Bangladesh Rights Body Readies Sexual Violence Cases Against Myanmar for ICC

By Muktadir Rashid   18 June 2018

DHAKA — Bangladesh’s National Human Rights Commission has urged the country’s Foreign Affairs and Law ministries to assist the International Criminal Court (ICC) in prosecuting Myanmar over its alleged crimes against the Rohingya in Rakhine State last year and identified 53 alleged victims of sexual violence.

In separate letters to each ministry on June 10, commission Chairman Kazi Reazul Hoque said the rights body firmly believed that — apart from ongoing bilateral initiatives between Bangladesh and Myanmar to reach a permanent solution to the Rohingya crisis — it was “very important to approach the ICC.”

The letters said the commission had conducted investigations separate from the government’s initiatives to resolve the crisis.

“A group of researchers trained by international experts secretly documented the testimonies of 53 women who experienced sexual violence in Myanmar,” the letters said, adding that the commission was willing to share its evidence if and when a case against Myanmar at the ICC begins.

The letters followed the ICC’s request that Bangladesh opine on whether Myanmar could be prosecuted at the court over its alleged crimes last year in Rakhine State, where a military crackdown has driven some 700,000 mostly Rohingya to Bangladesh with reports of arson, rape and murder in what the UN has called a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.

Though Bangladesh recognizes the ICC, which is based in The Hague, Myanmar does not.

Dhaka-based daily the New Age reported that Bangladesh submitted its comments to the ICC on June 11 to help the court decide whether it has jurisdiction to investigate Myanmar for forced deportation across an international border. It reported that Bangladesh tacitly stressed the need to hold the perpetrators accountable.

The court was scheduled to hold a closed-door hearing on the matter on June 13, diplomats told the New Age, as ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda was seeking an expedited decision both on its jurisdiction and for permission to launch a preliminary examination.

Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a repatriation deal in late November for the voluntary return of “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals” sheltering in Bangladesh since October 2016, when hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled Rakhine State during another outbreak of violence at the time.

At a public seminar in Dhaka on June 4, former ICC Prosecutor Kate Vigneswaran stressed the need to maintain international standards while collecting and recording evidence of crimes against humanity against Rohingya and to identify the individuals involved in Rakhine State, according to the New Age.

In a June 4 activity report, Doctors Without Borders said it treated 377 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence between Aug. 27 and April 30 involving victims ranging from 9 to 50 years of age. But it said the actual number of victims of such attacks was likely higher.

“Sexual violence is often underreported due to the shame and stigma associated with sexual assault, limited knowledge about medical and psychological support available, and the fact that access to health care in Myanmar was restricted heavily,” the report said.

The aid group said it was also stepping up its mother-and-child and reproductive health care services in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, where many births take place at home in unsafe and unhygienic conditions. But it said many women and girls were seeking medical care for pregnancies resulting from rape, which could lead to unsafe abortions and death without support.

Doctors Without Borders said some women carrying babies from rape feared returning to their communities and were being sent to shelters run by other organizations, though space was very limited.

“We do know that there are a number of women/girls of child-bearing age within the settlements of Cox’s Bazar District. We expect deliveries to continue but it is not possible for [us] to predict or speculate about the number of expected deliveries at any one time” the report said.

Refugees Protest for Safe Repatriation

On Saturday, on the Muslim holiday of Eid ul-Fitr, several hundred Rohingya residing of the Cox’s Bazar camps held peaceful protests to reiterate their conditions for returning to Myanmar and to insist they be included in the negotiations.

The Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights said it organized protests in 24 locations across the camps.

The protesters held up banners and posters in English that read “Include Rohingya in Agreements About Rohingya,” “Dignified Repatriation Must Include Full Citizenship Rights as Rohingya Ethnic Group” and “UNHCR Please Talk to Us About the MoU.”

The UN refugee agency signed a memorandum of understanding with Myanmar earlier this month offering its assistance with the repatriation. It said the deal creates a “framework of cooperation” to achieve the “voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable” repatriation of Rohingya refugees, but few details have been made public.

Video footage of the protests shared with The Irrawaddy by participants shows them wearing white plastic bags while marching through the camps and chanting “Yes Dignity, Dignity, Dignity,” ‘Yes Security, Security, Security” and “Yes Rohingya Citizenship.”

“We wear white bags because white means that we want peace, security and safety,” said Mohamed Eleyas, one of the organizers.

Many refugees say they fear returning to Myanmar — which refuses to recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group or grant citizenship to those who identify as such — without international monitors on the ground.

Rights activist Nur Khan Liton said it was important to include Rohingya representatives in bilateral and multilateral deals on their repatriation because they were the victims.

“If it is not done, it will create many complexities in the future,” he told The Irrawaddy.

A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the press, said security and intelligence agencies suspect others were involved behind the scenes in organizing the protests to coincide with the religious holiday and were searching for them.

A rights activist, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said he received phone calls from some of those agencies asking after the organizers.