Statement to the Human Rights Council by Mr. Nicholas Koumjian, Head of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar
42nd Regular Session of the Human Rights Council
9 September 2019
Mr. President, Excellencies, It is an honor to present to the Council the initial report of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar.
Last September, the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar reported that it had found reasonable grounds to believe that very serious international crimes had been committed and called for the end to a cycle of impunity. The same month, in Resolution 39/2, the Council responded by establishing this Mechanism with the mandate “to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011” and to build criminal case files for potential use in national, regional or international courts. The General Assembly welcomed the establishment of the Mechanism in resolution 73/264.
I am grateful to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Michelle Bachelet, and the United Nations Legal Counsel, Mr. Miguel de Serpa Soares, and their Offices, for implementing the necessary preliminary steps to establish the Mechanism. Following their efforts, the Secretary-General formally deemed the Mechanism operational on 30 August this year and on 6 September we began the process of transferring information collected by the Fact-Finding Mission to the Mechanism.
Mr. President, Excellencies, Allow me to explain a bit how I intend to approach the task ahead. First, I will always respect the specific mandate conferred by this Council. The Mechanism will strive to obtain and analyze information that sheds light on whether there is proof, to the high standards required in criminal cases, that individuals are responsible for serious international crimes. Our mandate is distinct from that of the Fact-Finding Mission and other UN entities working on Myanmar. The Mechanism’s role is not to advocate policies. Rather it is to facilitate fair and independent criminal proceedings.
While the mandate is limited in purpose, it is massive in scale, covering the entire territory of Myanmar since 2011. We will vigorously pursue accountability for crimes irrespective of the race, ethnicity, nationality, religion or political affiliation of either the victims or the perpetrators. While we do not have the capacity to investigate every alleged crime, we will seek to select cases that are appropriately representative of the suffering inflicted upon the various peoples of Myanmar.
I will also seek to balance the Mechanism’s obligation to report to this Council and to keep civil society and victims informed, with the need to maintain the integrity and confidentiality of the work. Public outreach is essential, but in criminal cases, speaking too openly about strategies and progress could compromise investigations.
Finally, I wish to stress that the success of the Mechanism will be dependent on the cooperation and support of Member States. Obviously, access to Myanmar would greatly facilitate the search for the truth about alleged crimes. I have made multiple attempts to engage with the Government of Myanmar and moving forward, I will continue to reach out and seek a cooperative relationship.
The cooperation of other states in the region is also critical. Many witnesses with relevant information are located in or pass through their territory. It is important that while respecting these governments’ sovereignty and relevant concerns, the Mechanism has the ability to work within these States in a manner that does not endanger witnesses or sources.
I plan to travel to the region in the coming months to engage with the relevant Member States on modes of cooperation and to take the opportunity to meet with victim and civil society groups to explain the Mechanism’s mandate and listen to their suggestions.
Mr. President, Excellencies, for the past 19 years I’ve prosecuted war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide cases from Bosnia, Sierra Leone, East Timor and Cambodia. I’ve seen that achieving justice for mass crimes is a long and difficult journey. At the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia, just last year we obtained convictions for crimes committed in the 1970’s, over four decades after the crimes were committed.
In that and other cases, I have seen that no matter how much time passes, the victims’ desire for justice does not waver. Survivors consistently express similar desires. First, they want a chance to recount their experiences, and seek some official recognition of the truth of what happened to them. Second, they want to see the perpetrators’ behaviour condemned and those most responsible held to account. This Council took an important step towards fulfilling the hopes of victims by creating this Mechanism.
Yet, I believe there is an even more important benefit. The temporal mandate of the Mechanism has no end date and extends to any crimes committed tomorrow, next year, and on into the future. I believe that every single member of this Council wants to see the end of violence against innocent civilians and a peaceful Myanmar where all parts of the population contribute to the country’s development. The establishment of this Mechanism makes a small but important contribution towards that end. It deters crimes by sending this message to all armed entities in Myanmar: “We are watching and will work to ensure that those who commit crimes will be brought to account.”
I am grateful to the Council for the responsibility of this historic mandate, and to the Secretary-General for entrusting me to lead it forward.