40 Diverse Groups Call for a “Truly Independent” Commission of Inquiry

(YANGON, January 18, 2017)—40 Myanmar-based civil society organizations today called for a “truly independent” international investigation into the situation in Rakhine State, where state-sponsored attacks against Rohingya Muslim civilians have escalated in recent months. Muslim and Buddhist communities in Rakhine State have faced human rights violations with impunity for decades.

Today’s statement recommends the establishment of a “commission of inquiry to fully assess the totality of the situation in Rakhine State and provide clear recommendations for the current government to effectively address and prevent further problems.”

“This initiative is important for the entire country,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer at Fortify Rights. “It’s time for the government to get on board and support the establishment of an impartial and independent inquiry.”

The statement comes a day before Foreign Ministers of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC)—an intergovernmental body of 57 member states—will meet in Kuala Lumpur to discuss the situation of Rohingya in Rakhine State.

The diverse signatories to the statement include women-led organizations, human rights groups, academic institutions, and development organizations working throughout the country and with various ethnic communities.

Today’s statement follows an  open letter to the United Nations Security Council on December 28 by a group of Nobel Laureates and global leaders—including Kerry Kennedy, President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and member of the international advisory board of Fortify Rights—calling for “an independent, international inquiry to establish the truth about the current situation” in Rakhine State. A Burmese language version of the statement was circulated widely in Myanmar.

The call for an international commission of inquiry also gained momentum in the country following the recent publication of the preliminary findings of an investigation led by Vice President Myint Swe—a former military general and known “hardliner”—into the situation in northern Rakhine State. The government established the commission after militants attacked three police outposts, killing nine and prompting the Myanmar military to initiate an indiscriminate “clearance operation.” 

Tens of thousands of civilians have since fled attacks by the Myanmar military in Maungdaw Township. In an ongoing investigation, Fortify Rights documented how the Myanmar military razed villages, killed unarmed civilians, and raped Rohingya women, among other abuses in several villages in Maungdaw Township.

On January 3, state-run media published the interim findings of the government-appointed, 13-member commission led by Myint Swe, which reported no human rights violations and denied allegations of the crime of genocide. The commission cited the presence of “the Bengali population” as well as religious leaders and mosques as “proof that there were no cases of genocide and religious persecution in the region.”

Myint Swe’s commission also denied allegations of malnutrition among the local Rohingya population, apparently based on visual observations of “the area’s favorable fishing and farming conditions.” The commission failed to note available empirical data and internal U.N. reports that suggest malnutrition rates in Maungdaw Township have long been at crisis level and are worsening.

Since October, Myanmar authorities have blocked access to affected areas in Maungdaw Township, denying life-saving humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of Rohingya while also restricting access for human rights monitors and journalists. Despite Myanmar authorities’ repeated promises to diplomats and others to open humanitarian access to the area, aid operations remain extremely limited.

More than 65,000 Rohingya men, women, and children have fled to Bangladesh since October, joining a longstanding Rohingya refugee population of an estimated half a million people.

In August 2016, before the most recent violence in Rakhine State, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi appointed a nine-member “advisory commission” chaired by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to provide recommendations to the government on “challenges identified jointly by the Commission and the Government of Myanmar” with regard to Rakhine State. The commission comprises six Myanmar nationals and three foreigners.

In September 2016, Mr. Annan publicly clarified that his commission would not conduct a “human rights investigation” in Rakhine State. Fortify Rights confirmed the Annan Commission is not collecting evidence of human rights violations in Rakhine State.

In late October 2016, the Rakhine State Parliament also appointed its own “investigative commission,” comprising 11 state-level legislators who purported to look into the situation in Maungdaw Township with a view to “help the indigenous people who fled from the clashes”—a reference to ethnic-Rakhine Buddhists affected by the situation. On December 27, it issued its findings, reporting no abuses by state security forces.

“In three months, we’ve seen the formation of an advisory commission, a whitewash commission, and a discriminatory commission,” said Matthew Smith. “None of these bodies are conducting a serious, impartial investigation into ongoing human rights violations. The international community needs to wake up to the fact that domestic remedies have been exhausted and the situation of the Rohingya is worsening by the day.” 

In October, state-run media in Myanmar alluded to Rohingya as “thorns,” and in November as “detestable human fleas.” The office of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has also waged a propaganda campaign, denying wrongdoing by the state and explicitly denying rape and other human rights violations against Rohingya, despite mounting evidence.

The Government of Myanmar revoked Rohingya citizenship in 1982 and now denies them the right to self identify, instead labeling the population of approximately one million as “Bengali” interlopers from Bangladesh.

Fortify Rights called on Yanghee Lee, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, OIC member states, and members of the U.N. Human Rights Council to support the establishment of a U.N.-mandated independent investigation when the Human Rights Council convenes in March.

In October 2015, Fortify Rights and the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School called on the U.N. Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution mandating an international commission of inquiry to assess the totality of the situation in Rakhine State, including human rights violations against Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists. The clinic at Yale Law School found “strong evidence” to establish the elements of the crime of genocide in Rakhine State.

The U.N. Human Rights Council, Security Council, General Assembly, Secretary General, and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights all have authority to establish independent international investigations, also known as commissions of inquiry.

The U.N. has established inquiries into serious human rights violations in Libya, the occupied Palestinian territory, Syria, North Korea, Sri Lanka, and the Central African Republic, among others.

A U.N.-mandated investigation in Rakhine State could objectively evaluate the facts, identify perpetrators, and provide clear recommendations for action. Potential commissioners could include professional investigators, legal practitioners, forensics experts, and gender specialists from Asian countries and internationally. Fortify Rights recommends that such a commission also conduct fact-finding outside Myanmar, in countries such as Bangladesh and Malaysia, to ensure a complete and comprehensive investigation into abuses that took place in Rakhine State.

“If there were ever a situation in which an independent investigation is needed, it’s now in Rakhine State,” said Matthew Smith. “The international community has an opportunity to take up the call of Myanmar civil society, and it should act without delay.”

Correction: A previous version of this news release stated that “more than 40” organizations signed the statement calling for an independent, international investigation in Rakhine State. The correct number of signatories is 40.

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