Atrocity Alert No. 184: Myanmar (Burma), Syria and Venezuela
Historic genocide case against Myanmar begins at the International Court of Justice
The first hearings at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the case of the Republic of The Gambia versus the Republic of the Union of Myanmar began this week in The Hague. This historic case seeks to prove Myanmar's state responsibility for the genocide committed against the Rohingya population. The public hearings, which started yesterday, 10 December, are focused on the issue of “provisional measures” – the process by which the ICJ can order Myanmar to implement certain measures related to its obligations under the Genocide Convention.
The Gambia, on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, filed a lawsuit at the ICJ on 11 November, accusing Myanmar of violating the Genocide Convention. In its submission The Gambia requested that the ICJ order that Myanmar “prevent all acts that amount to or contribute to the crime of genocide, including extrajudicial killings, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and burning of homes.” The Gambia also requested provisional measures relating to protecting evidence of genocide and that Myanmar allow UN investigators access to the country.
During his opening remarks at the ICJ on Tuesday, Attorney General and Minister of Justice of The Gambia, Abubacarr M. Tambadou, said "all that the Gambia asks is that you tell Myanmar to stop these senseless killings, to stop these acts of barbarity and brutality that have shocked and continue to shock our collective conscience, to stop this genocide of its own people."
State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, representing Myanmar, addressed the Court on Wednesday, 11 December. During her remarks the Nobel Peace Prize winner acknowledged the disproportionate use of force in the context of an “internal armed conflict,” but denied genocidal intent. Tellingly, Aung San Suu Kyi did not use the word “Rohingya” once during her statement. Human rights specialists have argued that Myanmar’s official denial of Rohingya identity is inextricably linked to their policy of persecution, the denial of universal human rights and ultimately to the genocidal actions of the military in Rakhine State during August-December 2017.
A decision on the request for provisional measures can be expected within weeks. According to Article 94 of the UN Charter, judgments of the ICJ are binding and the UN Security Council can take collective action to ensure that they are upheld. Members of the Security Council should name the crime committed against the Rohingya and actively ensure that any provisional measures imposed by the Court are expeditiously implemented.
On 9 December Canada and the Netherlands issued a joint statement welcoming the ICJ case and expressing their “intention to jointly explore all options to support and assist The Gambia in these efforts.” All other parties to the Genocide Convention should also meaningfully support the case through public statements and legal interventions at the ICJ. The international community failed to prevent a genocide in Myanmar, but it can still act to hold the perpetrators accountable.
Another wasted year as Syria’s war threatens civilians on multiple fronts
As 2019 comes to a close, another year has passed without any resolution of Syria’s bitter armed conflict. Despite the formation of a Constitutional Committee and proposals for reconstruction, widespread civilian casualties continue as a result of ongoing airstrikes and armed hostilities throughout Syria.
Syrian government forces, with Russian military support, continue to carry out attacks across Idlib and Aleppo governorates. In recent weeks there has been a dramatic escalation in attacks on civilian-populated areas of Idlib, including a missile strike on a displacement camp on 21 November that killed 16 civilians. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other non-state armed groups also escalated attacks on Syrian government-controlled areas in southern Idlib, northern Hama and Aleppo city. Meanwhile, violent clashes have also increased in areas east of Idlib as the government attempts to secure the main highway linking Damascus with Aleppo city.
March 2020 will mark the ninth anniversary of the start of Syria’s conflict. Since 2011 civilians have borne the brunt of the war, with over 560,000 people killed and more than half the population displaced, including at least 6.7 million Syrian refugees who have fled the country. Despite ongoing diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis, there have been limited tangible benefits for ordinary Syrians who continue to endure crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Such attacks have continued during December, including an airstrike on a market in Maaret al-Numan on 2 December that killed 10 civilians. Barrel-bombs and a series of airstrikes on 7 December also killed at least 20 civilians. In total, more than 1,100 civilians have been killed and 400,000 displaced since the Syrian government began its military offensive against rebel-held areas of northwest Syria during April of this year.
Meanwhile, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has raised concerns regarding the increased use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in areas under the control of Turkish-affiliated armed groups in northeast Syria. Since a ceasefire agreement was signed on 22 October, OHCHR verified at least 49 attacks utilizing IEDs in populated areas of Tel Abyad, Tel Halaf, Al-Hassakeh, Ar-Raqqa and Aleppo. At least 78 civilians have been killed as a result of these indiscriminate attacks, which OHCHR noted may amount to “a serious violation of international humanitarian law and constitutes a war crime.”
All parties to the conflict must credibly commit to implementing recent agreements, including upholding a ceasefire in northeast Syria and adhering to the Constitutional Committee process. But the international community must recognize that there can be no lasting peace or reconstruction in Syria without accountability for atrocity crimes committed throughout the conflict. Civilian protection and human rights must remain at the center of all diplomatic discussions in 2020 regarding Syria’s future.
Paths to justice and accountability for Venezuela
On Friday, 6 December, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, together with Defiende Venezuela and Un Mundo Sin Mordaza, organized an event on “Paths to Justice and Accountability for Venezuela” on the margins of the 18th session of the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The event, held in The Hague, allowed human rights defenders from Venezuela to share first-hand testimony regarding the ongoing human rights and humanitarian emergency in their country. Particular focus was given to the security forces perpetrating extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, torture and ill-treatment, as well as to enforced disappearances and sexual and gender-based violence. According to José Miguel Vivanco, America’s Director of Human Rights Watch, who also spoke at the event, these ongoing violations and abuses “cannot be characterized as isolated events. They are part of a systematic pattern of abuses by Venezuelan security forces.”
During the event representatives from the Organization of American States and the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC contributed to the discussion on how to ensure accountability through institutions of international justice. Participants also addressed the ways in which the recently established Fact-Finding Mission for Venezuela, mandated by the Human Rights Council during September, can contribute to the ICC’s preliminary examination.
The government and opposition should commit to a legitimate negotiated solution to Venezuela’s endemic political, economic and humanitarian crisis. UN member states should continue to impose targeted sanctions on all senior government officials responsible for systematic violations and abuses of human rights, some of which may amount to crimes against humanity.