A human rights group exposed the systematic nature of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya in Myanmar on July 19, urging the international community to take action. The 162-page report “They Gave Them Long Swords” claims that, contrary to previous reports, Myanmar officials tediously planned acts of genocide and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya in the months leading up to the start of the mass killings at the end of August 2017.
Between October 2016 and August 2017, the report alleges that the Myanmar army disarmed Rohingya civilians, armed non-Rohingya locals, blocked humanitarian aid to weaken the population, enforced curfews based on religious ideology, removed thousands of non-Rohingya civilians from areas occupied by Rohingya, and developed an unreasonably large military presence in the region.
Fortify Rights Group, based in Southeast Asia, collected witness accounts from 254 survivors over a 21-month period to write the report which urges UN intervention. The group has identified 22 officers responsible for the atrocities which include mass killings, sexual violence, and arson. That list of officers includes the Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
Myanmar still denies allegations of the atrocities. The government cites an incident on August 25th, 2017 as just cause for what they view as a retaliation. Rohingya militants, armed with sticks and knives, conducted raids on border police outposts. To suppress the militants, the Myanmar military killed at least 376 Rohingya who they later referred to as “terrorists”. Over the next month, the military conducted “clearance operations” that resulted in the indiscriminate civilian violence and the killing of over 6,700 Rohingya, according to estimates from the humanitarian group Médecins Sans Frontières.
According to Fortify Rights Group, the report lays the groundwork for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open an investigation. The ICC investigates allegations of mass atrocities, including genocide, when a state party to the Rome Statute is unwilling or unable to do so. Although Myanmar is unwilling to prosecute anyone involved in the campaign of violence and brutality against the Rohingya, the ICC cannot intervene because Myanmar has not signed on as a party to the Rome Statute. The only way for the ICC to open a case is through a Chapter VII referral from the UN Security Council.
The UNSC has not referred a case to the ICC since Libya in 2011. UNSC referrals are dictated by political relations, particularly between the five permanent members — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. Political balancing acts have prevented the member states from reaching a unanimous vote in instances of clear human rights violations, like Myanmar, where the ICC does not typically have jurisdiction.
Matthew Smith, the Chief Executive of Fortify Rights told The Guardian, “The ICC was created precisely for situations like this, when a government fails to investigate and prosecute mass atrocities […] So long as impunity continues, we’re likely to see more atrocities.”
The report also documents violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar extending back at least 11 years. The Rohingya were denied citizenship in 1982 and have not had basic rights like healthcare and free movement. Attempts on the part of the Myanmar government to prevent humanitarian aid from intervening has only worsened the situation over the years.
Human Rights Watch urged the Security Council to take action in May after senior diplomats from the 15 countries that make up the security council visited Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, where they heard first-hand accounts of the violence. In a press release after this visit, the Security Council asked Myanmar to undertake transparent investigations, uphold the law, and hold perpetrators accountable. The Security Council has not taken any further action, despite the fact that all of the diplomats agreed with UK Ambassador Karen Pierce’s assessment that the situation amounted to “one of the most significant human rights cases that we have ever faced in the last decade.”
Fortify Rights Group states in its report that genocide does not happen overnight and evidence suggests that the Myanmar military carefully planned the persecution and systematic ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. These grave atrocities warrant investigation and eventual prosecution by the ICC. By doing nothing, the international community allows for the possibility of future ethnic cleansings. The perpetrators must be held accountable, meaning that the UNSC must stop denying the ICC the ability to carry out its intended purpose — to step in when a state commits atrocities against people residing within its borders and refuses to prosecute those who orchestrated the crimes.
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