Abuse of Rohingya Must Be Investigated

International humanitarian and human rights groups, including Refugees International, have long called for an independent international investigation into abuses of the Rohingya population and the blockage of life-saving aid in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The Government of Myanmar’s response has been one of dismissal and denial. But with a devastating new UN report and growing international pressure, that call has gained new traction.

On February 3, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report citing systematic rape and sexual violence, killing of babies and young children, and destruction of homes and food sources in attacks by Myanmar security forces against the Rohingya Muslim minority population. The report criticizes the disproportionate response by the Myanmar military to the October 2016 attacks carried out by a group of Rohingya and which left 10 border officers dead. The report concludes that the systematic nature of the abuses by the government security forces “very likely amount to commission of crimes against humanity”.

The report has led to a new round of international criticisms of the Myanmar government, including from the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, and Pope Francis, who released a statement of “stinging criticism”. Such statements add to a steadily growing chorus of condemnation that has, in recent weeks, included the Government of Malaysia, the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation, and a group of Nobel Laureates. Perhaps most significantly, the report resulted in a call by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein for an independent international investigation and possible referral to the International Criminal Court.

According to High Commissioner Zeid, Aung San Suu Kyi has met the latest UN report with an expressed willingness to investigate the allegations. Prior to the UN report, the Myanmar government and a government commission set up to investigate violence in northern Rakhine State since October 2016 found no evidence of abuses or of malnutrition due to blocked aid. This directly contradicted a steady flow of reports of abuse collected by groups like Fortify Rights and Human Rights Watch, as well as reports by the UN showing spikes in malnutrition.

It is clear that the existing government commission will not be sufficient to address the abuses highlighted in the latest UN report. Whether Suu Kyi will recognize this remains to be seen, but the expressed willingness to investigate is a welcome change from the previous blanket denials of any abuses by security forces.

Some concrete progress has been made on aid access. Following her recent trip to Rakhine State, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Yanghee Lee reported that access was slowly starting to improve.  And on February 9, a long-delayed ship containing 2,300 tons of food and aid supplies for both Rakhine and Rohingya people affected by violence in Rakhine State arrived in Yangon. Though it was not allowed to dock in Rakhine State, plans are in the works for the Myanmar Navy to ship the food to those who need it

The fact remains that there is too little access and too little known about possible ongoing abuses. But the latest UN report, the international condemnation, and the small pieces of progress, also provide a bit of momentum that should be seized by the Government of Myanmar and the international community. Access to aid must be increased to address immediate dire needs and further steps must be taken toward the longer term need for accountability. Finally, agreeing to an independent international investigation would be an important start.

The Myanmar Government and international community should seize on this small momentum to address the immediate needs of the affected Rohingya and Rakhine populations and begin the longer term need for accountability.