Abuses perpetrated by the Burmese government against the ethnic Rohingya minority in the country’s western region may constitute crimes against humanity, an expert on international human rights law says.
Forced labour, religious persecution and systematic rape by Burmese army officers are widespread against the Rohingya, according to the ‘Crimes Against Humanity in Western Burma‘ report, supervised by Professor William Schabas and released by the Irish Centre for Human Rights (ICHR). Schabas was part of the team behind Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Schabas said that the minority group had “for decades…endured grave human rights violations in north Arakan state”, which borders Bangladesh. The report added however that their “plight has been overlooked for years and the root causes of their situation still remain under-examined”.
The treatment of the Rohingya, a Muslim group that is denied legal status in Burma, “[appears] to satisfy the requirements under international criminal law for the perpetration of crimes against humanity”, it added.
Ireland’s foreign minister, Michael Martin, said at the launch of the report in Dublin that the evidence published by the group was “compelling and credible”. It follows a report to the UN security council by Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN’s special rapporteur to Burma, in which he similarly called for an investigation into possible crimes against humanity against the minority group.
The investigation for the ICHR report was carried out by Nancie Prudhomme and Joseph Powderly, who spent four weeks visiting Thailand, Bangladesh and Burma in 2009. Bangladesh is home to as many as 400,000 Rohingya refugees, while Thailand came under the spotlight in early 2009 after it pushed a boatload of Rohingya out to sea with no food or water, many of whom died.
The predominantly Buddhist Burmese government refuses to recognise the nearly 800,000-strong Rohingya minority as Burmese, and thus denies them legal rights and formal access to education and healthcare in the country. The Paris-based medical aid group Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) has described the Rohingya as one of the world populations ‘most in danger of extinction’.
Out of an estimated 400,000 Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh’s eastern Cox’s Bazaar, less than 30,000 are registered by the UN and allowed to live in UN-run camps. Dhaka is believed to have resisted attempts by the UN to register those remaining, claiming that it would trigger an influx of more Rohingya into the country.
Prudhomme and Powderly’s fieldwork in the Bangladeshi camps was assisted by John Ralston, former chief of investigations at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the ICHR said.