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Will There Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?

Photo Source Jordi Bernabeu Farrús | CC BY 2.0

There is an image engraved in our minds of a stoic, reserved, elegant Aung San Suu Kyi unbending in her struggle against Burma’s generals for democracy, and we assumed for human rights.  Last year, when the refugees streamed out of her country in the wake of atrocities, it blocked all UN agencies from delivering food, water and medicine to affected civilians; her office accused aid workers of helping terrorists.

Her iconic stature long gone, she made a public appearance the day after the International Fact-Finding Mission released its initial 20-page overview to the UN Human Rights Council on August 27, 2018.  The damning evidence of murder, rape, torture, persecution, burned villages, landmines along escape routes reported on by NGOs and news media over the past year had been confirmed.  Elegant and patrician as usual, Aung San Suu Kyi discoursed on poetry and literature.  No mention of the genocide or the UN report.  No longer an icon, there have been calls to relieve her of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The UN group criticized her for her continued refusal to condemn the genocide.  The full report detailing unspeakable horrors in its 440-page account has now been released(September 18, 2018).  What might surprise people is a simple shocking fact:  This is not the first UN report on Rohingya massacres.

On February 3, 2017, the UN issued a detailed account of the military’s operations in north Maungddaw with “the very likely commission of crimes against humanity.”  It recounted the murders, rapes and tortures that have now become the trademark of military operations against the Rohingya.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein is quoted as saying ” … what kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk.  And for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by the very security forces that should be protecting her.”

There were no major consequences for Myanmar then and what happened the following summer was the same magnified over Rakhine state.  As a result we have 700,000 refugees, and they are still coming — “11,342 new arrivals as of mid-June this year,” Mr. Zeid has noted.

Will this time be different?  Following the UN Commission’s summary report, 160 British parliamentarians across party lines signed a petition to Prime Minister Theresa May to refer the Myanmar military to the International Criminal Court (ICC).  The UN report accuses the military of genocide, and identifies six generals, singling them out for investigation and prosecution.  They are, the senior general who heads the military, the commander of the army, and four operational commanders.

ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has now been authorized to begin a preliminary investigation to gather evidence before launching a full investigation.  Myanmar is not a signatory to the Rome Statute establishing the ICC but Bangladesh hosting the refugees is, thus giving the court jurisdiction.

Marzuki Darusman providing details of massacres and unmentionable atrocities said in reporting to the Human Rights Council, “I have never been confronted by crimes as horrendous and on such a scale as these.”

If the UN Security Council is to be stymied by veto — China preventing any action against Myanmar — will the ICC effort also fizzle out in practice if not in theory?  Justice remains tenuous for the weak and powerless in our world.

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Arshad M. Khan is a former professor who has, over many years, written occasionally for the print and often for online media outlets.

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