THE final report from the United Nations’ fact-finding mission to Burma (Myanmar) details some of the most brutal crimes against humanity inflicted on the Rohingya minority at the hands of the military.
The mission documented patterns of gross human rights violations and abuses that included killing indiscriminately, gang-raping women, assaulting children, and burning entire villages.
Investigators found the military had been operating without consequence, saying: “Impunity is deeply entrenched in Myanmar’s political and legal system, effectively placing the Tatmadaw (military) above the law.”
But that liberty could soon be coming to an end as the report expressly calls for the country’s top military generals, including Commander-in-Chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, to be investigated and prosecuted for genocide.
This appeal has been echoed by UN secretary general Antonio Guterres who said on Tuesday that those responsible for “one of the world’s worst humanitarian and human rights crises” must be held to account.
While the outcry has been vocal around the world, bringing those to justice is never simple and several roadblocks could prove difficult to navigate.
The report suggests the case be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC), or for an ad hoc UN tribunal to be set up, as was the case with Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
But both of these options need the support of the security council, and reaching a consensus isn’t that easy.
The most likely thorn in the side of progress is China who has long opposed intervention from western forces in countries on its border. It also has trade links and development plans in Burma and has shown a reluctance to criticise abuses in other countries given their own dismal human rights record.
Any attempt to refer Burma to the ICC would likely prompt a veto from the Chinese.
Beijing’s ongoing spat with the United States could also play a part in President Donald Trump’s apparent apathy to the plight of the Rohingya.
While economic sanctions have been imposed on a handful of commanders and military units, Trump himself has shown little interest in getting involved or bringing about reform in the country.
As his trade war with China continues to rage, and it looks increasingly like he’ll need Beijing’s help with North Korea, Trump is unlikely to do anything to further anger the Chinese.
Trump has also repeatedly shown disdain for international organisations and their involvement in a country’s affairs. His appointment of John Bolton – a vocal opponent of the ICC – as National Security Advisor and a January draft executive order pulling US support to the ICC make clear his feelings on the international justice system.
Even if the UN did manage to get consensus in the security council and Burma was successfully referred to the ICC, it doesn’t necessarily mean those responsible will face justice.
I cannot forget the stories I heard from Rohingya refugees. One father broke down as he told me how his son was shot dead in front of him. We will never give up on our work to alleviate their suffering & end this tragedy. My call to the Security Council: https://t.co/l84qZ6ajk3 pic.twitter.com/WDoPwRL5iF
— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) August 28, 2018
The ICC has no forces of its own, so it relies on national police services to make arrests and transfer suspects to the Hague to be tried.
Given those implicated in the Rohingya crisis are top generals with an overarching presence across public bodies, it’s unlikely the national police will turn them in. And Southeast Asia’s non-interventionist policy will prevent regional players from cooperating in their arrest.
In this instance, the ICC, which is already suffering credibility issues, is rendered almost useless.
Without decisive action from the UN security council and an international consensus for justice, it not only means Burma will get away with genocide, but it could also call into question the entire international justice system.