For more than six months, the world has watched in horror as Myanmar’s military has carried out a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing in northern Rakhine State, forcing hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch documented massacres, gang rape, and mass arson that amount to crimes against humanity. While the exodus of new refugees has slowed, the terrible plight of the more than 680,000 people who fled only grows with each passing day.
The several hundred thousand Rohingya who remain in Rakhine State lead a precarious existence marked by government intimidation and threats, limited access to food and aid, sharply curtailed movement, and violence without redress. Over 100,000 have been in what amount to detention camps since previous rounds of ethnic cleansing in 2012.
Myanmar’s government has yet to conduct a credible investigation into the atrocities that continue with impunity. In spite of government pledges, the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State have scarcely been implemented. And the government has barred both the UN Fact-Finding Mission and the Special Rapporteur from the country, along with denying independent media and human rights groups genuine access to northern Rakhine State. Since late 2017, the authorities have used heavy machinery to clear at least 55 of some 362 burned villages, obstructing justice by removing evidence of the crimes committed.
Put plainly, Myanmar’s campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya continues.
Amid the dire situation in Rakhine State, other serious human rights concerns in Myanmar should not be ignored. In northern Myanmar’s Shan and Kachin States, fighting between government forces and ethnic armed groups has displaced thousands of villagers and left others trapped and isolated. Here too the government has blocked aid to those most at risk.
The government has also backtracked on legal reforms that allowed greater freedom of expression and assembly. Newly revised laws and renewed prosecutions are tightening fundamental freedoms for critics of state policies, activists, and journalists.
Despite the hope and promise of recent years, Myanmar’s government has shown an increasing indifference to human dignity and basic rights. The dream of a democratic transition lies in tatters. UN member states need to face this uncomfortable reality and act accordingly, as real progress is not possible without ending impunity for atrocity crimes. The Special Rapporteur has underlined that “accountability must be the focus of the international community’s efforts to bring long-lasting peace, stability and democratization to Myanmar,” both for “the individuals who gave the orders and carried out violations” and for “the government leadership who did nothing to intervene, stop, or condemn these acts.”
Recent events show that relying on Myanmar’s government to provide justice for victims of serious violations is wishful thinking. We again urge the Security Council to refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court.
But a referral will not happen overnight. The Myanmar government’s attempts to – literally – bury the evidence show the need for immediate international action to facilitate future prosecutions. The Special Rapporteur has urged the establishment of a structure with experts with a particular focus on collecting and preserving evidence for inclusion in a master database for international criminal proceedings. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict have urged the international community to establish an impartial, independent mechanism to support investigations into atrocity crimes committed in Rakhine State.
The Council needs to act on these recommendations, and it needs to do so now.