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Policy Briefer: Bearing Witness to Crimes Against Humanity

October 5th, 2017  •  Author:   Refugees International  •  5 minute read

Following the violent expulsion of some 400,000 Rohingya in Myanmar in the course of three weeks (now more than 500,000), Refugees International (RI) President Eric Schwartz and Senior Advocate for Human Rights Daniel Sullivan traveled to Bangladesh to assess the situation and bear witness. This policy brief is based on that mission, which involved interviews with Rohingya refugees who recently arrived from Myanmar as well as with United Nations and Bangladesh government officials and international aid workers in Bangladesh. Schwartz and Sullivan visited a hospital in Cox’s Bazar which treats recently arrived Rohingya from Myanmar, four makeshift settlements for Rohingya (Kutupalong, Balukhali, Thaingkhali, and Unchiprang) as well as border crossing areas and a “no-man’s land” where many Rohingya have gathered between the borders of Myanmar and Bangladesh. This policy brief is largely adapted from testimony given by Refugees International’s Senior Advocate for Human Rights Daniel Sullivan before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific on September 27, 2017.1

The Myanmar military has been executing a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya people of Myanmar, marked by abuses that constitute crimes against humanity.

More than 500,000 Rohingya have fled their homes in the course of a month, approaching half of the entire Rohingya population that had been living in Myanmar up to a month ago. Vast swaths of villages have been burned by the Myanmar security forces and Rakhine Buddhist mobs. Rohingya refugees who have arrived in Bangladesh share consistent accounts of Myanmar soldiers surrounding villages, burning homes to the ground, stabbing, shooting, and raping the inhabitants, leaving the survivors to flee for their lives.

The Rohingya have faced decades of persecution, but the violence and large-scale displacement have intensified in recent years. The current crisis that began just over a month ago is of an entirely new scale and level of inhumanity. The current campaign began after attacks on 30 security posts in Rakhine State in western Myanmar and the killing of 12 Myanmar security officials by poorly armed Rohingya insurgents, but the military’s response to those attacks has been grossly disproportionate and has broadly targeted the Rohingya civilian population. Many people from other ethnic groups, including Rakhine Buddhists and Hindus have been displaced and killed as well, reportedly in attacks by Rohingya insurgents, but the attacks on other groups has been nowhere on the scale of the attacks on the Rohingya.

The outflow of half a million Rohingya has also created a humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh as existing capabilities have been overwhelmed. To its credit, the Bangladesh government has generally welcomed the Rohingya refugees, but much more international assistance is needed to address the still growing humanitarian crisis. Ultimately, the root causes of the crisis will have to be addressed by bringing pressure on the Myanmar government that has continued policies of persecution and on the Myanmar military that has carried out egregious human rights abuses.


The UN Security Council should:

  • Demand a cessation of abuses against Rohingya civilians, access for a United Nations fact-finding mission that has been authorized by the UN Human Rights Council, and unfettered access for humanitarian organizations to Rakhine State.
  • Impose a multi-lateral arms embargo until these requirements are met and individuals involved in planning, aiding or carrying out such abuses against the Rohingya are held accountable.
  • Place targeted sanctions on Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and other senior military officials and military-owned enterprises.
  • Authorize evidence collection through the UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission or another UN Security Council authorized fact-finding mission toward holding accountable those responsible for gross human rights abuses.
  • Support a referral to the International Criminal Court unless the Myanmar authorities take significant measures to address the human rights concerns and to hold accountable those responsible for gross human rights abuses.
  • Affirm support for the report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, which contains important recommendations relating to the Rohingya in Myanmar.

The U.S. government should:

  • Strongly support UN Security Council action as described above.
  • Prohibit military-to-military cooperation with Myanmar and place targeted sanctions against Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and other senior military officials and military-owned enterprises until the Myanmar government ends abuses in Rakhine state, permits unfettered international humanitarian access, and holds accountable individuals involved in planning, aiding or carrying out the abuses against the Rohingya.
  • Support robust humanitarian aid efforts in Bangladesh in the near term, focusing, particularly, on adequate shelter, food, water, sanitation and hygiene, and medical care, including clinical management of rape and psychosocial support for survivors of gender-based violence (GBV).
  • Work toward the eventual safe and voluntary return of Rohingya to Myanmar.
  • Appoint a high-level Presidential envoy on Myanmar (who could be a “dual-hatted” official who is already serving in government), who would seek to work with like-minded governments to lead international efforts to end abuses, provide assistance to refugees and promote conditions that will permit the eventual safe and voluntary return of Rohingya to Myanmar.

Download full briefer HERE.