Gathering evidence increases chances of justice for Rohingyas in Myanmar

It’s been five years since a military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state forced some one million, mostly Muslim, Rohingyas into overcrowded camps in Bangladesh, where they remain. Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Five years after the Myanmar army cracked down on a million Rohingya refugees to neighboring Bangladesh, they have been unable to return home and have seen no justice. But a Geneva-based United Nations body says it has gathered vast amounts of evidence about crimes in Myanmar and shared it with two international tribunals.

This content was published on August 25, 2022 – 09:00

Since the February 2021 military coup, there has been an escalation of evidence of crimes against humanity across Myanmar, according to the United Nations International Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) in its latest annual report.External link, published on August 9. “We have seen in some ways that many other groups across the country are experiencing similar issues to what happened against the Rohingya,” IIMM chief Nicholas Koumjian told SWI swissinfo.ch. “There is talk of burning villages, for example, of reprisals against civilian populations for attacks by opposition forces.”

The IIMM was established by a decision of the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2018, with a mandate to collect and preserve evidence of the most serious international crimes (genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes) for future trials in international, regional or international jurisdictions. national courts. The UN has set up similar evidence collection for Syria and Sri Lanka. These moves are a UN response to situations where the veto powers of countries like Russia and China at the UN Security Council have blocked attempts to refer countries to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Evidence sharing

Koumjian says the situation in Myanmar is “very depressing and complicated”, but he notes that the ICC and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) the highest UN court based in The Hague opened proceedings and IIMM shared evidence with them. The ICC can prosecute individuals for serious crimes and has opened an investigation for forced deportation as a possible crime against humanity. This is based on its jurisdiction in Bangladesh, as Myanmar is not a member of the ICC.

The ICJ deals with disputes between states. The Gambia filed a lawsuit against Myanmar in 2019, accusing it of committing genocide against the Rohingya. The small West African country brought the case under the 1948 Genocide Convention, which imposes obligations on states to prevent and punish genocide. In July 2022, nearly three years after the case was filed, the ICJ declared itself competentExternal link, rejecting Myanmar’s arguments. The court can now start examining the merits of the case, although it could still take years, Koumjian told swissinfo.ch.

“At the ICC, we are cooperating with the prosecutor’s office and keeping them informed about our investigation,” he said. “They made requests for information, which we shared with them. They also give us an idea of ​​what they do so that we don’t step on each other’s toes, by contacting the same people, for example.

In the ICJ case, he says the IIMM received applications from Gambia and Myanmar in 2019 and shared evidence with both sides. He can do this, he says, provided he deems the evidence relevant to the proceedings, does not put anyone at risk and has the consent of those who gave the information.

More resources needed

IIMM says that since it began operations three years ago, it has collected more than three million pieces of information from nearly 200 sources. “This includes interview statements, documentation, video, photography, geospatial imagery and social media material,” its press releaseExternal link Explain.

The challenge now is to analyze this mass of information, says Koumjian. “In a way, we are victims of our success in collecting evidence,” he told swissinfo.ch. “I never imagined when I started that we would have so much material. Most of it is in the Burmese language, so the demands on our language ability are much greater than I thought. And since the coup, we also have many people coming forward and offering evidence.

He says IIMM will seek more funding, although he declined to say how much. The mechanism is funded by the UN regular budget and also receives voluntary contributions from countries including Switzerland.

Koumjian acknowledges that with the war in Ukraine and ongoing crises around the world, donors can be stretched. “Of course the world’s attention, the headlines turn to the next crisis, but the roughly one million Rohingya who have been forced to flee are living as refugees and continuing to do so,” he said. “For them, every day is another day of suffering. It is important that there is accountability, people must believe that there is international justice and that those who commit serious crimes must be held to account.

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Elna M. Lemons