Four human rights organizations on Tuesday called on the U.N. Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court over a military campaign that drove 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh, saying the violence amounted to crimes against humanity.
The four rights groups – Fortify Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Global Center for Responsibility to Protect – made the appeal a week after the Security Council visited Myanmar and Bangladesh to investigate the plight of the Rohingyas.
“Impunity is entrenched in Myanmar,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights. “Domestic remedies have been exhausted—the government failed to properly investigate the heinous crimes that have taken place, and that’s precisely why a referral is warranted.”
About 700,000 Rohingya fled violence that included killings, rape, and arson, during the crackdown that began in northern Rakhine on Aug. 25 following deadly attacks on police outposts by a Muslim militant group. Both the U.N. and United States have said that the campaign amounted to ethnic cleansing.
Last week, after U.N.’s 15 permanent envoys spent two days in Myanmar to assess the situation on the ground in Rakhine state, they called for a “proper” investigation into the events surrounding the exodus.
"[I]n order to have accountability there must be a proper investigation,” Karen Pierce, Britain’s ambassador to the U.N., told reporters during a news conference following the delegation’s visit to Rakhine state.
Myanmar can set up such a probe through an International Criminal Court (ICC) referral or by holding its own comprehensive inquiry, she said.
An ICC prosecutor asked the international tribunal in April to rule on whether the court can exercise jurisdiction over the alleged deportation of the Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Myanmar argued that because it is not a member of the ICC, such a move would undermine its charter and run against the Netherlands-based ICC’s charter.
The Myanmar government and military have defended the crackdown, which included large-scale killings, rape, and arson, as a counter-insurgency campaign, though United Nations officials have called the campaign “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” that potentially “bears the hallmarks of genocide.”
Tuesday’s appeal came a day after an unusually forceful statement from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s (OIC) Council of Foreign Ministers, the world’s top Islamic intergovernmental body, which condemned Myanmar’s military for targeting Rohingya Muslims in “systematic” ethnic cleansing, and called on member-states to mobilize to exert pressure on Naypyidaw over this.
“We express deep concern over the recent systematic brutal acts perpetrated by security forces against the Rohingya Muslim Community in Myanmar that has reached the level of ethnic cleansing, which constitute a serious and blatant violation of international law,” the 57-member OIC said Sunday in its declaration from the Bangladeshi capital that touched on a wide range of international issues affecting the Muslim world.
Among alleged atrocities committed against Rohingya people in Rakhine state, the so-called Dhaka Declaration issued at the end of a two-day meeting hosted by Bangladesh’s government pointed to the deliberate burning of Rohingya villages and places of worship that had helped drive hundreds of thousands of people across the border into Bangladesh.
Last November Fortify Rights and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a report that documented Myanmar army massacres of Rohingya men, women, and children, and committed gang rape and arson attacks on villages across northern Rakhine State.
In April, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued his annual report on conflict-related sexual violence and cited Myanmar’s armed forces as one of 47 parties in 19 countries that committed such violence in armed conflict during 2017.
“The widespread threat and use of sexual violence was integral to this strategy, serving to humiliate, terrorize and collectively punish the Rohingya community, as a calculated tool to force them to flee their homelands and prevent their return,” Guterres said in the report.
Repeating what has been Myanmar’s stock reaction to widely available evidence of atrocities in Rakhine, included repeated release by human Rights Watch of satellite images of scorched villages, Myanmar rejected those assertions and demanded an investigation and concrete proof of atrocities.
The groups who issued the appeal to the UNN on Tuesday had little time for Myanmar’s repeated denials.
“The Myanmar government’s wholesale denials and dehumanizing rhetoric are signals, in the very least, of an unwillingness to hold perpetrators accountable,” said Smith.
“The government is crying foul, but the facts demand an ICC referral now,” he said in a statement.