The Morrison government should use its regional clout to demand a peacekeeping mission and war crimes tribunal in response to humanitarian crimes in Myanmar, says a top Australian investigator.
Michael Stefanovic, an Australian seconded to the US State Department's Myanmar inquiry, said he was horrified by the evidence he had gathered.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is grappling whether to use the term genocide to describe the Myanmar military's attack on members on the Rohingya ethnic minority.
But Mr Stefanovic said the term was appropriate.
Mick Stefanovic has investigated war crimes in the Balkans, Darfur and the congo, but was shocked by what he learnt in Cox Bazaar, Bangladesh.
To underscore the shocking nature of the atrocities, Mr Stefanovic described the story of a man forced by an officer with the Tatmadaw, the country's military, to select a woman from a crowd of Rohingya villagers to be gang raped in public.
Mr Stefanovic has held senior posts at the UN and has previously investigated war crimes in the Balkans and Sudan's troubled Darfur region.
He described the evidence gathered by the US State Department – which had interviewed more than 1000 Rohingya – as the most harrowing he has ever encountered.
“It needs to be acted on. [The] Australian government has a lot of weight in this area of international humanitarian law and I think it needs to throw it around,” he said.
Mr Stefanovic is also calling on Australia to consider severing ties with Myanmar’s military.
The pending release by Mr Pompeo of the final conclusions of the US inquiry will supplement a summary of the State Department’s "factual" findings released last week, which accused Myanmar's military of waging a coordinated campaign of mass killings, gang rapes and other atrocities against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
UN investigators estimate 10,000 Rohingya have been killed.
In May, Mr Stefanovic conducted interviews with dozens of Rohingya in camps in Bangladesh, where almost 700,000 Rohingya are living as refugees.
The interviews helped inform the State Department's findings that Myanmar's military engaged in attacks in Rakhine State that were “extreme, large-scale, widespread, and seemingly geared toward both terrorising the population and driving out the Rohingya residents".
The first randomly selected survivor Mr Stefanovic interviewed described “no less than three significant massacres, one of which involved hundreds of bodies floating in a waterway”.
When Mr Stefanovic, a former homicide detective with Victoria Police, debriefed with his inquiry team after his first day on the ground in Bangladesh, his fellow investigators told similar stories.
“Often … it takes a while before the crimes of that extent emerge," he said. "But everyone had hit the ground running with a fairly horrendous account of what had occurred in Myanmar.”
“I had got to that point of my career where I was sort of a fairly cold, objective, dispassionate, detached… a cold bastard,” Mr Stefanovic said. Yet the accounts of the Rohingya moved him.
He said one story more than others had stayed with him. A man who fled from Myanmar in October 2017 described being forced by a military official to select a woman from a crowd of Rohingya villagers.
The man said she was then raped by several soldiers in front of horrified villagers. When a fellow villager protested, he was executed by a Tatmadaw commander.
“He was a broken man,” Mr Stefanovic recalls of the survivor.
The State Department's summary "factual" report describes a “well-planned and coordinated" military operation to terrorise the Rohingya. It documents the use of public gang rape as a military weapon, as well as the murder of toddlers. Some people were buried alive in a military campaign prompted by attacks by Rohingya insurgents in August 2017.
Mr Pompeo is now weighing whether to declare the acts a genocide, a move that would increase pressure on the international community to act but which might be resisted by Russia and China and be contrary to President Donald Trump’s desire for the US to step back from its role as a global watchdog.
Mr Stefanovic said the evidence that a genocide has occurred is compelling.
“There were mass killings, there were atrocities that were committed with a view to terrorising a population to force them out of the country and that all qualifies as genocide,” he said.
In August, a United Nations investigation described the “genocidal intent” underpinning the military’s campaign. The UN report called for six high-ranking military officials, including commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, to be prosecuted for genocide.
Mr Stefanovic said he was speaking out about his work with the State Department – which usually communicates via senior diplomats and press releases – to urge Australia to respond more forcefully to the humanitarian catastrophe.
Australia must act
Australia’s newly appointed foreign affairs minister Marise Payne recently said the government was “considering its options, including targeted sanctions” in response to the UN findings.
Ms Payne is expected to meet Mr Pompeo this week and discuss the Myanmar report.
On Saturday, she told the UN General Assembly that Australia was deeply disturbed at the reports of atrocities and was “working with Myanmar and with ASEAN and regional partners ... to find long-term solutions to this complex crisis".
