March 3, 2020

Myanmar pays rising price for Rohingya crisis


Aung Suu Kyi, Myanmar's de facto ruler, defends her country against accusations of Rohingya genocide at the top UN court in The Hague, Netherlands, on December 11, 2019. Photo: International Court of Justice / Handout / Anadolu Agency

Last week, the government of Myanmar started paying a real price for its failure to provide meaningful accountability for its security forces’ widespread and systematic violence against the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority in northern Rakhine state in late 2017. 


On February 26, Germany’s development minister, Gerd Müller, announced that Berlin was suspending development cooperation with Myanmar because of its “ethnic cleansing” of its Rohingya minority. Müller said the suspension would remain in place until Myanmar delivered on its commitment to “guaranteeing the safe return of the more than 700,000 Rohingya who fled for their lives to Bangladesh in late 2017 and protecting the Rohingya who still live in the country.”

Although Müller didn’t specify the financial cost of that suspension, he simultaneously announced an additional German government contribution of €15 million (US$16.5 million) to support Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee population.

Müller indicated that the financial cost imposed by for Myanmar’s failure to provide meaningful accountability and to create the conditions for safe, voluntary, and dignified repatriation of Rohingya refugees will continue to rise if Myanmar refuses to comply. Müller mooted additional punitive sanctions against Myanmar aimed at punishing it for its “unacceptable crimes” against the Rohingya. Those sanctions include restrictions on visa issuance to Myanmar government and military officials as well as trade sanctions.

Germany’s moves are a stark reminder for Myanmar’s government and its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, that there is growing international frustration with Myanmar’s failure to acknowledge its culpability for 2017 slaughter of the Rohingya and to undertake the necessary steps for repatriation of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who fled that violence.

Myanmar has refused to bring to account government and military officials implicated in the mass killings, gang rapes, mutilations, and forced dislocation inflicted by security forces on the Rohingya. That state-sanctioned violence killed at least 10,000 Rohingya, left many others with potentially life-long physical disabilities, and caused the largest flight of civilians since the Rwandan genocide

Myanmar has defied international moves toward meaningful accountability at every turn. In response to The Gambia’s official complaint of Myanmar’s alleged violation of the United Nations’ 1948 Genocide Convention initiated in November 2019, the Myanmar government’s November 13 statement to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) asserted that The Gambia’s allegations were based on a “incomplete and misleading factual picture of the situation in Rakhine state.”

That statement peddled the Myanmar military‘s long-discredited narrative that its activities in northern Rakhine state in August 2017 constituted legitimate “clearance operations” in response to attacks on police posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Aung San Suu Kyi told ICJ justices last December that what transpired in northern Rakhine in late 2017 was merely “an internal armed conflict started by coordinated and comprehensive attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, to which Myanmar’s Defense Services responded.”

The ICJ delivered a stinging rebuke of that narrative on January 23 by supporting The Gambia’s request for urgent provisional measures to protect the Rohingya population while the court undertakes the longer-term judicial consideration of The Gambia’s genocide allegations.

This past week there were indications of growing international support for The Gambia’s ICJ genocide complaint against Myanmar. On February 25, Maldives announced that it would file a written “declaration of intervention” at the ICJ in support of The Gambia’s genocide complaint. Maldives’ minister of foreign affairs, Abdulla Shahid, said that intervention – the details of which are yet to be made public – demonstrated his country’s support for “the ongoing efforts to secure accountability for the perpetrators of genocide against the Rohingya people.”

Other states are likely to initiate similar ICJ interventions over the coming weeks, including Canada and the Netherlands, whose governments announced in December that they planned to “jointly assist Gambia at the International Court of Justice.”

Meanwhile, The Gambia’s complaint at the ICJ is just one of a growing number of judicial processes that Myanmar will need to contend with over the coming months and years.

Last November 13, Rohingya and Latin American human-rights organizations filed a case with an Argentine court against Myanmar government and military officials under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows that people implicated in the most serious international crimes may be arrested, prosecuted, and convicted in countries other than their own. The Argentine court filing seeks “the criminal sanction of the perpetrators, accomplices and cover-ups of the genocide” perpetrated by Myanmar security forces against the Rohingya.

The very next day, the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced that it had authorized a formal investigation into Myanmar government abuses against the Rohingya in 2017 based on an acceptance that “widespread and/or systematic acts of violence may have been committed that could qualify as the crimes against humanity of deportation across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border and persecution on grounds of ethnicity and/or religion against the Rohingya population.”

Prior efforts to initiate an ICC investigation of the bloodshed have been complicated by the fact that Myanmar is not a signatory to the Rome Statute that established the court. International efforts to trigger an ICC probe via a resolution of the UN Security Council have been stymied by the opposition of Russia and China.

Meanwhile, the UN-created Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar officially began operations in September 2019 to gather evidence of crimes against humanity against Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, including, but not limited to, the Rohingya, nationwide over the past eight years.

Germany’s and Maldives’ initiatives to spur accountability for the Rohingya have delivered an unambiguous message that other states dedicated to rule of law, human rights and the protection of vulnerable minorities should echo. That message is that Myanmar should stop obstructing Rohingya accountability efforts, or pay the price of pariah-state status synonymous with murderous impunity.

Phelim Kine is the director of research and investigations at Physicians for Human Rights and a former deputy director in Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. He is also an adjunct professor in the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York.

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