Rohingya refugees walk through rice fields after crossing the border from Burma into Palang Khali, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, October 19, 2017. 

© 2017 Jorge Silva/Reuters

(Washington, DC) – The United States government should advance international justice and impose new targeted sanctions against those responsible for grave crimes against ethnic Rohingya in Burma, Human Rights Watch said today. On September 24, 2018, the US State Department issued a report documenting Burmese security force atrocities against the Rohingya, including murder, rape, and mass arson. The report determined that the violence was “extreme, large-scale, widespread,” but did not recommend action nor conclude that the abuses amounted to crimes against humanity or genocide.

At the United Nations Security Council in August, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, urged council members to hold perpetrators of abuses against Rohingya to account, stating, “The whole world is watching what we do next and if we will act.” The US government should follow up the State Department report by fulfilling its commitment to help victims of these atrocities pursue justice.

“The State Department’s report, confirming the systematic brutality of the Burmese military operations, should jolt the US into action,” said Sarah Margon, Washington director. “Now, having thoroughly documented the grave abuses against the Rohingya, the US should immediately move to build support for international measures to ensure justice and accountability.”

The US government’s 20-page report was based on more than 1,000 interviews with refugees in Bangladesh and other research. It adds to a growing body of evidence of grave international crimes by Burmese security forces against the Rohingya in Rakhine State, including the UN-mandated Fact-Finding Mission report released in August that called for top Burmese military generals to be investigated and prosecuted for genocide and crimes against humanity.

The State Department’s report, confirming the systematic brutality of the Burmese military operations, should jolt the US into action.

Sarah Margon

Washington Director

Beginning on August 25, 2017, following attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), Burmese security forces carried out a campaign of killings, rape, and mass arson against the Rohingya population, which Human Rights Watch found amounted to crimes against humanity. The Fact-Finding Mission concluded that the “estimate of up to 10,000 deaths is conservative.” Since August 2017, more than 725,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, where almost one million Rohingya refugees now live in precarious, flood-prone camps.

On August 17, 2018, the US imposed sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act against four Burmese security force commanders and two military units for their involvement in rights abuses in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan States. Targets include Lt. Gen. Aung Kyaw Zaw – who oversaw military deployments and operations in Rakhine State from 2015 to early 2018 as commander of the Bureau of Special Operations 3 – and the 33rd and 99th Light Infantry Divisions. The Global Magnitsky Act, which the US Congress enacted in 2016, allows for travel restrictions and financial sanctions against individuals or entities responsible for gross human right violations or significant corruption.

In December 2017, the US sanctioned the former Western Command chief, Maj. Gen. Maung Maung Soe, who was primarily responsible for military operations in Rakhine State and a subordinate of Aung Kyaw Zaw. The US was the first country to impose targeted economic sanctions against Burmese military officials for abuses in Rakhine State, yet the Trump administration has weakly enforced existing sanctions on Burmese military commanders. The recent additions were an important but overdue step, and should be followed by further sanctions that reach the top of the military command, including commander-in-chief Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

Despite broad bipartisan support, legislation proposed in both houses of congress to limit military cooperation, reinstate import restrictions on jadeite (a form of jade), and authorize targeted economic sanctions and visa bans on Burmese military officials responsible for human rights violations have stalled. Senator Mitch McConnell has blocked the measures, apparently to insulate Burma’s de facto civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, from criticism. Even without strengthened legislation, the US can still impose sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act and rescind waivers granted by the Obama administration on the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act of 2008.

The Burmese government has repeatedly denied that any security force abuses took place, setting up successive investigations – none of which have been carried out credibly or impartially – to refute the growing body of evidence of military atrocities.

“The State Department report should be the catalyst for the US and other UN members to take broader action for holding those who committed grave crimes in Burma accountable,” Margon said. “The US, European Union, Japan, and others should also lead efforts to impose coordinated and comprehensive targeted sanctions against top Burmese military officials.”