IN 1915, the Ottoman government systematically exterminated 1.5 million Armenians living in its empire. Able-bodied men were killed and their women, children and elderly were deported through military escorts that subjected them to periodic robbery, rape and massacre.
This was the first time the term “crime against humanity” was used.
That term is now in vogue again in Southeast Asia today. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Amnesty International’s latest report has found at least six crimes against humanity have been committed against the Rohingya in the current wave of violence in Burma’s northern Rakhine state.
The term is not one used lightly. It’s a crime that can be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice – the first of its kind was the Nuremberg Trials, a series of military tribunals held against the leaders of Nazi Germany.
In the 1998 Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court (Rome Statute), the document that holds the latest consensus among the international community on this matter, “crimes against humanity” is described as any of 11 acts “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack”.
The definition dictates that the crimes must be committed to further a State or organisations’s policy
And according to the Amnesty International’s most detailed report on the Rohingya crisis this year, witness accounts, satellite imagery and data, and photo and video from the crisis all point towards one conclusion: Myanmar’s security forces’ “systematic, organised and ruthless campaign of violence” against the persecuted minority in Rakhine puts them in the same category as Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and Indonesia’s army responsible for the 1965-66 mass killings of Indonesian Communist Party’s members and sympathizers i.e. perpetrators of ‘crimes against humanity’.
These are the six documented crimes against humanity as Amnesty found:
Opening fire, then systematically burning Rohingya houses and buildings were stated to be the modus operandi by Burma’s security forces in the days and hours after the ARSA attacks on Aug 25.
Hundreds were killed by the open fire, while the burning of villages left those who were unable to flee, like the elderly and disabled, left to perish according to survivor’s accounts.
At least 20.7sq km of buildings have been shown to be destroyed by fire, according to the UN Operational Satellite Applications Programme (Unosat), though the destruction may have been more given dense cloud cover affected what the satellites were able to detect.
Sona Mia, 77, recounted that he had to leave behind his 20-year-old daughter, Rayna Khatun, who was unable to walk or speak, when the shootings got closer and closer to his home in Koe Tan Kauk. When Sona’s sons returned to an abandoned house where he had left Rayna later, they found Rayna’s burnt body among the torched house.
2. Rape and other sexual violence
Source: Amnesty International
After executing scores of men and older boys, women were taken in groups to nearby houses where they were raped, according to Amnesty’s interviews with seven Rohingya survivors of sexual violence committed by Burma’s military. Soldiers later set fire to the house, killing many victims inside.
“They took the women in groups to different houses. …There were five of us [women], taken by four soldiers [in military uniform]. They took our money, our possessions, and then they beat us with a wooden stick. My children were with me. They hit them too. Shafi, my two-year-old son, he was hit hard with a wooden stick. One hit, and he was dead… Three of my children were killed. Mohamed Osman (10) [and] Mohamed Saddiq (five) too. Other women [in the house] also had children [with them] that were killed,” 30-year-old SK told Amnesty.
“All of the women were stripped naked…They had very strong wooden sticks. They first hit us in the head, to make us weak. Then they hit us [in the vagina] with the wooden sticks. Then they raped us. A different soldier for each [woman].”
Torture, as unequivocally defined by right bodies as well as international criminal tribunals, include rape by state officials (including soldiers and police officers). Other forms of sexual violence, under specific circumstances, also constitute crimes against humanity under the Roma Statute of the International Criminal Court.
As described in no. 2, these rapes and sexual violence acts were perpetrated by soldiers and the Border Guard Police (BGP) as part of their systematic attack on the Rohingya. Taking part means they knew of these attacks, and that constitutes a crime against humanity of torture.
4. Deportation and forcible displacement
We’ve heard the term “ethnic cleansing” used several times this time around – the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has called the situation a textbook example of this term.
But what this means on the ground, is an organised deportation operation aimed to force people to leave their homes and never return, Amnesty’s report says. And to do so, Myanmar’s security forces used terrorism, mostly through shooting, killing, sexual violence and threats, followed by the burning of villages.
What’s going on in Rakhine is the depriving of people of food and other life-sustaining provisions. Restricting Rohingyas’ movement, their means of livelihood and access to humanitarian aid amount to persecution on racial or ethnic grounds, as these are done solely because of their race and ethnicity.
Amnesty reported that there have been “severe restrictions” on humanitarian access to Rakhine state – aid workers spoke of their travel in the state tightened before and “seriously intensified” in the immediate aftermath of the August attacks.
In early October, the Norwegian Refugee Council Secretary-General Jan Egeland said that the organisation “is standing by, waiting for the authorities to allow us to move into areas where we fear many people may be stranded without clean water, food, or shelter. We have supplies, we have staff, we have transport. The only thing standing between us and the people who need help is permission to go.”
6. Other inhumane acts such as denying food and other life-saving provisions.
The Rohingya in Rakhine state have always been dependent on humanitarian aid due to the state’s restrictions on their movement and livelihood. And post-August attacks have only made the situation worse.
The report wrote:
“At least a dozen refugees arriving in Bangladesh in late September described fleeing due to fears they would have starved in Myanmar.”
Myanmar only caved in to international pressure to allow aid in early September via the Myanmar Red Cross Society, supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Aid workers doubt their capacity to fill the massive humanitarian void in the state. In addition, government-imposed restrictions on humanitarian access have inflamed locals, leading to tension and hostility between them and groups bringing aid in.
Reuters reported Buddhist protesters throwing petrol bombs at an aid shipment bound for northern Rakhine State on Sept 20.
“To date, most affected populations have not received the assistance they need,” the report wrote.
“In the case of the acts described here, they fall under the crimes against humanity of persecution on racial or ethnic grounds, or “other inhumane acts… intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.”