At the 40th Session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), survivors of the devastating violence inflicted on the Rohingya community in Rakhine State testified to member states, imploring the international community to take substantive action to address their needs, work towards protection, and pursue justice and accountability. The Special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, made similar appeals, while the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (IIFFMM) is continuing to collect evidence of crimes under international law committed by the Myanmar military. Meanwhile, a team from the prosecutor’s office of the International Criminal Court (ICC) visited Bangladesh last week as part of a preliminary examination into the crimes that the IIFFMM has documented in great detail. Such moves are vital, not only to maintain the momentum for justice and accountability, but as a concrete step, despite the efforts of Myanmar to deflect and deny the most serious international crimes it has committed against its most vulnerable community.
Speaking at the HRC, Muhib Ullah, a Rohingya refugee living in a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh after fleeing violence, outlined the importance of listening to the Rohingya themselves, and their desire to move back to their homeland, Myanmar, in peace and security. He also outlined the issues he and his communities have faced, “For decades we faced a systematic genocide in Myanmar. They took our citizenship. They took our land. They destroyed our mosques. No travel, no higher education, no healthcare, no jobs.” Another Rohingya refugee, Hamida Khatun, who fled the violence in 2017 after her village was attacked and her husband and mother were killed, also beseeched member states to do something to remedy their situation with three requests, “First: Justice including compensation; Second: To return home in safety and security including citizenship; Third: Access to education.” The bravery of these two refugees, who have seen the most unspeakable violence done to their communities, including their closest family, to put themselves at risk of reprisal and go to the intimidating and very public platform that is the UN in Geneva to demand justice cannot be ignored.
They do, however, have allies. The UN Special Rapporteur, Yanghee Lee, in her oral report to the HRC, stated that “It is imperative that the international community’s focus remains on justice and accountability for victims in Myanmar.” The establishment of the ongoing independent mechanism on Myanmar, which continues the IIFFMM’s mandate, by “collecting, consolidating, preserving and analysing evidence of the most serious crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011…and…preparing files to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings, in accordance with international law,” is vital yet this is not the endgame. This mechanism can only put together the essential information needed for criminal accountability, and as the Special Rapporteur has outlined, is only an interim measure. This is supported by the wider human rights community, as Khin Ohmar, Chairperson of the Progressive Voice Advisory Board expressed in a statement delivered on behalf of FORUM-ASIA, a 58 member Asian human rights organization, the HRC must “immediately operationalise the IIM and refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court.”
Thus, the further steps and actions from the prosecutor’s office of the ICC is welcomed. After the ICC’s pre-trial Chamber ruled in September 2018 that the court could exercise jurisdiction over the crime of deportation, the prosecutor’s office has initiated a preliminary examination that could potentially lead to a full investigation. As such, a team has been visiting refugee camps in Bangladesh to ascertain whether this full investigation can be started. This is a major step towards justice and accountability but it is not comprehensive. For the Myanmar military to face justice for the full remit of its crimes it has committed not only against Rohingyas but other ethnic minorities, the UN Security Council must work beyond political calculations and exercise its due mandate by referring the situation to the ICC so it can undertake a full investigation of all crimes, including genocide in Rakhine State as well as crimes against humanity and war crimes in Kachin and Shan States, as recommended by the IIFFMM.
Muhib Ullah, one of the Rohingya refugees who spoke at the HRC stated, “We are not stateless. Stop calling us that. We have a state. It is Myanmar. So, we want to go home to Myanmar with our rights, our citizenship, and international security on the ground. For one year, the UN and the international community had countless discussions about Rohingya. You talk about our future, but we are not part of these discussions.” Every independent entity that has investigated the violence that the Myanmar military has committed against the Rohingya, particularly in the period between August – December 2017 when over 700,000 people fled crimes against humanity and genocide, support the testimonies of Rohingya people themselves. No amount of obfuscation by the Myanmar government or dithering by the international community will be able to hide what happened in northern Rakhine State. It is time that world leaders at the UN Security Council take a firm stand on the side of humanity and pursue accountability so that such inhumane acts cannot happen again, and people like Muhib Ullah and Hamida Khutan can go home in peace and dignity.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
By Burma Human Rights Network
By Burma Campaign UK
By Human Rights Watch
By International Commission of Jurists
By Karen Rivers Watch
By Karen Human Rights Group
By Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada and International Service for Human Rights
By Mr. Muhib Ullah of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPHR)
By UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner
By Karen Human Rights Group
By Transnational Institute (TNI)
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”