4 September, 2023
by Sam Biden, Research Assistant
In late 2018, as a response to the grave atrocities inflicted upon the Rohingya population in Myanmar, the UN Human Rights Council established the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) with a sole objective – to confront and address the crimes being committed against both the Rohingya population and civilians at large. With the worsening plight of the Rohingya community through unlawful killings, airstrikes and widespread violence, the IIMM successfully strove to make substantial progress in initiating comprehensive investigations and providing ongoing support to legal proceedings, as highlighted by their 5th annual report on the issue.
Investigative Missions and Tools
By building upon an existing wealth of information, the IIMM’s endeavors have yielded significant outcomes within the reporting period. Through a series of face-to-face witness interviews, additional lines of inquiry have been identified with the use of new, specialised analytical tools. These tools relate to their collecting, analyzing and management of both old and new information, resulting in an increased amount of data coming from both direct and open sources, totalling over 23m pieces of information since the IIMM’s inception. The IIMM has drastically expanded its capabilities to filter through and find key information relevant to their investigation, allowing them to compile evidence for future legal proceedings in either the defence or prosecution of individuals involved in the ongoing crisis. These new tools have enhanced cooperation with stakeholders both outside and inside Myanmar, with 135 supportive information packages being delivered to stakeholders, including authorities within Myanmar, for investigation, despite major reluctance from Myanmar authorities to allow access to or communication with those affected.
A fundamental pillar of the IIMM’s strategy has been its consistent deployment of investigative missions to areas where survivors of the atrocities have sought refuge, most notably in the Magway, Sagaing and Kayin State regions, totalling an estimated one million internally displaced persons as of March 2023. These missions involve thorough and systematic interviews with individuals across the different states in Myanmar, allowing the IIMM to obtain highly valuable witness statements of forensic importance for their investigations into ongoing crimes in the country. Despite challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic that heavily restricted the IIMM’s ability to engage with local witnesses, the IIMM has effectively conducted a plethora of investigative sessions and comprehensive interviews across the entire country, gathering the stories from those affected in each major region.
A standout characteristic of the IIMM’s work is its unwavering commitment to addressing crimes against children. As of 2022, 7.8m children were out of education with a further 250,000 displaced and 382 killed or maimed by the Myanmar military, with consistent attacks on villages and cities that directly cause the death of children. These pivotal aspects constitute a central focus of the investigative missions as they are some of the most prevalent crimes in the state. Moreover, the IIMM has actively sought out survivors of these crimes who might have been overlooked by other fact-finding entities and stakeholders – particularly victims of human trafficking, affecting primarily women who travel to countries such as Thailand and China.
Post-Coup Investigations and Crimes
Amid the aftermath of the military coup d’état, a distressing surge in incidents bearing the unmistakable hallmarks of serious international crimes have continued to shake the nation. Disturbingly, the frequency of such incidents has surged even further during the reporting period, with increases in the indiscriminate targeting of civilians using bombs, the killing of civilians during military operations as well as large scale wanton destruction of civilian buildings. With the core principles of impartiality and confidentiality in mind, the IIMM has further embarked on a persistent mission to gather and meticulously analyze all relevant information concerning these incidents and their potential perpetrators with their new tools, focusing primarily on the most serious of international crimes such as murder, unlawful killing and ethnic cleansing.
The IIMM’s fourth annual report in 2022 serves as a definitive assertion of its findings. The evidence amassed up to the time of reporting highlights a compelling array of indications pointing towards widespread and systematic attacks targeting Myanmar’s civilian population. This distressing situation remains largely unchanged due to the unrelenting use of force following the coup d’état, as the IIMM continues to accumulate credible and corroborative information from diverse sources that strengthens these preliminary conclusions.
