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UN body petitioned over enforced disappearance of Rohingya in Rakhine State

The Myanmar government must determine the fate or whereabouts of scores of Rohingya who remain missing nearly four years after the beginning of Myanmar government security forces’ “clearance operations” in northern Rakhine State, FIDH and its member organizations Odhikar and ALTSEAN-Burma urged today (27 August).

The call was made in conjunction with a joint submission by FIDH and Odhikar to the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) concerning 14 cases of enforced disappearance of Rohingya, which occurred between October 2016 and September 2017. The submission was made ahead of the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances (30 August).

“Hundreds, if not thousands, of Rohingya men, women, and children are still missing and are presumed dead, several years after their disappearance. It is imperative that the Myanmar government deliver justice to the Rohingya victims of enforced disappearance and their families and end impunity for this serious crime. It is equally important that international justice mechanisms use evidence of enforced disappearance of Rohingya to hold the perpetrators accountable,” said FIDH Secretary-General and Odhikar Secretary Adilur Rahman Khan.

The joint FIDH-Odhikar submission is based on the testimonies collected by Odhikar staff during interviews with victims’ relatives in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, between January 2018 and February 2019. Odhikar started collecting testimonies from eyewitnesses upon their arrival to Bangladesh after they fled attacks by Myanmar government security forces, which began in October 2016.

Odhikar recorded 14 separate cases of enforced disappearance of Rohingya - who include men, women, boys, and girls as young as 13 - from Rakhine State’s Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung Townships. Family members of the disappeared uniformly explained that their relatives were last seen in the custody of Myanmar government security forces. To date, the fate and whereabouts of all 14 victims remain unknown.

The WGEID receives, examines, and transmits to governments reports of enforced disappearances submitted by relatives of disappeared persons or human rights organizations acting on their behalf. The WGEID requests governments to carry out investigations and to inform the WGEID of the results. The cases remain open in the WGEID’s database until the fate or whereabouts of the person is determined.

The crime of enforced disappearance is defined by the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) as “the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.” FIDH, Odhikar, and ALTSEAN-Burma urge the Myanmar government to take immediate steps to become a state party to the ICPPED, incorporate its provision into Myanmar’s domestic legislation, and implement them.

The documentation presented by FIDH and Odhikar represents a first step towards shedding light on the actual number of Rohingya who were subjected to enforced disappearance by Myanmar government security forces. This documentation could also be used by international evidence-gathering and accountability mechanisms, such as the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM). Established by the UN Human Rights Council in September 2018, the IIMM is mandated to collect evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law and prepare files for criminal prosecution, making use of the information handed over to it by the UN-mandated Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (FFM). The IIMM became operational on 30 August 2019.

The FIDH-Odhikar documentation may also help the International Criminal Court (ICC) to establish whether the enforced disappearance of Rohingya amounts to a coercive act that qualifies as deportation and/or persecution on grounds of ethnicity and/or religion – both of which are crimes against humanity. In November 2019, the ICC authorized the Prosecutor to proceed with an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity within the ICC’s jurisdiction, in relation to the deportation of Rohingya across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border and the persecution on grounds of ethnicity and/or religion against the Rohingya population.

Background

In October 2016, Myanmar government security forces began “clearance operations” against Rohingya populations in response to a series of attacks by a self-proclaimed Rohingya armed resistance group on Myanmar border police outposts in northern Rakhine State. The clearance operations, which intensified at the end of August 2017, resulted in serious and systematic human rights violations – amounting to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide – against Rohingya men, women, and children. This led to the displacement of more than 800,000 Rohingya who fled Myanmar and sought refuge in Bangladesh.

The disappearance of members of the Rohingya community by Myanmar government security forces was often violent, with individuals in some cases being rounded up into groups and beaten before being taken away. Enforced disappearances took place alongside mass killing, mass rape, looting and burning of property, and other human rights violations. Documentation has uniformly pointed to Myanmar government security forces – primarily soldiers belonging to the Myanmar military, also known as the Tatmadaw – as leading attacks and bearing the greatest responsibility for human rights violations that occurred.

In October 2017, the Tatmadaw publicly referred to the detention of 114 “Bengalis”, although no information was provided regarding their identity or whereabouts, or whether any charges had been filed against them. In September 2018, the FFM found that crimes against humanity had taken place in Rakhine State, including the crime of enforced disappearance. The FFM noted that even a conservative estimate of the number of disappeared far exceeded the figure provided by the Tatmadaw in October 2017.