The world owes justice to the victims of mass killings and gang rapes by Myanmar’s armed forces. REUTERS PIC

I WAS shocked to read a report published on Sept 4 in the British newspaper, The Independent, confirming that Myanmar’s armed forces were “burning bodies of Rohingya Muslims” to conceal evidence.

I was shocked, too, to learn that Myanmar’s armed forces were involved in the mass killing and gang rape of the ethnic Rohingya minority.

On Sept 20, I learnt that more than 160,000 of Myanmar’s 1.1 million ethnic Rohingya had fled to Bangladesh.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Myanmar of genocide. A United Nations report published this year said the mass killing and gang rape carried out by Myanmar’s armed forces “very likely” amounted to crimes against humanity.

Crimes against humanity are not codified in an international convention, although there is currently an international effort to establish such a treaty. The law of crimes against humanity has primarily developed through the evolution of customary international law.

Under such laws, crimes against humanity are certain acts that are deliberately committed as part of a widespread, systematic or individual attack directed at any civilian or an identifiable part of a civilian population.

Unlike genocide and war crimes, which have been widely recognised and prohibited under international criminal law since the establishment of the Nuremberg principles, there has never been a comprehensive convention on crimes against humanity.

Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and, (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”.

In the light of the above definition of genocide, “burning bodies of Rohingya Muslims” to conceal evidence and the mass killings and gang rapes of the ethnic Rohingya minority by the Myanmar armed forces clearly amount to genocide in accordance with the clear definition of the United Nations convention.

The International Criminal Court was enabled in 2002 to exercise its jurisdiction if national courts were unwilling or unable to investigate or prosecute genocide, making it a “court of last resort”, leaving the primary responsibility to exercise jurisdiction over alleged criminals to individual states.

However, the UN convention on genocide has come under heavy fire. There is the difficulty of establishing what “in part”, as stated in Article 2 of the 1948 Convention, means.

How many deaths must occur before it is taken to be “genocide”? There is also general
reluctance for the UN to single out certain member states, as has happened in the case of Rwanda.

Looking at legal precedent, we will be able to see that the first case to put the convention on genocide into practice was that involving Jean Paul Akayesu, the Hutu mayor of the Rwandan town of Taba. In a landmark ruling, a special international tribunal convicted the mayor of genocide and crimes against humanity on Sept 2, 1998. More than 30 ringleaders of the Rwandan genocide have now been convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

In Bosnia, the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica was ruled to be genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

General Radislav Krstic, the first man convicted by the ICTY of genocide in Bosnia, had appealed against his conviction for his role in the killing of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica.

But the law on genocide has limitations. Not all perpetrators are brought to justice. Some have accused the international bodies of favouritism.

Despite the fact that there are limitations under international law to bring the perpetrators to justice, that should not deter the nations of the world to take united steps to make Myanmar’s armed forces answer for the crimes of genocide.

If we continue to allow Myanmar’s armed forces to get away with these crimes, we are tacitly encouraging more of these crimes to occur.

The International Criminal Court should issue arrest warrants immediately against the leaders of Myanmar’s armed forces who are actively involved in the mass killings and gang rapes of ethnic Rohingya.

The world owes the victims justice.


Barrister, London

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