Since 31 January Myanmar’s (Burma) military – the Tatmadaw – has burned down more than 1,500 homes in northwest Sagaing Region’s Pale and Mingin townships, resulting in civilian casualties and mass displacement. In a span of 10 days in January, the military killed at least 38 civilians in Sagaing Region, including women and children. Over 10,000 civilians have been forced to flee Mingin Township so far. The recent offensives appear to have been in retaliation over assaults by the local People’s Defence Force (PDF), civilian militias formed as part of an armed resistance against the junta. The series of arson attacks are the latest in the Tatmadaw’s ongoing large-scale offensive and scorched-earth campaign that began in November in northwestern Myanmar.
Widespread and systematic violence is also intensifying elsewhere in Myanmar. A new report by the nongovernmental human rights organization, Fortify Rights, released on 15 February, provides evidence of likely war crimes perpetrated by the military in southeastern Kayah (Karenni) State, including the killing of at least 61 civilians and the use of others as human shields. Fortify Rights also documented attacks on churches, residential homes, displacement sites and other non-military targets between May 2021 and January 2022. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, between the 1 February 2021 military coup and 31 January 2022, more than 3,500 houses, churches, monasteries, schools and markets had been either burnt down or destroyed in Chin and Kayah states and Sagaing and Magway regions.
The escalating conflict in northwestern and southeastern Myanmar has triggered waves of mass displacement. On 11 February the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) announced that since the military coup, an estimated 440,000 people have been forced to flee as a result of airstrikes, shelling and the burning of villages, bringing the total number of internally displaced people (IDPs) to over 800,000. UNHCR Spokesperson, Matthew Saltmarsh, warned that, “security is deteriorating rapidly across the country as fighting and armed conflict intensifies with no sign of abating. UNHCR forecasts an accelerating trend of displacements in the coming weeks and months.”
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) must do more to respond to the escalating crisis in Myanmar and prevent a regional refugee crisis. Myanmar’s neighbors have a responsibility to give temporary protection to people fleeing violence and atrocities, and to refrain from returning them to Myanmar. The UN Security Council must immediately impose a global arms embargo on Myanmar’s military, and ASEAN should support it. UN member states, and in particular ASEAN member states, must sanction Myanmar’s oil and gas sector to protect civilians from further atrocities.
On 14 February UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that “the time is now” to defuse tensions between Russia and Ukraine and its allies amid warnings that war could be imminent. Secretary-General Guterres stressed that, “the price in human suffering, destruction and damage to European and global security is too high to contemplate,” and reminded the international community that “there is no place for incendiary rhetoric. Public statements should aim to reduce tensions, not inflame them.”
Since fall 2021 tensions have been on the rise due to Russia’s troop build-up near Ukraine’s border. Approximately 150,000 Russian troops and equipment have been deployed to Ukraine’s western, southwestern and northern borders. Despite this mobilization, Russia has denied any plans to invade the country. The United States and other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have insisted on de-escalation.
This dramatic escalation is the latest evolution in a conflict that has been ongoing since 2014, when anti-government protests evolved into a Russian-backed separatist movement that seized parts of the eastern provinces of Ukraine – Donetsk and Luhansk – an area collectively called Donbas. In February 2014 Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych was removed from power by a parliament vote – a move that Russia perceived as a Western-backed overthrow. Russia subsequently annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014. The UN General Assembly has deemed this annexation illegal and invalid under international law. The crisis is partly rooted in Ukraine’s desire to join NATO and to deepen ties with its European neighbors, which Russia views as a “red line” and direct threat to its security.
Since 2014, several rounds of peace negotiations have failed to achieve a long-standing solution and civilians have continued to bear the brunt of conflict. At least 3,393 civilians have been killed, with over 7,000 people injured thus far. Approximately 2 million people live in a 20-kilometer zone on both sides of the stalemated “line of contact,” or line of separation, in Donbas and would be under increased risk of violence and displacement if the conflict escalates. Donbas is also one of the world’s most heavily mine-contaminated areas, including landmines and explosive remnants of war which pose significant threats to civilians’ physical and socioeconomic wellbeing. Currently 2.9 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and at least 1.4 million are internally displaced.
International human rights organizations have documented alleged atrocity crimes committed by all sides since 2014, including the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, as well as armed groups using arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence in areas under their control. These acts may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Savita Pawnday, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, joined those urging calm, emphasizing that, “an escalation of hostilities in Ukraine would have a detrimental impact on civilians across the region. All parties involved, including Ukraine, Russia and NATO-members, must commit to de-escalation for the sake of civilians in Donbas and beyond. Their lives should not be pawns for geopolitical gain.”
On 11 February a Committee of Experts from the United Nation’s International Labour Organization (ILO) released its annual report in which it expressed concern about the working conditions facing Uyghurs and other Muslim-majority ethnic groups in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and throughout China. Speaking to Reuters, an ILO official said the alleged violations would be raised at the International Labour Conference in June, which could lead to a formal complaint and the creation of a commission of inquiry to investigate abuses. Uyghur forced labor is well-documented and likely constitutes crimes against humanity; however, this report is significant because it is a rare instance of a UN agency criticizing China’s human rights abuses.
Under the false claims of combatting religious extremism, the Chinese government in recent years has detained more than 1 million Uyghurs and members of other majority-Muslim ethnic groups in “re-education” or “de-extremification” camps, where they are then often forcibly transferred to factories in XUAR and across China to work under conditions of forced labor. Reports estimate approximately 100,000 Uyghurs in XUAR are working under conditions that strongly suggest forced labor. The ILO experts expressed concern about the forced relocation of workers, namely Uyghurs, across China, and raised doubts about the validity of China’s claims that its policies in the region are for counterterrorism purposes.
According to the report, “the employment situation of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China provides numerous indications of coercive measures, many of which arise from regulatory and policy documents.” The committee asked the Chinese government to repeal provisions “that impose de-radicalisation duties on enterprises and trade unions” in XUAR and to “review its national and regional policies with a view to eliminating all distinction, exclusion or preference” against Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in XUAR.
The release of the ILO report comes amid increasing calls for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, to publicly release her office’s report on human rights in XUAR. In September 2021 High Commissioner Bachelet announced her office was finalizing its report on human rights in XUAR.
Liam Scott, Research Associate at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said that, “the Chinese government should heed the recommendations of the ILO experts and immediately halt its widespread and systematic practice of Uyghur forced labor. All UN member states should ban goods produced with forced labor of Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in China. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should publish its report on XUAR before the upcoming 49th regular session of the Human Rights Council.”