Despite what can be described as a frustrating lack of cooperation and access with Myanmar authorities, the IIMM has continued to tap into invaluable insights from an array of independent sources embedded within Myanmar using their new tools. This resourcefulness is further mirrored in the IIMM’s real-time assimilation of open-source information alongside data from direct contact, allowing the IIMM to capture unfolding events in a near-instantaneous manner. Additionally, the incorporation of specialised and targeted data, including geospatial and geothermal imagery, has provided a factual tapestry that intricately details the impact of attacks on various locations, allowing for pinpoint accurate measurements of destruction to be taken, ensuring that civilian objects that are targeted are identified correctly. Additional digital information gathered from drones and personal mobile phones that are recording the incidents as they happen is also utilised, providing significant information and are sourced from both open and non-open channels. These digital accounts of the ongoing crisis act as a potent tool for IIMM and ensure they can gather direct evidence of specific crimes and even obtain the identities of those who need to be held to account in the pursuit of justice for the victims.
The IIMM has also launched more comprehensive investigations into specific acts being taken against the civilian population between 2022-2023. These inquiries align seamlessly with the prioritisation criteria set forth in previous IIMM reports, focusing primarily on factors such as the gravity of crimes, the degree of alleged perpetrators’ culpability, analysis of all available evidence and the urgency of addressing thematic priorities, such as the consistent targeting of the Rohingya people. Moreover, the likelihood of courts or tribunals assuming jurisdiction is a decisive consideration that the IIMM is contemplating as a potential legal avenue: for example, the International Criminal Court can assume jurisdiction in light of the new evidence of war crimes in Myanmar. It’s noteworthy that the IIMM’s mandate encompasses not only war crimes committed by security forces but also any such crimes perpetrated by armed groups embroiled in the conflict.
New Evidence of War Crimes
Compellingly, the IIMM’s evidentiary journey reiterates the existence of a chilling pattern of escalating combat-related war crimes, orchestrated with alarming frequency by the Myanmar military and its affiliates. This alarming escalation encapsulates three categories: the indiscriminate or disproportionate targeting of civilians using explosive weaponry (airstrikes, drone strikes etc.), the killing of detained civilians or prisoners of war during military operations, as well as the deliberate wanton destruction of civilian property.
Counterbalancing the bleak landscape, Myanmar’s military attempts to rationalize aerial bombardments that resulted in large scale civilian casualties by leaning on the notion that there were military targets in the vicinity, therefore they have the right to launch said attacks. However, a revelation emerges from the IIMM’s collected evidence that highlights the military’s awareness of a significant civilian presence surrounding these alleged military targets. In this context, the IIMM contends that the rationale purported by the military target defence instead paints a vivid picture of indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks, amounting to multiple war crimes. At the time of writing, internal investigations by the Myanmar authorities surrounding these attacks are yet to be launched. These attacks on civilians have become immortalised in the harrowing eyewitness accounts that surfaced during the IIMM’s investigation, revealing mass executions of civilians and prisoners of war while in the custody of Myanmar military forces. These chilling accounts are fortified by a wide database of corroborative visual and documentary evidence meticulously collected by the IIMM from those most affected by the conflict.
Similarly, the IIMM’s evidentiary compass also points to the continuous large-scale incineration and wanton destruction of civilian properties by the Myanmar military forces, such as hospitals and schools. The breadth of the devastation becomes evident as entire villages are consumed by flames, often ignited through deliberate acts by ground forces or triggered by artillery strikes. This relentless pattern of burning dovetails with detentions, killings and widespread internal displacement.
In conclusion, the Myanmar military’s complacency in investigating or curbing the relentless trajectory of combat-related war crimes carries significant consequences, limiting the effectiveness of the IIMM’s negotiation and conflict resolution tools. Within the framework of international law, military commanders as well as others with control over military forces are entrusted with the responsibility of preventing or suppressing war crimes committed by those under their command. There has been a pattern of consistent failure relating to upholding these pivotal duties that could potentially render those accused criminally accountable.
In light of these challenges, the IIMM is continuing to strengthen its relationships with key stakeholders and persist in expanding their already substantial evidence pile of war crimes, supported by the intensification of relationships with key judicial stakeholders, both state-specific and international.