Mr Stefanovic said the release of the State Department report was cause for Australia to act, using its standing in the region to champion a peacekeeping force and a tribunal .
“Someone needs to get in there and intervene, provide stability to enable the return of the Rohingya into Myanmar [and] to set up methods to ensure they have got national recognition, they’ve got citizenship and that there’s some form of justice mechanism put in place.”
Mr Stefanovic also called for targeted sanctions of military officials and a review of the support given by Australia to the Tatmadaw, which in the last financial year reportedly included $400,000 for training.
“It needs to be definitely looked at with the view to being cut.”
Mr Stefanovic said resistance by the Russian and Chinese governments may stymie any US-led intervention and Australia may be more successful if it led efforts to form a regional coalition.
“This is where the Australian government can come in. Some sort of regional approach might be more palatable and much quicker to come to bear.”
“I think Australia could bring its experience from [the Solomon Islands], Bougainville and other places to help drive that.”
He is not hopeful that those responsible for genocidal acts in Myanmar will ever be fully held to account.
“You don’t dwell on it too much,” he said.
“I’ll do my work, assemble it, put it towards people who can develop the appropriate policies and appropriate global responses to these things and I’ll park it for a while and move on to the next [war crimes inquiry].
“I actually want my children when they grow up to understand what it is that I’ve done. I want them to understand what the nature of these horrific crimes are and what’s out there and how lucky they are to be in Australia where they don’t have to contend with horrific events like that.”
Nick McKenzie is a leading investigative journalist. He's won Australia's top journalism award, the Walkley, seven times and covers politics, business, foreign affairs and defence, human rights issues, the criminal justice system and social affairs.
Rohingya women and children are seen waiting to be treated last month in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
“We (Vietnamese refugees) had to flee once when we were persecuted by our own government and find safety and a home somewhere else. It’s the exact situation Rohingya people are facing at the moment.”
Mr Habiburahman said he greatly appreciated the efforts of the Vietnamese community.
“It will help send a clear message to locals and other communities why we are trying to raise funds and who we are trying to help,” he said.
“Although the [financial] contribution of each community is important to raise public awareness, it is not enough.”
According to UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in 2018 Australia was the third-largest donor to the displaced Rohingya communities in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
“Australia has already provided $70 million to the crisis through Australian aid agencies and UNHCR, but financial aid serves a temporary purpose,” he said.
The UN’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, released last week, called for Myanmar’s military, which holds a quarter of all seats in the parliament, to be completely removed from politics.
The report also laid out in detail human rights violations by Myanmar’s military towards Rohingya Muslims.
“Without international [political] interference, the Burmese government will not work with the UN and we won’t see any improvement on ground for even the next 10 years,” Mr Habiburahman said.
In an interview ahead of Tuesday's release of a 400-page report on alleged "genocidal" crimes, Australian lawyer Chris Sidoti said that Nobel laureate Ms Suu Kyi could not escape responsibility for failing to act over the violence. The report, by three independent experts including Mr Sidoti, provides the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva with harrowing details of mass killings and rape by Burma's military that prompted more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh last year.
"The very first thing she could have done was not provide cover for the military by dismissing the overwhelming number of reports of mass rape as fake," Mr Sidoti said. "She could have refused to provide a fig leaf for military atrocities of the most serious kind... she has enormous moral authority, she won 80 per cent of the popular vote in the 2015 election."
Sidoti is a former Human Rights Commissioner and ex-commissioner of the Australian Law Reform Commission.
The presentation of the final investigation to the Swiss-based council will mark a crucial step on the long road to obtaining justice for thousands who lost their lives or their homes or who were brutalised during the merciless operation by Burmese troops.
A preliminary report released last month by Mr Sidoti, Marzuki Darusman, Indonesia's former attorney general, and Radhika Coomaraswamy, a Sri Lankan lawyer and women's rights expert, called for Burma's senior generals to be prosecuted for genocide.
Based on 875 interviews with victims and eyewitnesses plus satellite imagery, it documents the shooting and stabbing of children, the scorching of Rohingya villages and gang rape on an enormous scale. Mr Sidoti told The Daily Telegraph: "The level of trauma in the camps in Bangladesh is beyond anything I have ever seen."
