Photo Source: © STR/AFP via Getty Images
Photo Source: © STR/AFP via Getty Images

Atrocity Alert No. 244: Myanmar (Burma), South Sudan and Afghanistan

17 March 2021

Atrocity Alert is a weekly publication by the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect highlighting situations where populations are at risk of, or are enduring, mass atrocity crimes.

Mass killings by Myanmar’s military may amount to crimes against humanity

More than 50 people were killed on Sunday, 14 March, marking the bloodiest day since Myanmar’s military overthrew the civilian-led government on 1 February. Security forces were filmed firing into crowds with live ammunition, destroying civilian property and attacking medical volunteers. Since then, Myanmar’s military has imposed martial law in several townships in and around the country’s largest cities – Yangon and Mandalay. Under martial law, civilian protesters can be tried in military courts with no right of appeal. The military has also shut down internet access in an attempt to stop activists communicating with each other and the outside world.

According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), at least 149 people have been killed by the security forces since 1 February, although credible reports from inside Myanmar suggest that the death toll may possibly be as high as 200 people. OHCHR also confirmed that at least five people have died while in the custody of the security forces, with at least two bodies showing signs of torture. According to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, at least 2,181 people have been arrested, charged, or sentenced since the coup.

In his address to the UN Human Rights Council on 11 March, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said that abuses committed by the military since the coup may amount to crimes against humanity. The security forces have repeatedly and recklessly used tear gas, water cannon, rubber bullets, stun grenades and live ammunition against unarmed protesters.

On 15 March UN Secretary-General António Guterres said he was “appalled by the escalating violence in Myanmar at the hands of the country’s military” and urged the international community to “work collectively and bilaterally to help bring an end to the repression.”

At mass protests across Myanmar, people continue to call on the international community to uphold its Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and stop the deadly violence of the security forces. “The concept of R2P emerged in response to the failure of the international community to adequately respond to atrocities committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s,” stressed Nadira Kourt, Program Manager at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. “It is essential that the UN Security Council, as well Myanmar’s neighbors and all governments around the world, heed the pleas of the people in Myanmar and address the threat of further crimes against humanity. Only decisive collective diplomatic action can prevent a further loss of life in Myanmar.”

Famine and food insecurity leave millions at risk in South Sudan

Seven million people – roughly sixty percent of the population – are acutely food insecure in South Sudan as a result of endemic conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. These are the highest levels of food insecurity and malnutrition recorded since South Sudan’s independence in July 2011. Robert Mardini, Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross, noted that despite facing “one of the most complex humanitarian crises anywhere,” South Sudan is now a “forgotten conflict.”

On Monday, 15 March, the Human Rights Division of the UN Mission in South Sudan reported that violence by community-based militias has significantly increased and that these groups have been responsible for the majority of conflict-related civilian casualties since the signing of the country’s 2018 peace agreement. The UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CHRSS) has also reported that levels of localized violence are possibly higher than during the country’s 2013-2018 civil war and are often fueled and exploited by government and military officials. The CHRSS noted that many structural risk factors that facilitated the commission of atrocities in the past, remain present today.

During the civil war both government troops and opposition forces deliberately used the starvation of civilians as a method of warfare. In his remarks to a UN Security Council thematic debate on 11 March, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, “if you don’t feed people, you feed conflict. Conflict drives hunger and famine, and hunger and famine drive conflict.”

President Salva Kiir and the transitional government should urgently address the high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition in their country. The government must ensure rapid, unhindered and sustained access to vital humanitarian aid for all people in South Sudan, regardless of ethnicity or political affiliation. The international community should continue to support essential life-saving humanitarian programs.

In keeping with the terms of the 2018 peace agreement, the government must also help break the cycle of impunity by establishing the Hybrid Court for South Sudan and other transitional justice mechanisms. Until these mechanisms are fully operational, the CHRSS needs to be enabled to continue its crucial work. Next week, members of the UN Human Rights Council should support the renewal of the Commission, including its current mandate to investigate, collect and preserve evidence of atrocity crimes.

Afghan civilians continue to be targeted despite peace talks

Despite the ongoing negotiations between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan, deadly attacks on civilians continue across the country. On 12 March a car bomb attack in western Herat province killed or maimed more than 60 people. The previous week seven factory workers from the minority Hazara community were shot and killed. Four women – one doctor and three media workers – were also targeted and assassinated in Jalalabad during the first week of March.

These killings are part of a growing pattern of attacks on civilians that have dramatically increased since the Taliban and the Afghan government began intra-Afghan negotiations in September 2020. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, 2,792 civilians were killed or wounded between September and December alone.

Recent gun and bomb attacks have targeted civil servants, members of the judiciary, media personnel, healthcare workers, politicians, human rights defenders and humanitarian workers. Many of these attacks have targeted professional women as well as members of ethnic and religious minority communities. These attacks are potential war crimes and have also included the use of indiscriminate improvised explosive devices in civilian populated areas. Some journalists and civil servants have been forced to flee the country, while others live in constant fear.

The Afghan government has blamed the Taliban for most recent attacks on civilians, although the group denies responsibility. Armed extremists from the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan group have claimed responsibility for some attacks.

Jahaan Pittalwala, Research Analyst at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said that, “all parties in Afghanistan must cease targeted attacks on civilians and uphold their obligations under international law. Those involved in intra-Afghan negotiations must respect the human rights of all Afghans and commit to a lasting negotiated settlement of the armed conflict.”


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