This piece originally appeared in the Fair Observer
On August 27, the UN-mandated Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar released a devastating report concluding that the country’s military leaders should be prosecuted for the “gravest crimes under international law,” including genocide against the Rohingya minority. Understandably, this is the aspect of the report that has garnered the greatest attention, but other important findings have gone relatively unnoticed.
Chief among these are that the crimes of the Myanmar military go far beyond those committed against the Rohingya, and that the burden of responsibility for those crimes extends beyond the military to the country’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as the United Nations.
The fact-finding mission was mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate not only abuses against the Rohingya, but those against ethnic minorities in Kachin and Shan States in northern Myanmar. In addition to the atrocities documented against the Rohingya, the mission “confirmed consistent patterns of violations of international law” in northern Myanmar including rape, torture, “systematic attacks targeted at civilians” and other abuses amounting to crimes against humanity. The report further documented worsening denial of humanitarian assistance to a population facing high levels of chronic malnutrition, an issue highlighted by Refugees International among others.
While clarifying the distinct dynamics behind the violence in Rakhine State and northern Myanmar, the mission drew attention to the common characteristics of Myanmar military operations in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan States, including targeting of civilians, sexual violence, exclusionary rhetoric and impunity. These findings are significant not only in acknowledging the suffering and persecution of other ethnic minorities outside of the media spotlight, but also in demonstrating that the root causes and tactics behind the violence against the Rohingya stretch across the country and go back decades.
The common factor of impunity is particularly important as it shows the flaw in relying on domestic efforts at accountability. Indeed, the mission looked at the history of impunity and found that no less than eight domestic attempts at accountability for violence in Rakhine have failed to be credible. On this the fact-finding mission is unequivocal, stating that “accountability at the domestic level is currently unattainable … The impetus for accountability must come from the international community.”
Another overlooked finding of the report related to the issue of impunity is that responsibility reaches beyond the Myanmar military. The report essentially lays out three levels of responsibility for the crimes committed against the Rohingya. First and most obvious is that of the military. The report singles out Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and five other officials for investigation and prosecution and refers to a longer confidential list of individuals that could be made available for future accountability efforts. It recommends referral to the International Criminal Court and use of targeted sanctions.
The second level of responsibility is with the civilian government with the report notably singling out Aung San Suu Kyi for failing to use her moral authority and position of leadership to stem violence and protect civilians. As the report states, “through their acts and omissions, the civilian authorities have contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes.”
This finding reinforces the indispensability of international pressure, not only on Myanmar’s military, but also on the civilian leadership, and flies in the face of arguments by those like US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that Suu Kyi is the best hope for addressing the crisis and should not be criticized.
Third, and perhaps least noticed in the report, is the responsibility of the international community, and specifically the UN system within the country. The report is damning in its conclusions that the UN “demonstrably failed” in its approach in Myanmar, prioritizing democratic and development efforts at the expense of human rights. The mission points to the lack of mention of human rights in recent UN-Myanmar agreements as showing that even now the UN displays “few signs of lessons learned.” This has led to a call for an independent inquiry into the involvement of the UN in Myanmar in recent years.
While the call for prosecution on the basis of genocide may be the most talked about outcome of the report, it is far from being the only consequential finding. The mission’s demonstration of the breadth of crimes and the degrees of responsibility is significant, both in exposing the broader impunity at the core of recurring abuses in Myanmar and in reinforcing the need for outside pressure and efforts at accountability. Finally, by pointing to the failures of the UN to prioritize human rights, the mission’s findings place an extra onus on the international community to act.