Child-slave labor, severe violations against Rohingya continue

(YANGON, December 7, 2019)— The International Court of Justice (ICJ) should issue “provisional measures” to Myanmar in response to the urgent situation of indigenous ethnic Rohingya in the country, Fortify Rights said today. New evidence shows how the Government of Myanmar continues to violate its obligations under the Genocide Convention. 

“We’re confident the court will urgently and appropriately respond to the situation,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer at Fortify Rights. “Myanmar authorities are defiant and continue to violate the rights of Rohingya. These ongoing violations aggravate the issue of genocide before the court and require urgent action.” 

New evidence indicates how Myanmar authorities are using Rohingya for slave labor, including child slave-labor, systematically restricting freedom of movement, and denying the existence of Rohingya and their right to a nationality. 

Forced labor and systematic restrictions on freedom of movement may constitute the infliction of conditions of life designed to destroy a group in whole or in part, a prohibited act of genocide. 

The ICJ—the principal judicial organ of the United Nations—will hold public hearings in The Hague from December 10 to 12 as part of a case brought by The Gambia on November 11 against Myanmar for allegedly violating the Genocide Convention in its attempts to destroy Rohingya Muslims as a group. The court will consider the Gambia’s request for “provisional measures,” which are binding orders from the court to the parties in the case to prevent further violation of the rights in dispute while the case is pending. State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi will lead the Myanmar delegation to the court.

The Gambia requested the court indicate provisional measures to Myanmar “as a matter of extreme urgency” and “to protect against further, irreparable harm to the rights of the Rohingya group under the Genocide Convention, which continue to be violated with impunity.”

55-year-old Rohingya father of eight, was a farmer and landowner in Rakhine State before he fled Myanmar to escape military- led attacks in 2017. ©Saiful Huq Omi, Counter Foto, Cox’s Bazar District, Bangladesh, August 2019
55-year-old Rohingya father of eight, was a farmer and landowner in Rakhine State before he fled Myanmar to escape military- led attacks in 2017. ©Saiful Huq Omi, Counter Foto, Cox’s Bazar District, Bangladesh, August 2019

Forced Labor

Fortify Rights interviewed 12 Rohingya survivors of recent human rights violations in Rakhine State, documenting seven cases of Rohingya forced labor by the Myanmar Army Light Infantry Battalions (LIBs) 551, 552, and 564 as well as the Border Guard Police (BGP) as recent as September 2019 in Buthidaung Township.

For instance, on September 19, between 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m., Myanmar Army soldiers from LIB 551 entered Sindi Parang village, also known as Tha Pyay Taw, in Buthidaung Township, detained 30 men and boys, and forced them to porter military equipment for nearly the entire day without food or water. A Rohingya survivor, 35, told Fortify Rights: 

[Soldiers] kicked and punched me more than seven times along the way. I was hit on my head. They beat me because I was not walking as fast as they wanted. They hit me on my head with the gun. One of the soldiers yelled, “Move quickly. Move quickly.” When I was hit with the gun, I fell to my knees. My friend helped me stand up. I was very dizzy, and I had a hard time walking.

He told Fortify Rights that soldiers denied the group food and water and looted materials from Rohingya residents.

Soldiers also forced Rohingya boys, aged 13- to 14-years old, to porter. “The boys were crying,” a survivor told Fortify Rights. “They were struggling to carry the bags the military gave them.” 

Another Rohingya man, 29, told Fortify Rights: “The soldier’s told us to sit on the ground. They ordered us to carry their bags. I was in fear. I was stopped and I could not do anything because they were soldiers.”

On August 19, soldiers from LIB 552, stationed in Thin Ga Net village, ordered the administrator of Pan Zi village to gather 12 Rohingya residents the following day to work for the military. At 8 a.m. on August 20, two soldiers from LIB 552 entered the village and forced residents, including a 9-year-old boy, into slave labor. A Rohingya resident, who was forced to work for the soldiers, told Fortify Rights: 

We had to drink water from the field. We didn’t have any water. We found some water in the field. It was not clean water. We did not get any money from the work in the paddy field. We worked from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The children also had to work the whole time. I saw a 9-year-old boy work with my own eyes.

On July 25, the military forced the same Rohingya man to porter for four soldiers from LIB 552. He said he could not avoid the work, out of fear: “I was upset. I wanted to run away. I didn’t run because I was fearful they would shoot me as I ran away. I did what they ordered me to do and carried their bags.” 

In another case of forced labor by LIB 552, on August 27, around 10 a.m. a solider entered Mee Chaung Zay village and rounded up 10 Rohingya residents, including a boy as young as 10-years old. Soldiers used the group as slave labor from approximately 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the paddy field located in front of the LIB 552 military compound. A Rohingya resident, 27, told Fortify Rights: 

We were under control of the soldiers the whole time. We did exactly what they said. When the solider was collecting us in the village, he was yelling “kalar” [a pejorative term in Burmese to describe Muslims, Indians, or those of South Asian descent].

In August 2019, BGP soldiers entered Mee Chaung Zay village and forced four Rohingya men to work at the nearby BGP compound for eight hours, digging large holes and cleaning the BGP compound in Hpaung Taw Pyin village. A Rohingya man, 40, told Fortify Rights: 

I was crying while I was working. I was not strong enough. I was fearful. When I was tired, I could not slow down. If I slowed down, the BGP would yell at us. They kicked two of the other men, because they stopped digging to rest. The soldiers yelled, “Keep working.”

