and persecute human rights defenders. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, around the world “the pandemic brings a heightened need to protect human rights defenders, as now there is even less space for victims to denounce violations.”
During August, Amnesty International identified 131 human rights defenders who have been harassed, prosecuted, killed or imprisoned on COVID-19 related pretenses. For example, human rights defenders in Venezuela, long characterized as “internal enemies” by the state, are facing increasing repression and arbitrary detention since the imposition of a “state of alarm” in March in response to COVID-19.
Meanwhile in the Philippines the government has been accused of arbitrarily detaining, threatening and harassing human rights activists. Two human rights defenders have been murdered since 10 August. Government officials had alleged that both individuals had ties to leftist organizations before they were killed by unidentified attackers. A June 2020 report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) found evidence of systematic human rights abuses by the Philippines government, including killings and arbitrary detentions resulting from President Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called “war on drugs.” OHCHR also documented at least 248 targeted killings of journalists, human rights defenders and other civil society activists between January 2015 and December 2019.
Human rights defenders are particularly vulnerable in countries where mass atrocity crimes are already occurring. Local activists are frequently subjected to violations and abuses that may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity.
In Afghanistan the ongoing war between the government, international military forces and the Taliban resulted in more than 10,000 civilians being killed or wounded last year. The International Criminal Court is also currently investigating potential war crimes committed by parties to the conflict. Nine Afghan human rights defenders have already been killed in 2020, exceeding the annual total for 2019. After a recent spate of killings, a group of UN experts stressed, “it is the responsibility of every government to protect human rights defenders against armed groups,” and called on the authorities to act on threats and intimidation.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause global instability, it is imperative that all governments provide effective protection to human rights defenders.
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Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
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