U.N. Human Rights Council Should Mandate Robust Inquiry in Myanmar

(Washington, D.C., March 17, 2017)—Members of United States Congress and President Donald Trump’s administration should support the establishment of an international inquiry into possible crimes against humanity committed against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, Fortify Rights said today at a hearing before the U.S. Congress. Fortify Rights detailed its recent findings on violations taking place in Rakhine State in a 17-page written submission to U.S. Congress published today.

“The U.S. is a highly influential actor in Myanmar,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer at Fortify Rights who testified at the hearing. “We believe a strong international inquiry will bolster Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration, stem refugee outflows, and help end military impunity for serious human rights abuses.”

Fortify Rights called on the U.S. Government to support ongoing efforts at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to mandate a strong international inquiry into human rights violations in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

After weeks of negotiations, the European Union submitted a resolution to the Human Rights Council on March 16, calling for the body to “dispatch urgently an independent international fact-finding mission” to Myanmar to investigate violations in Rakhine State “with a view to ensure full accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims.” Human Rights Council member states will debate the resolution and vote on it next week. The U.S. is a member of the Human Rights Council.

Fortify Rights’ testimony to U.S. Congress stressed that “a robust commission” would  “deter additional atrocity crimes not only in Rakhine State but also in other ethnic states, such as Kachin and Shan states, where the military has perpetrated international crimes with impunity as well.”

Fortify Rights’ 17-page written submission to the Commission describes how Myanmar “state security forces raped and killed Rohingya civilians, including infants and children, looted property, and razed entire villages, including religious structures and food stocks.” Fortify Rights also documented “situations of mass gang-rape of women and girls” and how soldiers “slit men’s throats and burned people alive.”

Fortify Rights told members of U.S. Congress that: “State security forces carried out these violations in a consistent manner in disparate locations, indicating the systematic nature of the attacks. Fortify Rights believes this indicates that the soldiers’ actions were not spontaneous and were likely based on guidance or orders.”

The submission also details how the “military arrested men and boys en masse.” On March 16, Reuters exposed that children under the age of 12 are among the hundreds detained.

The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan commission in U.S. Congress, organized the hearing. Democratic Representative from Massachusetts James P. McGovern and Republican Representative from Illinois Randy Hultgren co-chair the commission.

Former member of U.S. Congress and current President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee Tom Andrews, Program Manager of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Andrea Gittleman, and an ethnic-Rohingya advocate from Myanmar Mohamed Naeem also provided detailed testimony at the hearing on atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

“The authorities must reinstate unconditional citizenship rights to Rohingya,” said Mohamed Naeem, who also called for accountability for atrocity crimes. “We want to be treated with respect, dignity, and equality—no more, no less.”

The findings presented at the hearing are consistent with U.N. reports on the situation in Rakhine State. On February 3, the U.N. reported “widespread human rights violations against the Rohingya population” in Myanmar, including “mass gang-rape, killings, including of babies and young children, brutal beatings, disappearances and other serious human rights violations by the country’s security forces.” The U.N. found that attacks against the Rohingya were widespread and systematic and likely constituted crimes against humanity.

Last month, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called for at least a Commission of Inquiry to further investigate the allegations.

Reporting to the U.N. Human Rights Council on March 13, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee delivered her own findings, describing grave violations by Myanmar state security forces, including the “slitting of throats, indiscriminate shootings, setting alight houses with people tied up inside and throwing very young children into the fire, as well as gang rapes and other sexual violence.” Lee also called upon member states to establish a Commission of Inquiry into the situation in Rakhine State. 

The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, appointed by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and led by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, issued interim recommendations on March 15. While the commission was not mandated to investigate allegations of human rights violations, notably it called for perpetrators of human rights violations to be held accountable through an “independent and impartial investigation.”

Following allegations of mass atrocities, the Government of Myanmar appointed a commission to investigate the situation, as did the military and police, but these bodies lack independence and credibility and have been unwilling and unable to properly address the crimes that have taken place, Fortify Rights said.

The 34th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva began February 27 and will conclude March 24. The U.N. body comprises 47 U.N. member states and can pass resolutions with a simple majority vote of at least 24 member states.

“The negotiations on the resolution should be swift and waste no time in mandating a strong inquiry,” said Matthew Smith. “The international community failed to intervene to prevent atrocities in Rakhine State in the past and the consequences have played out on a horrific scale. Now is the time for action, not diplomatic maneuvering.” 

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