The United Nations on Tuesday announced the appointment of an American prosecutor as head of an independent team that will probe human rights violations in Myanmar’s volatile Rakhine state, focusing on atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims and other minority groups.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres named Nicholas Koumjian of the United States as the first head of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, established by the U.N. Human Rights Council in September 2018 and welcomed by the General Assembly three months later, the U.N. said in a news release.
The mechanism has a mandate to “to collect, consolidate, preserve, and analyze evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011…,” according to a statement issued in September 2018 by the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights.
It must “prepare files in order to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings, in accordance with international law standards, in national, regional or international courts or tribunals.”
The panel also must report annually on its main activities to the Human Rights Council.
A previous U.N. fact-finding mission established by a Human Rights Council mandate investigated atrocities committed against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine state during a military-led crackdown in 2017 and in Kachin and Shan states where the Myanmar military is engaged in fighting with ethnic armed groups.
Its report issued in September 2018 presented extensive findings of serious human rights violations and abuses carried out against civilians primarily by the military, as well as violations of international humanitarian law in the three states.
The report also called for the prosecution of top Myanmar military commanders before The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) for ordering atrocities against the Rohingya during the crackdown that began in late August 2017 that killed thousands and drove some 740,000 members of the Muslim ethnic minority into Bangladesh.
Myanmar has largely rejected the U.N. report and those of international human rights groups. In late 2017, the government barred Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s special envoy on human rights in Myanmar, from visiting the country to assess the rights situation after it deemed a previous mission report she issued was biased and unfair.
Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, secretary of the Myanmar military’s information team, noted that the country’s armed forces has set up its own inquiry board, a three-member panel that is reassessing deadly attacks on border guard outposts that sparked the crackdown and “other related incidents” in northern Rakhine. The panel began its work on March 18.
“We have announced that facts can be sent to the Court of Inquiry established by the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] in order to avoid flaws and to be in line with international law.”
“Myanmar is a sovereign nation,” he said in response to the news of Koumjian’s appointment. “Both the government and the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] had already stated that. We don’t have to repeat our position to the ICC.”
Myanmar’s government and military have denied the atrocities and defended the crackdown as a necessary measure to find members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army militant group who attacked the border guard stations.
‘Far from over’
Myo Nyunt, spokesman of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), said the political party disapproves of the new U.N. investigative mechanism.
“We have objected to the formation of the [U.N.-mandated] fact-finding mission from the very start, so we object to all the follow-ups,” he said.
“We don’t agree on any preparations based on one-sided information without systematic findings in both countries,” he said, referring to Myanmar and Bangladesh where hundreds of thousands of displaced Rohingya live in sprawling camps.
The Human Rights Council announced on March 14 that the independent international fact-finding mission is continuing its probe of serious human rights violations and abuses, including crimes under international law committed in Myanmar since 2011, due to little progress in the country’s human rights situation since the end of 2018.
“The human rights crisis in Myanmar is far from over,” said fact-finding mission chairman Marzuki Darusman, in a statement. “To the contrary, the fighting continues in Rakhine and in the northern states of Kachin and Shan, and tensions are escalating in other regions. Human rights violations have not stopped, nor are victims seeing justice.”
The mission will present its final report at the September session of the Human Rights Council.
Nandar Hla Myint, spokesman of the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) stressed that the investigation is one that should be dealt with inside Myanmar.
On March 22, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution calling on Myanmar authorities to end the violence and all violations of international law in the country, particularly in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan states.
“The Rakhine issue is a domestic affair, and it has to be handled under domestic laws by the Tatmadaw, the government, and the people,” he said. “There are existing laws that enable [us] to resolve domestic affairs, so our party won’t accept any intervention in domestic affairs by portraying them as an international affair under the auspices of the U.N.”
Min Lwin Oo, a legal advisor at the Norway-based Asian Human Rights Commission, said a prosecutor from a country other than the U.S. should have been appointed.
“It would be better to assign other legal experts rather than ones from U.S. and European countries,” he said, offering as suggestions Brazilian legal scholar Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro and human rights attorney Tomás Ojae Quintana, who currently serves as the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea.
“People from American, European, and Muslim nations, who are free from influence, would be more suitable for the position,” he said. “I think there could be bias, and it might not be fair if such an investigation team comes and investigates.”
Koumjian has more than 35 years of experience as a prosecutor, including almost 20 years of work in international criminal justice. Since November 2013, he has served as the international co-prosecutor for the extraordinary chambers in the courts of Cambodia, according to the U.N.’s news release.
Koumjian previously was a trial attorney at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the deputy general prosecutor for serious crimes in Timor Leste, an international prosecutor in the War Crimes Department of the Prosecutor’s Office for Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a principal trial attorney and senior appeals counsel in the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.