An international law firm hired by the United States State Department to investigate last year’s military crackdown on the Rohingya in Myanmar, says it has found evidence of genocide, urging the international community to establish a criminal investigation into the atrocities and ensure justice for the victims.
The Public International Law and Policy Group (PILPG) said on Monday that its findings, based on interviews with more than 1,000 Muslim-majority Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh as a result of the crackdown in Rakhine state, also found reasonable grounds to conclude that the army committed crimes against humanity and war crimes.
“It is clear from our intense legal review that there is, in fact, a legal basis to conclude that the Rohingya were the victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide,” the PILPG’s Paul Williams told a press conference in Washington, DC.
“As such, we believe there is sufficient basis to bring international criminal proceedings against the perpetrators of the violence and recommend that the international community pursue legal accountability for the atrocity crimes committed in Rakhine state against the Rohingya.”
Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority country with significant numbers of ethnic minorities, has denied accusations of genocide, insisting that the military’s actions were part of a fight against “terrorism” and were triggered by a series of attacks on police posts and border outposts by the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) armed group.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled the Myanmar army’s crackdown, and human rights groups say thousands died.
The lawyers’ report documented more than 13,000 instances of “grave human rights violations” in the crackdown.
“The Rohingya who did make it to Bangladesh left behind a place of terror, violence, and destruction,” the report said. “Yet, despite the horrors they faced there, it is a place that the Rohingya refugees still unfailingly call their ‘homeland’.”
Of the 1,024 Rohingya interviewed in the PILPG report, 20 percent told investigators that they had been physically wounded in the attacks. Nearly 70 percent said they had watched their homes or villages being destroyed, while 80 percent witnessed the killing of a family member, friend or personal acquaintance.
The goal was not just to expel, but also to exterminate the Rohingya
The Myanmar armed forces, led by the army who often worked in cooperation with other security forces, only targetted Rohingya civilians in the attacks, the law firm said.
The military’s actions were “highly-coordinated” and required both tactical and logistical planning.
Attacks by ARSA were simply a “convenient justification” for the crackdown in Rakhine, it said.
“The scale and severity of the attacks and abuses – particularly the mass killings and accompanying brutality against children, women, pregnant women, the elderly, religious leaders, and persons fleeing into Bangladesh – suggest that, in the minds of the perpetrators, the goal was not just to expel, but also to exterminate the Rohingya,” the report said.
In November 2017, the US called Myanmar’s campaign against the Rohingya “ethnic cleansing”.
Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna, reporting from Washington, DC, said that although the law firm’s use of the word “genocide” could add to the pressure on Washington to change its description of the attacks, it was doubtful the administration would change course.
“The State Department continues to use the term ethnic cleansing,” Hanna said. “The reason? Using the word genocide would, in terms of international law, mandate the US to take immediate punitive action. After months of debate, this is something the Trump administration is clearly unwilling to do.”
The US is competing for influence with China, which neighbours Myanmar, on the global stage.
The PILGP said that while some had argued the military only wanted to remove the Rohingya from Myanmar, the fact that members of the persecuted minority continued to be shot dead even as they crossed the border or waited to do so, and that people were attacked as they fled, suggested there was a “specific intent to commit genocide”.
The law firm said the crimes it had concluded took place, were the most serious under international law and that it was generally individual states that had the responsibility to protect people against such crimes.
But in this case, where the state itself is “the one committing such acts against its population, the international community is obliged to take collective action to protect populations from those crimes,” it added.
The firm’s report called for the urgent establishment of what it referred to as an “accountability mechanism” or an immediate referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court, and for the international community to ensure any mechanism was properly funded.
Campaigners said coordinated international action was crucial.
“They believe that they can get away with these murders,” said Tun Khin, of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, referring to Myanmar’s military. “They are not listening to anyone. It is important that the US government, EU countries and the international community must come to collective action to intervene to stop this genocide.”
The PILGP welcomed the UN Human Rights Council’s recent decision to establish an independent investigative mechanism to collect and analyse evidence of the most serious crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar, including Rakhine state.
A UN report released in August found “genocidal intent” in the Myanmar military’s crackdown on the Rohingya, and recommended the commander-in-chief and five generals be prosecuted under international law.
It also urged the UN Security Council to impose an arms embargo and targeted sanctions.
Myanmar’s government rejected the 440-page report, describing the investigation as “flawed, biased and politically motivated”.
Two months later, the head of the UN’s Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar told the council that the Rohingya who remained in Myanmar, some of whom have been confined to grim camps since communal violence in 2012, faced an “ongoing genocide” and severe repression.
That briefing drew objections from six of the Security Council’s 15 members, including China and Russia.