After the release of a scathing report on Myanmar’s human rights violations, next steps to achieve accountability and justice remain elusive and uncertain.
A year after the re-escalation of violence that forced almost a million people to flee to neighbouring countries, a fact-finding mission found a “human rights catastrophe” in Myanmar.
“The gross human rights violations and abuses committed in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan States are shocking for their horrifying nature and ubiquity,” the report states.
“Many of these violations undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law,” it continued.
“The U.N. system really failed the people of Myanmar particularly the Rohingya by treading softly.” — Human Rights Watch’s U.N. Director Louis Charbonneau
Triggered by insurgent attacks on security forces, the report pointed a finger to Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, for committing the gravest of crimes including indiscriminate killing, burning of houses, and sexual violence.
The investigators identified six generals, including the commander in chief of the Tatmadaw Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and recommended that they be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court (ICC) or at an alternative tribunal.
“There needs to be an unequivocal message sent that Myanmar’s military cannot act with impunity against ethnic minorities in Myanmar again,” Amnesty International’s Asia Advocacy Manager Francisco Bencosme told IPS.
“Never again has to mean never again – and the entire world is watching to see what the international community does,” he continued.
Like Bencosme, Human Rights Watch’s U.N. Director Louis Charbonneau also told IPS that the Security Council should refer the situation in Myanmar to the ICC or create a special criminal tribunal for prosecution.
But how did we get here?
Years of systematic oppression against Myanmar’s ethnic minorities made the crisis “foreseeable”—so what happened?
A System-Wide Failure
In 2008, the U.N. failed to heed warnings of increasing violence between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and did not report evidence of widespread government violations and casualties.
A 2012 internal review found that various U.N. agencies including the Security Council failed at every level to protect civilians and meet their responsibilities in the last months of the civil war in the South Asian nation.
In the wake of the fiasco, the U.N. implemented the Human Rights Up Front Initiative to ensure a better system of monitoring and responding to international crises. Though Myanmar was identified as a situation requiring the Action Plan’s human rights response to crises, the approach was rarely, if ever, used, the report stated.
Instead, U.N. agencies continued to prioritise development goals, humanitarian access, and quiet diplomacy—an approach which “demonstrably failed.”
“The U.N. system really failed the people of Myanmar particularly the Rohingya by treading softly,” Charbonneau told IPS.
“Now instead of us saying ‘never again’ after Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Srebrenica—here we are saying well yet again it happened. The U.N. didn’t do what it was supposed to be doing, it didn’t raise the alarm bells to the extent that they could have,” he continued.
The Security Council’s response, or lack thereof, has been equally disappointing. The U.N. organ has had only a handful of meetings on Myanmar and none have resulted in any resolution.
In contrast, Syria has received special attention over the last seven years with numerous meetings in the “triple digits.”
“Given the scale of the crisis in Myanmar, it is difficult to reconcile the different responses of the Security Council particularly given a situation where the U.N. for sometime has been warning about the possibility of the ‘g’ word that is genocide,” Charbonneau said.
“It would be good to see an attempt to really push the Council to try something. We haven’t seen that yet and I don’t know if we will see it,” he continued.
China and Russia, Security Council members with veto power, have consistently pushed back on efforts to act on Myanmar’s crisis, stating that the crisis should only be resolved by the parties directly affected including Bangladesh where over 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to.
In the Security Council’s first open meeting on Myanmar in eight years, Russia’s ambassador Vasily Nebenzya warned against claims of ethnic cleansing and blaming Myanmar’s authorities as it “will make it more difficult to achieve lasting interethnic peace inside the country.”
Whether it is genocide or crimes against humanity, Bencosme highlighted the need for the international community to act with respect to Myanmar.
“We don’t need a legal diagnosis to understand that something desperately tragic and clearly unlawful has been happening in Myanmar. What matters most is that a civilian population is under attack because of its race or religion, and that these violations must stop immediately,” he told IPS.
Myanmar has repeatedly denied accusations of violations including those most recently published through the fact-finding mission’s report.
“Myanmar authorities have shown themselves to be both unable and unwilling to investigate and prosecute those responsible. As a result, the ICC is the appropriate route to deliver justice,” Bencosme said.
However, since Myanmar is not a member of the ICC, only a member of the Security Council can bring the case to the tribunal.
“The time for rhetoric is over – there needs to be action. There needs to be genuine accountability and justice. There needs to be an honest conversation about referring the situation to the International Criminal Court. We need to pursue all avenues of justice for these victims and their families who are the heart of the crisis,” Bencosme concluded.
Urgent Action Needed
While Charbonneau expressed hope that the new report will “reenergise” the U.N., he noted that we should not idly wait.
“I don’t think we should be waiting around for the Security Council—too often the Council doesn’t move on issues and it’s more deadlock than ever these days. We may have to keep using these work-arounds like the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council,” he told IPS.
Among the alternative avenues for action is the establishment of an impartial mechanism by the Human Rights Council or General Assembly to collect, analyse, and preserve evidence for future potential criminal proceedings in the ICC or another criminal tribunal.
The report also recommends that the U.N. urgently adopt a common strategy to address human rights concerns in Myanmar in line with the Human Rights Up Front Action Plan, as well as a comprehensive inquiry into whether the U.N. did everything possible to prevent or mitigate Myanmar’s crisis.
“The time has past for these feeble condemnations or expressions of concern that we are so used to from the U.N.—we just really need action,” Charbonneau said.