Rohingya crisis: War crimes court approves investigation into deportation of Muslims from Myanmar

‘It is the first time Rohingya victims will get to potentially see individuals responsible for those brutal crimes held to account,’ says human rights expert

Samuel Osborne
Thursday 14 November 2019 18:50
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Drone footage shows thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar

International Criminal Court judges have approved a request from prosecutors to open an investigation into crimes against humanity committed against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority.

More than 730,000 Rohingya have fled across the border into Bangladesh since a crackdown by Myanmar’s military in 2017, which UN investigators have said was carried out with “genocidal intent”.

Judges at the ICC granted prosecutors the permission to examine acts that could qualify as crimes against humanity, such as deportation, and persecution on the grounds of ethnicity and/or religion.

However, the accusation of genocide, while within the jurisdiction of the court, will not be investigated by the ICC, a body that is not supported by Myanmar.

Chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda will now begin the formal investigation and said she will conduct an independent and impartial investigation. She had asked judges for permission to investigate in July.

“This is a significant development, sending a positive signal to the victims of atrocity crimes in Myanmar and elsewhere ... My investigation will seek to uncover the truth,” she said.

A spokesperson for the Rohingya community in Britain welcomed the decision while a human rights expert said it was a “significant move”.

“It is the first time that Rohingya victims will actually get to potentially see individuals responsible for those brutal crimes held to account,” Param-Preet Singh, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, told The Independent.

“Now that the ICC prosecutor has been given the authority to investigate, she can actually start the process of gathering evidence and building cases identifying those responsible,” Ms Singh said. The next step after the investigation is completed is to ask for arrest warrants and move things along before the court.

“The decision today is important because now she has tools at her disposal to formally investigate and gather and preserve evidence and actually build the case which she didn’t have before.

“There’s a lot of information already in the public domain in terms of satellite imagery, reports by organisations like Human Rights Watch and others, so in terms of context and background that’s part of the reason why she asked for an investigation.”

She said the judges would now speak to victims and work to figure out who was responsible.

Ms Singh said: “What’s really interesting about the decision is that the judges said that the investigation relates not just to the crime of deportation from 2017, but also it could include any crime, including future crimes.”

She said although Myanmar had benefited from the international community “looking the other way to the atrocities it’s committed”, the decision would give victims “hope that the architects of the crime of deportation could be held to account”.

Although Buddhist majority Myanmar is not a member of the ICC, Bangladesh is, meaning the court has jurisdiction to examine alleged crimes that partially took place there.

The decision comes days after Gambia filed before the International Court of Justice, on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, accusing Myanmar of genocide against the Rohingya.

The ICC seeks to convict individuals responsible for crimes, such as deportation, while the International Court of Justice (ICJ) settles disputes between nations, such as those concerning genocide.

A spokesperson for Rohingya people in Britain said the community celebrated the news.

“Everyone wants the perpetrators to be brought to justice,” Nijam Uddin Muhammed, general secretary of the British Rohingya Community, said.

“That is our last hope. If they get off without any accountability, in the future none of the world leaders will think before they do bad things to their own people.

“When the Rwanda genocide happened people said no more. But it’s still happening in the 21st century to the Rohingya people, to my people.

“So if the International Criminal Court bring people to justice and give them punishment then the other world leaders will take a lesson from this and they will think a hundred times before they do anything bad to their own people.”

Mr Muhammed called on the UK government to support the ICC case.

“I am really surprised by the silence of the UK, because they should take charge,” he said. “I am hopeful that the UK government will fully support and help in this procedure to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

He said members of the Rohingya community wanted to return to Myanmar: “If they are held accountable, then my people want to go back. If we get full citizenship, we will go voluntarily. But we need safety and security there.”

Save the Children release animation using Rohingya children's drawings

Rohingya face discrimination in Myanmar, where they are regarded as having illegally immigrated from Bangladesh, even though many families have lived in the country for generations. Most are denied citizenship and basic civil rights.

Rohingya refugees say they fled an ethnic cleansing campaign which saw soldiers and Buddhist civilians massacre families, burn hundreds of villages and carry out gang rapes.

Earlier this year, a two-year United Nations fact-finding mission said Myanmar’s counterinsurgency campaign in 2017 included “genocidal acts”.

The mission said it had a confidential list of more than 100 people suspected of involvement in genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, in addition to six generals it had already named a year ago.

The list is likely to form a key part of evidence for the ICC’s investigation.

Myanmar’s government and military have consistently denied violating human rights and committing genocide, claiming its operations were justified in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.

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