INTERVIEW: Ex-UN rights rapporteur on Argentina’s Rohingya genocide case

‘All these legal cases help to reinforce the universal idea that we should not accept genocide.’
By RFA Burmese
2024.05.06
INTERVIEW: Ex-UN rights rapporteur on Argentina’s Rohingya genocide case UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana attends a news conference after delivering his report before the Human Right Council on March 9, 2020, in Geneva.
(Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)

In an interview with Radio Free Asia’s Ye Kaung Myint Maung, international human rights attorney Tomas Ojea Quintana spoke about a case filed in a court in Argentina in 2019 that alleges genocide and crimes against humanity committed by senior Myanmar officials against Rohingya Muslims.

The complaint was filed under the principle of “universal jurisdiction” enshrined in Argentina’s constitution, which holds that some crimes are so heinous that alleged perpetrators thousands of miles away can be tried.

The 46-page criminal complaint centers on violence in 2012 and 2018 that drove about 1 million Rohingyas from Myanmar, mostly to neighboring Bangladesh, where many live in squalid refugee camps to this day.

The document describes rapes, beheadings and the slaughter of Rohingya civilians committed by Myanmar’s military and their civilian supporters. It includes detailed information collected by a 2017-2019 UN-backed Independent International Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar, which interviewed hundreds of witnesses in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Quintana served as United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar between 2008 and 2014. He served in a similar role for the U.N. in reporting on the situation of human rights in North Korea between 2016 and 2022.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RFA: Mr. Quintana, welcome to RFA. I’d like to start the interview by asking if there’s been any improvement in the case? How far along is the case?

Quintana: I would say that the case is moving forward. The Argentinian prosecutor has been producing important evidence. The file now has a number of testimonies from survivors – Rohingya survivors from Cox’s Bazar [in Bangladesh]. 

Actually, they travel all over the world and have visited Argentina and given in-person testimonies to the Argentinian court. This is something very important for a universal jurisdiction case because the victims now had a chance to tell their stories to the court. At the same time, the Argentinian court was having contact with real victims from Myanmar. 

So I would say now we are in the investigative stage, and at some point we believe that the court will make a substantive decision regarding accused persons.

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Myanmar protesters residing in Japan step on posters of Myanmar’s army chief Min Aung Hlaing with his face crossed out and “Wanted” message, during a rally to mark the second anniversary of Myanmar’s 2021 military coup, outside the Embassy of Myanmar in Tokyo Feb. 1, 2023. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

RFA: Do you have a timetable for any decisions in the case?

Quintana: Actually, in December last year, the Burmese Rohingya Organization U.K., which is a plaintiff in this criminal investigation, submitted a request to the court. An international arrest warrant request. Now, that request is under consideration by the court. 

At some point, we hope that, during this year, the court in Argentina will make a decision whether or not the conditions are there for international arrest warrants to be issued.

RFA: What can you tell us about the alleged perpetrators?

Quintana: Well, the file is confidential. What I can tell you is that the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK included a list of seven perpetrators that goes from the top military authorities to two individuals who participated directly in the atrocities. That’s all I can tell you. 

As I say, we hope that during this year, at some point, the court will issue a resolution on this very important aspect, and that it will be very important for the Rohingya community to continue to build on their hope for justice. It will also be an important message to the Myanmar military about accountability.

It will also be important for the overall international community that action needs to be taken with regards to this very dramatic international crime, which was genocide against the Rohingya.

RFA: We see, since the military coup in 2021, the situation of Rohingya refugees have deteriorated. Some of the refugee witnesses in your case come from the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. Have conditions improved for women in those camps?

Quintana: Well, that’s something that is not directly related to the case itself in Argentina. The court is basically investigating the genocide committed in August 2017. 

But the court pays attention to the protection situation of the witnesses who give testimony in the file. And the court of Argentina is following up on that, trying to check whether or not these witnesses that returned to Cox’s Bazar are in adequate conditions in terms of protection and the overall situation in the camp. 

There are almost 1 million people leaving the largest refugee camp in the world where, you know, the living conditions are not adequate. So, that’s an issue that the international community needs to pay more attention to.

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A protester covered in fake blood flashes the three-finger salute next to an image of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration outside the UN office in Bangkok on Feb. 1, 2024, to mark the third anniversary of the coup in Myanmar. (Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP)

RFA: For now, the world’s focus has been, far away from Myanmar because of the other international issues. What would it take to get the spotlight back on Rohingya issues? 

Quintana: It is time for the international community to take action. The Security Council of the United Nations has been dealing with the Myanmar situation, but it’s been more of a reaction. 

The truth is that the Myanmar military committed the first genocide of the 21st century. We hope that this case in Argentina will contribute to raise awareness around the world about the need to not recreate the conditions that led to the genocide.

RFA: We see other legal proceedings on the Rohingya case at the International Criminal Court and at the International Court of Justice. But it’s extremely rare to see a case filed under universal jurisdiction and to get proper punishment. Look at the case against Chilean President Augusto Pinochet. How much can we expect from this case?

Quintana: The case of Pinochet was very important for the sake of justice all over the world. He was detained in London based on a universal jurisdiction case in Spain. It was very important for the Chilean victims of his dictatorship. 

The instrument of an international arrest warrant is also important. We will reach out to all those who are committed to preventing international crimes, such as ASEAN, the UN and of course the case at The Hague – the International Court of Justice. 

All these legal cases help to reinforce the universal idea that we should not accept genocide, wherever that genocide takes place. So, if the Argentinian court issues these warrants, we will reach out to everyone, including the media, to let everybody know that those perpetrators who committed the crime are being summoned by a court of law.

Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.

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