Myanmar: Increasing evidence of crimes against humanity since coup

Crimes against humanity and war crimes have intensified in the wake of the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar, the UN Human Rights Council heard on Monday. 

The Geneva-based body was briefed by Nicholas Koumjian, Head of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), who presented its latest report. 

The Mechanism was established by the Council to collect and preserve evidence of the most serious international crimes in the country. 

Lack of accountability 

Mr. Koumjian began by pointing out that it has been five years since the August 2017 military clearance operations in Rakhine State that forced most of the Rohingya population to flee. 

“Almost all remain in neighbouring countries awaiting the day when conditions will allow their safe and dignified return home.  The end of impunity for those who inflicted the violence would do much to create such conditions,” he said. 

He reported that since the coup, there is growing evidence of the most serious international crimes including murder, torture, deportation and forcible transfer, persecution, imprisonment, and targeting of civilians.

“The people of Myanmar continue to suffer because of the lack of accountability for those who believe they answer to no law,” he stated. 

Prioritizing women and children 

Mr. Koumjian said the Mechanism prioritizes gathering evidence of sexual and gender-based violence and crimes against children.  

Although women and children are at particular risk in conflicts, crimes against them are typically under-reported and under-prosecuted.  

“We have gathered reports of children in Myanmar having been tortured and arbitrarily detained, sometimes to target their parents. There is also increasing evidence of sexual and gender-based crimes against both women and men,” he said.

Due process lacking 

The report also addresses the  execution of four pro-democracy activists in July.  While capital punishment is not itself an international crime, Mr. Koumjian said that “imposing the death sentence on the basis of proceedings that do not satisfy the basic requirements of a fair trial can amount to a crime against humanity”. 

He said that there are “strong indications” the executions were without due process, adding “proceedings lacked transparency and virtually no information is available as to the charges and evidence”. 

Progress and challenges 

Mr. Koumjian said the Mechanism faces many challenges, given that staff are denied access to crime scenes and witnesses in Myanmar despite making a dozen requests to the authorities. Despite this, notable progress has occurred.  

“Many brave individuals, NGOs and other entities have shared valuable evidence with us,” he said. 

“We have conducted numerous screenings and interviews from persons who have provided vital first-hand information about crimes perpetrated inside the country.  Ensuring protection and support for those who provide us with information is an issue of increasing concern”. 

Collecting evidence of crimes 

The Mechanism has prepared 67 evidential and analytical packages to share with judicial authorities, including for proceedings at the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice

Almost three million “information items” from more than 200 sources have so far been collected and processed.

They include interview statements, documentation, videos, photographs, geospatial imagery, and social media material. Mr. Koumjian said his team now faces the challenging task of analysing them.  

“For example, Facebook has shared with the Mechanism millions of items from networks of accounts that were taken down by the company because they misrepresented their identity – the accounts were actually controlled by the Myanmar military,” he said. 

False reports on social media 

The team has identified posts inciting fear and hatred of Rohingya that appeared on these military-controlled networks. He gave the example of a post that appeared on 10 different pages within one such network just prior to the start of the August 2017 clearance operations.  

“The post contained false reports of Rohingya arming en masse and threatening Myanmar’s Buddhists, and a photo of a cow with its stomach slit and disembowelled – an image offensive to Myanmar Buddhists,” he said.   

Search for justice 

In expressing gratitude to the Human Rights Council, Mr. Koumjian called on all countries “committed to ending the worst violence in Myanmar” to support the Mechanism’s work. 

“Perpetrators of the most serious international crimes committed in Myanmar must know that we are united in our efforts to break the cycle of impunity and to ensure that those responsible for such crimes will face justice,” he said.