Myanmar is staring down the barrel of its first UN “accountability phase” — triggering sanctions, Security Council action or referral to the International Criminal Court.
A three-person UN panel that includes former Australian human rights commissioner Chris Sidoti begins its probe into human rights abuses next week.
Panel chairman Marzuki Darusman said its report to the UN Human Rights Council next September would be the “high point” in a series of UN investigations that have detailed allegations of arson, mass killings and rapes of Rohingya Muslims and concluded the Myanmar military is pursuing a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the minority population.
The former Indonesia attorney-general, who has worked on UN inquiries into the assassination of former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto and war crimes in Sri Lanka, said his team would establish facts and a “pattern of events” since 2012 when tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state led to deadly riots and the internment of 120,000 Rohingya.
It would focus on Rakhine but also look at other ethnic conflicts in Myanmar where displaced communities have made similar allegations against the military.
“The Human Rights Council will then reach a point where it may legitimately say we are now going into an accountability phase, which has never been the case for the last 20 years for Myanmar,” he told The Weekend Australian.
“That opens up a whole host of other actions that would engage the UN system as a whole. It could lead to the ICC, it could lead to the Security Council, it could lead to sanctions being taken. That would be the new base point for the council to move forward.”
Mr Darusman, Mr Sidoti and Sri Lankan lawyer Radhika Coomaraswamy will travel to refugee camps in Bangladesh next week. They plan to gather testimony from Rohingya refugees in Malaysia and, ultimately, visit Myanmar. Mr Darusman cautioned Myanmar authorities against blocking his investigators from violence-affected areas in Rakhine and other parts of the Buddhist-majority country.
If it did there was 20 years of accumulated UN human rights reports “just waiting to be sorted out and made sense of”. “This should be known by the government; that if we are in the process of making sense of information available then it would be in their interests to influence that process. The only way to is to engage with the fact finding mission,” he said.
This week refugees crossing into Bangladesh reached 600,000 — eight weeks after Rohingya militant attacks on security posts sparked the most brutal military crackdown on Muslim civilians in generations. Thousands say they fled hunger, as the army and Buddhists closed markets and barred Muslims from harvesting.
Mr Darusman praised the work of the special rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights whose most recent report last week alleged the Myanmar military was pursuing a strategy to “instil deep and widespread fear and trauma” among the Rohingya population.
But Mr Darusman said his team would be “led by the facts and not by prevailing opinions, however strong they are”. The reputation of Myanmar’s defacto leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has unravelled over her government’s handling of the crisis, which has included expelling all international media and aid agencies except the Red Cross.
Ms Suu Kyi has insisted all military operations in Rakhine ended on September 5 — despite strong evidence to the contrary — and professed not to understand why Rohingya are still fleeing Rakhine. The comments have sparked derision, but Mr Darusman said it was possible the State Counsellor had been kept “in the dark about what was happening”.