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Rohingya refugees gather behind a barbed-wire fence in the “no-man’s land” border zone between Myanmar and Bangladesh, April 25, 2018. © 2018 Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

(Bangkok) – The Myanmar government should stop obstructing international efforts to investigate widespread crimes committed against Rohingya Muslims, Human Rights Watch said today. Donors and concerned governments should press Myanmar to protect their basic rights, facilitate international justice for victims, and ensure that any returns of Rohingya refugees are voluntary, safe, and dignified.

August 25, 2019, marks two years since the Myanmar military began a campaign of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity that drove 740,000 Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh. A United Nations-backed Fact-Finding Mission found sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior military officials for grave crimes, including genocide, in Rakhine State.

“Two years since the Myanmar military carried out ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population, the government still denies its troops committed any atrocities,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The bulldozing of Rohingya homes to destroy evidence after the ethnic cleansing is emblematic of the government’s campaign to whitewash its crimes.”

The Myanmar government has not acted to improve conditions or address the causes underlying the human rights crisis facing Rohingya in Rakhine State.

An estimated 500,000 Rohingya remain in appalling conditions in Rakhine State. Security forces have confined them to camps and villages and severely restricted their freedom of movement. The government has denied them fundamental freedoms and deprived them of access to sustainable livelihoods and basic humanitarian services including adequate food, medical care, and education.

The government restricts access to Rakhine State by news media and aid workers and since June 21 has imposed an internet blackout across nine townships, including one in Chin State. The disruption of internet services has increased difficulties for humanitarian agencies and human rights groups to assist vulnerable people in the face of increased fighting in the area. The government should not use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to curtail the flow of information, or to harm civilians’ ability to assemble freely and express political views.

The government should immediately amend its discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law to provide Rohingya equal access to Myanmar citizenship. The government should also take necessary steps to ensure the security of the Rohingya population from abusive security forces and other groups.

In July 2018, in the face of mounting criticism from the UN and various governments for the lack of accountability for grave crimes, Myanmar authorities established the Independent Commission of Enquiry to investigate alleged human rights violations during the Rohingya crisis. In March 2019, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that following discussions with the Myanmar commission’s chair, the High Commissioner was “seriously concerned about the impartiality of the mechanism and whether it can implement its mandate independently.”

“The composition, mandate, and statements of the Independent Commission of Enquiry reveal that it is following the same failed path of past commissions,” Robertson said. “The Myanmar government has demonstrated its inability and unwillingness to investigate and prosecute grave crimes committed by its security forces.”

In September 2018, the UN Human Rights Council created the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar to collect and preserve evidence of crimes for possible use in future criminal proceedings. The Myanmar government should cooperate with this body and with other UN bodies, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar.

The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Fatou Bensouda, is seeking an investigation into the crime against humanity of deportation, since Rohingya were deported to Bangladesh, a party to the ICC. However, even if the judges grant her request, an ICC investigation would not cover most of the crimes committed in Myanmar. The UN Security Council should refer the situation in Myanmar to the ICC so that all ICC crimes can be considered.

The Security Council and other governments should also impose or expand targeted sanctions on Myanmar military leaders and key military-owned enterprises. Sanctions should include travel bans, asset seizures, and restrictions on access to financial institutions, as well as a comprehensive military embargo.

The Myanmar government recently verified that 3,450 people are eligible to return to Myanmar out of an overall list of 22,000 refugees submitted by Bangladesh authorities. The Bangladesh government asked the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, to consult individually with these refugees and determine who among them may wish to return at this time.

Many of the refugees with whom Human Rights Watch spoke said they feared returning under the current conditions. They said they did not feel safe going back to a country where they faced systematic persecution and violence. “On the way to Maungdaw, the law enforcers will stop and harass you, demand bribes, or end up finally torturing you,” one refugee said. “All of this they can just do because we are Rohingyas who don’t have any freedom of travel to anywhere. All this has to end if they want us to repatriate, so that we can live there as citizens and without discrimination.”

Returnees will be required to sign up to a digitized National Verification Card (NVC) process that effectively identifies them as a foreigner and could subsequently deny them Myanmar citizenship rights. They said that without recognized citizenship before they return, they felt they would be subject to further persecution in Myanmar. “If we will take NVC cards, then the Myanmar authorities will never recognize us as Rohingya,” one man from camp 24 said. “Because taking NVC means you are acknowledging yourself as a foreigner.”

Human Rights Watch and other human rights and humanitarian groups have determined that conditions for voluntary, safe, and dignified return of Rohingya refugees to Rakhine State do not currently exist. The Myanmar government has restricted UNHCR from reaching or monitoring areas where the Rohingya would return, and so the UN agency has not publicly stated that conditions are suitable for their return. In an August 22 statement, UNHCR said that they visited families in shelters to establish whether they wished to return to Myanmar, but none had accepted: “So far, none of those interviewed have indicated a willingness to repatriate at this time.”

Before any refugee returns, the Myanmar government should significantly improve conditions and address the root causes of the crisis, including systematic persecution and violence, statelessness, and military impunity for grave violations.

“Myanmar’s rampant atrocities and the failure over two years to address them has been made even worse by the Security Council’s apathy,” Robertson said. “For Rohingya languishing in camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar, concerted international action to provide them with justice could not come a moment too soon.”

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