Human Rights Watch has found that serious violations committed by members of Burma’s state security forces against the Rohingya Muslim population in northern Rakhine State since August 25, 2017, amount to crimes against humanity under international law. The crimes against humanity alleged include: a) forced population transfers and deportation, b) murder, c) rape and other sexual violence, and d) persecution as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the ad hoc international criminal courts.
Crimes Against Humanity by Burmese Security Forces Against the Rohingya Muslim Population
Human Rights Watch previously determined that the Burmese government was responsible for crimes against humanity against the Rohingya in 2012 and 2016 when Buddhist monks and ethnic Rakhine villagers carried out killings with help from the state security forces.
According to the ICC Statute, crimes against humanity are specified criminal acts “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.” The attack must also be part of a state or organizational policy. International legal jurisprudence requires that the attack be widespread or systematic, but need not be both. “Widespread” refers to the scale of the acts or number of victims and a “systematic” attack indicates “a pattern or methodical plan.”
The “attack” does not necessarily need to be a military attack as defined under international humanitarian law. Because crimes against humanity may be committed “inside or outside the context of an armed conflict, … the term civilian must be understood within the context of war as well as relative peace.” Furthermore, “the term ‘population’ does not require that crimes against humanity be directed against the entire population of a geographical territory or area.”
Crimes against humanity are crimes that fall within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in The Hague and are crimes of universal jurisdiction, meaning they may be prosecuted before national courts in countries outside of Burma, even though neither victim nor the perpetrator is a national of that country.
A. Burmese military attacks on the Rohingya population have been widespread and systematic
The Burmese military’s campaign against the Rohingya population was sparked by an August 25, 2017 attack by militants belonging to the armed group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which targeted about 30 police posts and an army base. The military’s attacks, which include mass burning, killings, and other abuses, have caused more than 400,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Tens of thousands more are internally displaced within Rakhine State. An additional 21,000 mainly ethnic Rakhine and other non-Muslims are also displaced in Rakhine State, as a result of ARSA attacks or the Burmese military operations.
Early satellite imagery showed the overall area in which burnings were found to be spread along an approximately 100-kilometer long stretch of Rakhine State, which is substantially larger than the approximately 20-kilometer long stretch in which burnings by Burmese security forces occurred from October to November 2016.
Maps of the damage seen in satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch show near-total destruction of 284 villages, with more than 90 percent of the structures in each village damaged. Detailed satellite images show the destruction of tens of thousands of homes across Maungdaw and Rathedaung Townships. Accounts taken from eyewitnesses, including video obtained and verified by Human Rights Watch researchers, place the blame for the vast majority of these burnings squarely on the Burmese security forces and vigilante groups acting in concert with the security forces.
B. Burmese military and government statements have indicated an intent to attack the Rohingya population
On September 16, the Burmese army commander, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, linked Rohingya demands to be recognized as an ethnic group under Burmese law with the army’s actions. Using “Bengali,” a Burmese ethnic slur for Rohingya, he stated in a Facebook post that, “They have demanded recognition as Rohingya, which has never been an ethnic group in Myanmar. [The] Bengali issue is a national cause and we need to be united in establishing the truth.” He described the ongoing operations against the Rohingya as “unfinished business” dating back to World War II.
On September 15, the Burmese Government Information Committee of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s office, stated that, “Those who fled the villages made their way to the other country [Bangladesh] for fear of being arrested as they got involved in the violent attacks” – implying that the several hundred thousand people who fled Burma were responsible for the militant attacks against the government.
On September 21, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing referred to restoring destroyed villages of the “national races,” a reference to the official list of recognized indigenous ethnic groups – a list that does not include the Rohingya: “Regarding the rehabilitation of villages of our national races, for the national races [largely ethnic Rakhine]who fled their homes, first of all they must go back to their places. …The important thing is to have our people in the region. It’s necessary to have control of our region with our national races. We can’t do anything if there are no people from our national races … that is their rightful place.