Holding Myanmar’s Military to Account—Why We Must and How We Can

This piece was authored by Julia Wilber. 

As we mark the first anniversary of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority from Myanmar, it is clear that too little has been done to support, protect, and provide for this marginalized community. The United Nations Secretary General has even gone so far as to say that the world has “failed” the Rohingya. But on this anniversary, the world has another chance. The international community can take three concrete steps to address the impunity at the root of the Rohingya crisis.

First, the UN Security Council should refer the case to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for investigation. Second, the United Nations should establish an investigative body to collect and document evidence of human rights violations. Third, the United States and other key governments should impose additional targeted sanctions on responsible parties. Together, these steps could provide some measure of hope to the Rohingya and would represent a strong, principled stand against future atrocities.

The Need for Accountability

The horrors inflicted upon the Rohingya are shocking. For decades, Myanmar’s military has operated with impunity. Now, accountability is urgently needed to provide a sense of justice to the Rohingya, to act as a deterrent against further abuses of the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in the country, and to help stabilize the region.

To begin with, accountability would provide a necessary sense of justice for the Rohingya. Mechanisms for accountability do not address immediate survival needs like adequate food, shelter, and sanitation. However, holding abusers accountable is an essential part of the healing process. It is also an essential condition for the voluntary, safe, and dignified repatriation of the Rohingya from refugee camps in Bangladesh. As highlighted by the UN Secretary General on a visit with Rohingya refugees, when asked what they would need to return home, many Rohingya respond: “justice.”

When asked what they would need to return home, many Rohingya respond: ‘justice.’

In addition, accountability would act as a deterrent to future violence. The lack of accountability for previous abuses has allowed Myanmar’s military to continue to commit violence against ethnic minority groups. The military has persecuted the Rohingya intensely since the early 1980s, stripping them of their citizenship, imposing restrictions on access to schooling and health care, and forcing them into Bangladesh multiple times—as recently as 2012 and 2016. Refugees International has also documented continuing violence against other minorities in Kachin and Shan States. Devastating reports have continued to emerge, even in the last few months, of the military using Kachin civilians as “human shields.”  International accountability would help force Myanmar’s military to weigh its intentions against the consequences of condemnation from the international community.

Finally, accountability would also increase stability in the region. That stability has been disrupted by the rapid and large scale movement of the Rohingya, a point highlighted by Indonesia’s president at a regional summit last year. Forced migrations place an immense draw on resources, stressing host nations’ economic and political stability. Bangladesh’s resources, already taxed by its large population, are being stretched to their limit. Mass forced migrations are also accompanied by increased human, drug, and sex trafficking, as well as the corruption and exploitation that accompany that trafficking. This presents security risks not only for the Rohingya, but also for others in the region. In short, steps taken toward accountability would help bring stability by facilitating return of refugees and reducing the likelihood of future mass forced migrations.

Options for Accountability

The international community could hold Myanmar accountable through judicial action, evidence collection, or sanctions targeted at individuals responsible for serious human rights abuses.

International Criminal Court (ICC)

The most robust mechanism for accountability would be an investigation by the ICC. The ICC offers legal means of holding the Myanmar military responsible, through investigation and potentially prosecution. The ICC has jurisdiction over crimes against humanity occurring in its member states. Although these types of crimes have been committed against the Rohingya, Myanmar is not a member of the court. Therefore, for the ICC to investigate crimes in Myanmar, the UN Security Council would need to refer the case to the court. However, members of the Security Council have yet to bring a referral to a vote, citing fears that China would veto. This fear is an excuse for inaction. Beginning in 2014, the Security Council tried four times to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC, and although these efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, they served to highlight the seriousness of the human rights violations against Syrians and to demonstrate sustained dedication to pursuit of justice. Bringing the referral to a vote, even if China were to veto, would send a strong and principled message to the Myanmar military.

Human rights advocates and the ICC Chief Prosecutor have also been exploring other, creative ways of bringing Myanmar’s case to the ICC. One unprecedented approach is exploring whether Bangladesh, as a member of the ICC, could refer the case of crimes committed against the Rohingya to the ICC based on the fact that they continued into Bangladesh’s territory.

Evidence Collection

Evidence collection provides accountability by creating a record of abuses, which may be used in future court cases. UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee has proposed such a mechanism. It would document human rights violations, collect and preserve this evidence so that it is ready and available for use in judicial proceedings, and provide psychosocial, livelihood, and other support for survivors throughout the process.

Targeted Sanctions

Despite global awareness of the Rohingya crisis and growing evidence of the crimes against humanity perpetrated against the Rohingya, there has been virtually no accountability to date.

In addition to investigation by the ICC and collection of evidence, targeted sanctions against members of Myanmar’s military could provide a measure of individual accountability. Governments and the UN Security Council have the ability to impose sanctions that freeze internationally held assets and limit the ability of individuals to travel. Canada and the European Union have already sanctioned seven members of the Myanmar military, while the United States has now sanctioned five individuals as well as two army units. Human rights advocacy groups Amnesty International and Fortify Rights have carried out independent investigations and released overlapping lists of, respectively, 13 and 22 military or police officials. They recommend that these individuals be investigated for responsibility for crimes against humanity and strongly considered for targeted sanctions.


Despite global awareness of the Rohingya crisis and growing evidence of the crimes against humanity perpetrated against the Rohingya, there has been virtually no accountability to date. Now, at the one-year anniversary, the international community must continue to push for referral to the ICC, for evidence collection mechanisms, and for targeted sanctions against responsible parties. There is still a chance to do right by the Rohingya.