Last month, the Burmese government dismissed the UN investigators' findings as "false allegations". However, the UN panel has recommended a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague as an option, which has already won support from some quarters. Last week, more than 160 British MPs signed a letter urging Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to refer Burma's military to the court.
An ICC trial was only one way to push for justice, Mr Sidoti added, explaining that other options could include a specialised criminal tribunal or an individual country exercising its rights to universal jurisdiction for crimes of this magnitude.
Tuesday's report will also remind the international community of its obligations to take action, and will explicitly include a call for a ban on arms sales and on "high level exchanges and training" with the Burmese military until it has been reconstituted.
According to Mr Sidoti, the reluctance of the international community to act sooner is "the most haunting question of all".
End Military Ties, Help Create Mechanism to Prepare Future Prosecutions
(Sydney) – The Australian government should immediately end military ties with Myanmar, Australia’s foremost international human rights and development organizations jointly said today. They called on the Australian government to impose targeted sanctions on military commanders responsible for atrocities committed against ethnic Rohingya, and to press for an international mechanism to assist future prosecutions.
As Australia commences its third session as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the government should step up and press for accountability for those responsible for grave international crimes in Myanmar, the Australian Council for International Development, Amnesty International, Human Rights Law Centre, and Human Rights Watch said.
The final report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, which recommends that Myanmar’s top military generals should be investigated for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, will be submitted to the Human Rights Council for its consideration during the Council’s 39th Session, which began on September 10, 2018 in Geneva. The report is expected to be presented on September 18.
The UN report named six high-ranking military commanders, including Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, as among those responsible for “a failure to take necessary and reasonable measures to prevent and punish crimes, and a causal link between these failures and the atrocities committed.”
“Faced with such a damning report, there is no excuse for inaction,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Australia needs to urgently act by ending ties with Myanmar’s military, imposing targeted sanctions on abusive generals, and pressing for justice in Myanmar.”
The four organizations called for Australia to publicly support a UN Security Council referral of the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, and to use its seat on the Human Rights Council to sponsor a resolution to establish an International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) to preserve evidence and assist in investigations for future prosecution of those responsible for atrocity crimes in Myanmar.
“Those with blood on their hands, for the explosion of violence perpetrated by Myanmar’s security forces against Rohingya villagers across northern Rakhine State, must be held to account,” said Diana Sayed, crisis campaigns coordinator at Amnesty International Australia. “The Australian government must explore all avenues to achieve this, in particular an immediate mechanism for evidence collection and preservation for future criminal prosecutions at the International Criminal Court.”
On August 27, the UN-mandated Fact-Finding Mission issued a report that documented Myanmar security force abuses against the Rohingya population, including, but not limited to, murder, rape, and torture, and concluded that they amounted to crimes against humanity and war crimes. It also found that the systematic oppression and discrimination amounted to the crimes against humanity of persecution and possibly apartheid.
The Fact-Finding Mission report also concluded there was sufficient information to warrant prosecution of senior military officials to determine liability for the crime of genocide, and named six senior commanders. The report also detailed abuses committed by militants of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and called for them to be held to account.
On August 29, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the government “is deeply disturbed by the conclusions of the Fact-Finding Mission.” Her statement said, “Perpetrators must be held to account. We will continue to work internationally to this end, including through our position on the Human Rights Council and at the UN General Assembly.”
“Time and time again we see our government’s cruelty to refugees compromising its stance on global humanitarian emergencies,” said Daniel Webb, director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre. Webb has been attending Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva to monitor the Australian government’s role.
Since the Myanmar military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State began in August 2017, several countries and multilateral institutions – including the United States, Canada, and the EU – have imposed travel and financial sanctions on several Myanmar security force commanders, units, and individuals implicated in atrocities, the vast majority in Rakhine State.
The US, UK, and EU have all taken steps to suspend military training and cooperation with the Myanmar military. While the Australian government maintains an arms embargo on Myanmar, the Department of Defence spent approximately A$400,000 in defence cooperation with Myanmar last fiscal year covering humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and peacekeeping and English-language training. The estimate for military cooperation with Myanmar in FY2017 is A$270,000.
“The time has come for Defence Minister Christopher Pyne to end Australia’s defence cooperation with Myanmar’s military,” said Marc Purcell, CEO of ACFID. “As a member of the UN Human Rights Council, Australia has a responsibility to send a strong signal that it has a zero-tolerance approach for gross human rights violations in our region, including the abhorrent use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.”