Soldiers from LIB 564 forced the same man to work in December 2018 at the military compound of LIB 564 in Chin Tha Mar village with 12 other Rohingya residents. He said the Myanmar military used him as slave labor many times before: “I have been forced to work more than 30 times. I feel distressed. We have to live like this.”

According to Forced Labour Convention No. 29, to which Myanmar is a state party, forced or compulsory labor is “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” 

Forced labor is considered a form of slavery as well as human trafficking under the law. According to Article 1(1) of the 1926 Slavery Convention, “slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.” The 1926 Slavery Convention also recognizes that forced labor can develop, “into conditions analogous to slavery.”

Restrictions on Freedom of Movement 

The Government of Myanmar continues to deny Rohingya freedom of movement and arbitrarily detain those who attempt to travel outside their villages without official approval. Ongoing restrictions on freedom of movement prevent Rohingya from accessing health care, livelihoods, and means of subsistence.   
For instance, on September 26, 2019, Myanmar police arrested a group of 30 Rohingya in Irrawaddy Region after they arrived by boat from Sittwe Township in central Rakhine State, where the government continues to confine more than 125,000 civilians, mostly Rohingya, in more than 20 internment camps. The police denied the 30 Rohingya due process and access to a lawyer, and on October 4, the Ngapudaw Township Court sentenced 21 of them to two years in Pathein prison. 
A Myanmar-based lawyer told Fortify Rights that the authorities prevented her from providing legal support for the detained Rohingya. 
The court convicted the group of 21 for violating the 1949 Residents of Burma Registration Act, which carries a maximum punishment of a two-year sentence. The authorities sent the group of 15 women and six men to Pathein prison and sent three boys and five girls under the age of 18 to a youth training school in Kawhmu Township, Yangon Region for two years.
Rohingya frequently face arrest and prosecution for attempting to travel between townships or outside of Rakhine State. In another recent case, a 20-year-old Rohingya man in Rakhine State told Fortify Rights the authorities imprisoned him in Insein prison after being convicted under the 1949 Residents of Burma Registration Act. He told Fortify Rights that the authorities released him from prison on August 9: “I was kept in prison for more than a year and four months. I was jailed without access to any lawyer and was convicted because I didn’t have a travel document . . . They [Myanmar authorities] despise us and arrest us.” 
Fortify Rights is currently reviewing more than 100 pages of court documents of cases in which the Myanmar authorities convicted other Rohingya under the 1949 Residents of Burma Registration Act. 
Fortify Rights also documented how Myanmar authorities beat, extort, and arbitrarily detain Rohingya at checkpoints and while traveling in Rakhine State. Myanmar authorities enforce discriminatory restrictions on the right to freedom of movement against Rohingya through a series of decades-old orders, which remain in effect.
The Government of Myanmar also continues to deny the existence of Rohingya in Rakhine State and their right to a nationality. In September, Fortify Rights published a 102-page report titled “Tools of Genocide,” revealing how Myanmar authorities forced and coerced Rohingya to accept National Verification Cards (NVCs), which effectively identify Rohingya as “foreigners” and strip them of access to full citizenship rights. The practice continues. In October and November, Fortify Rights interviewed several Rohingya whom the authorities forced to accept NVCs.

Ongoing Genocide

The infliction of conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction of a group as a prohibited criminal act of genocide refers to methods of destruction that do not immediately kill members of the group but ultimately seek the group’s obliteration. The conditions must be inflicted deliberately, but the group need not be destroyed in whole or in part for it to be a prohibited act. 
International criminal tribunals have interpreted this crime to include: subjecting a group to a subsistence diet, denial of access to basic medical services, and systematic expulsion from homes. The act also encompasses forcing members of the group to perform “excessive work or physical exertion.”
There are more than 500,000 Rohingya remaining in Rakhine State. The recent violations documented by Fortify Rights, including forced labor and restrictions on the right to freedom of movement occurred in a wider context of genocidal acts committed by the Myanmar authorities against Rohingya, including killings, rape and sexual violence, burning and razing homes and villages, and denying Rohingya access to food and shelter. 
In previous cases before the court, the ICJ indicated provisional measures when it found that it was “not inconceivable” that the violations in dispute might occur again and where the affected group remained at risk of additional violations. In the current case before the court, these conditions for provisional measures are met. 
“Rohingya in Myanmar are at grave risk,” said Matthew Smith. “The government continues to deny any violations against Rohingya and is using the ICJ case to rouse nationalistic, anti-Rohingya sentiment at home, which could easily turn deadly. Provisional measures are certainly needed.”
U.N. member states that are signatories to the Genocide Convention are able to  support cases before the ICJ through public statements calling for specific actions and through interventions to the ICJ that provide interpretations of the Genocide Convention as it pertains to the specific case. Fortify Rights has called for U.N. member states to support the ICJ case against Myanmar, including by offering technical assistance in evidence gathering and financial support to The Gambia.
The Gambia is represented by the international law firm Foley Hoag LLP. While the OIC is not providing financial support to The Gambia, the OIC has encouraged its member states to voluntarily provide financial support. 
Fortify Rights also reiterated its recommendation that the U.N. Security Council urgently refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court or create an ad hoc criminal tribunal.

“The international community should support all initiatives for justice as well as seek alternative solutions to the ongoing violations in Myanmar,” said Matthew Smith. “Every possible avenue for justice, accountability, and the protection of rights should be used without delay.”

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