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Atrocity Alert No. 129 (31 October 2018): Myanmar (Burma), Yemen, Burundi and Sri Lanka

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UN investigator briefs Security Council on genocide in Myanmar (Burma)

On 24 October the Chair of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (FFM), Marzuki Darusman, briefed the UN Security Council (UNSC) on the Mission’s recent report. Darusman described the situation in Rakhine State as a “human rights catastrophe that was foreseeable and planned” and said that violations described in the report “undoubtedly amount to the most serious crimes of concern to the international community, threatening the peace, security and well-being of the world.” The FFM report found that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine states and that operations against the Rohingya population in Rakhine had “genocidal intent.”

Due to the opposition of some UNSC members to the briefing, it was necessary for a procedural vote to be held in order for it to proceed. Nine UNSC members – Côte d’Ivoire, France, Kuwait, Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Sweden, United Kingdom and United States – voted in favor of holding the briefing. Three members opposed the briefing (Bolivia, China, Russia), and another three abstained from the vote (Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan).

Held on the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the UN, Darusman’s briefing marked the first time that a UN Human Rights Council-mandated investigative mechanism directly briefed the UNSC on a country-specific situation and highlighted mass atrocity crimes that demand urgent action.

Acting on recommendations provided by the FFM, the Security Council should now refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court and impose targeted sanctions on those generals with command responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. An international arms embargo should also be imposed on Myanmar’s military.

War crimes continue as famine looms in Yemen

On 24 October at least 24 civilians were killed in airstrikes across Hodeidah Governorate as Yemen’s catastrophic civil war continues without any notable international political response. The deadliest airstrikes, carried out by the Saudi Arabia/United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led military coalition, targeted a vegetable packaging facility in Al-Masoudi town, killing 21 civilians.

The recent airstrikes took place the day after the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Mark Lowcock, briefed the UNSC on the link between the conflict in Yemen and the growing risk of famine. Yemen is now the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, and the situation has worsened considerably over the past two months.

According to OCHA the total number of people suffering severe food insecurity in Yemen could reach 14 million – half the population – if action is not taken immediately. Lowcock also emphasized that “there is now a clear and present danger” of an imminent famine in Yemen that is “much bigger than anything any professional in this field has seen during their working lives.”

Meanwhile, Yemeni government forces, supported by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, are continuing their military offensive on the city of Hodeidah. Since the offensive began on 12 June more than 570,000 people have been forced to flee their homes across Hodeidah Governorate. Hodeidah port is the entry point for approximately 80 percent of the food and fuel imports upon which over 22 million Yemenis currently depend for survival.

Ongoing attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure and the deliberate obstruction of humanitarian aid are not only a major cause of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, but may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity under international law. Despite the magnitude of the crisis facing the country, the UNSC has still not passed a substantive resolution on Yemen since March 2015. In an effort to protect civilians and secure the main conduit for emergency humanitarian aid, the Council should demand an immediate ceasefire in Hodeidah and impose targeted sanctions on all those responsible for mass atrocity crimes.

International organizations confront the ongoing human rights crisis in Burundi

On 25 October the European Union (EU) renewed travel bans and asset freezes on four Burundians for serious human rights violations, obstruction of democracy, and incitement to violence. Three of the individuals are affiliated with the government or its security forces. One day prior to the EU’s decision, the Burundian government announced that it would not participate in the latest round of political talks in Tanzania with Burundian opposition parties regarding the 2020 elections.

The Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) has found that under President Pierre Nkurunziza’s leadership, since April 2015 the National Intelligence Service and police - sometimes in collaboration with the Imbonerakure youth wing of the ruling party - have committed potential crimes against humanity. Systematic violations and abuses of human rights have been committed in order to retain power and eliminate political opposition.

Following the CoI’s August 2018 report highlighting the personal role of President Nkurunziza in inciting political violence, Burundian officials have attempted to publicly intimidate members of the Commission. In late October Burundi’s Ambassador to the UN, Albert Shingiro, threatened to prosecute members of the CoI and compared the Senegalese chair of the Commission, Doudou Diene, to African collaborators during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. On 28 October the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, demanded an official apology for these derogatory remarks.

Ongoing inflammatory statements by Burundian officials highlight the insecure political environment and the ongoing risk of mass atrocities. The government of Burundi must refrain from any further incitement to violence, including threats against human rights defenders. The government should also re-engage with the political dialogue in Tanzania, and ensure that the 2020 elections can take place in free, transparent and peaceful conditions.

President who oversaw atrocities returns to power in Sri Lanka

On 26 October Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena fired Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasignhe and appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as his replacement, causing a constitutional and political crisis. The sudden decision once again elevates Rajapaksa to a senior government position despite mass atrocity crimes perpetrated by Sri Lanka’s military forces during his presidency. Rajapaksa oversaw the final and most deadly phase of Sri Lanka’s 1983-2009 civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), before losing power in a 2015 election.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights found that in 2009, during the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war, both sides committed possible war crimes and crimes against humanity. Military forces under the authority of President Rajapaksa indiscriminately targeted civilians, while also perpetrating torture, sexual violence, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances against the LTTE and its supporters. The UN has estimated that as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians may have been killed during the final phase of the war.

During October 2015 the newly-elected government of President Sirisena supported a HRC Resolution calling for the establishment of mechanisms to ensure truth and accountability for human rights violations and abuses committed during the civil war. While the government declared an Office of Missing Persons operational earlier this year, no meaningful progress has been made regarding justice for past atrocities.

The appointment of Rajapaksa to the role of Prime Minister is a disturbing sign that the government may now intensify efforts to circumvent accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Such an approach has grave implications for Sri Lankan democracy, for the Tamil minority, and for all victims of Sri Lanka’s civil war.