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Atrocity Alert No. 246: Myanmar (Burma), Mozambique and Ethiopia

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Atrocity Alert is a weekly publication by the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect highlighting situations where populations are at risk of, or are enduring, mass atrocity crimes.

INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE GROWS AS MYANMAR’S GENERALS COMMIT CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY

On Saturday, 27 March, Myanmar’s military celebrated Armed Services Day while also killing at least 114 people – including six children – in the bloodiest day of violence since the 1 February coup. A day earlier, state-run television broadcast a message to protesters warning that, “you should learn from the tragedy of earlier ugly deaths that you can be in danger of getting shot in the head and back.” According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, at least 536 people have been killed by the security forces since 1 February and at least 2,729 remain in detention.

In addition to violently suppressing protests and indiscriminately attacking civilians, the security forces have also launched fresh offensives against ethnic armed groups in some regions of the country. Military aircraft bombed villages in areas controlled by the Karen National Union, prompting thousands of civilians to seek refuge in Thailand.

Since 1 February, civilians throughout Myanmar have been protesting and repeatedly calling on the international community to uphold the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Such calls are being echoed by leading human rights figures around the world. On 28 March the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, and the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Alice Wairimu Nderitu, issued a joint statement stressing that “the international community has a responsibility to protect the people of Myanmar from atrocity crimes.” The two UN leaders also called on the UN Security Council (UNSC) to take robust action.

The same day, the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar – comprised of the former UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, and two former members of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, Marzuki Darusman and Chris Sidoti – issued a statement asserting that, “Myanmar people are calling for international action under the Responsibility to Protect. In response, we want to see three cuts imposed on the Myanmar military: cut the weapons, cut the cash, cut the impunity.”

Similarly, on Monday, 29 March, the influential Global Leadership Foundation – whose 45 members include a number of former Heads of State or Government and two Nobel Peace Prize winners – sent a letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, reminding him that R2P’s third pillar “makes it the responsibility of the international community to protect when a State is manifestly failing to protect its own population. If ever there was a case for R2P to be invoked, this is it.” The letter called on the Secretary-General to use Article 99 of the UN Charter and formally recommend the UNSC take action to end atrocities in Myanmar.

Today the UNSC meets again to discuss the situation in Myanmar. It is time for the UNSC, regional organizations and all governments to implement measures in response to the deteriorating situation. A global arms embargo, sanctions on senior military officials and businesses, and a referral to the International Criminal Court, are long overdue. Nadira Kourt, Program Manager at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said that, “there should be no ‘business as usual,’ with a military junta that is waging war on their own people and committing crimes against humanity. Now is the time for action and accountability.”

ARMED EXTREMISTS SEIZE PALMA, MOZAMBIQUE

Hundreds of militants from an Islamic State-affiliated armed group, known locally as Al-Shabaab, raided Palma, Mozambique, on 24 March, taking control of the town. Thousands of civilians, including foreigners working for energy companies, fled the violence. An unknown number of civilians have been killed, with witnesses claiming that decapitated bodies have been left in the streets. At the time of publication, government security forces and a private military company, Dyck Advisory Group, were still battling to retake Palma.

Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa Director at Human Rights Watch, said that, “Al-Shabaab fired on civilians in their homes and on the streets in Palma as they tried to flee for their lives.” Armed men also ambushed a civilian convoy of vehicles attempting to flee and besieged the Amarula Palma hotel, where an estimated 200 people had been sheltering.

On Monday, 29 March, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility for the attack on Palma, saying they now controlled the town and had killed more than 55 people, including Mozambican soldiers, Christians and foreigners. Earlier this month the United States designated Al-Shabaab as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” due to their association with ISIL.

Al-Shabaab has engaged in a violent insurgency in Cabo Delgado, a northern province of Mozambique that includes Palma, since October 2017. Since that time more than 2,000 civilians have been killed and over 670,000 displaced. Al-Shabaab has perpetrated indiscriminate attacks against civilians, including extrajudicial killings, sexual and gender-based violence, abductions and recruitment of children. These atrocities may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes under international law. Meanwhile, military forces engaged in fighting Al-Shabaab – including the Mozambican security forces and the Dyck Advisory Group – have been implicated in extrajudicial executions and other violations of International Humanitarian Law.

Jaclyn Streitfeld-Hall, Research Director at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said that, “the attack on Palma marks a terrible escalation of the conflict in Cabo Delgado. Al-Shabaab pose a deadly threat to all civilians, but the security forces who are fighting to retake the town must also ensure that civilians and displaced persons are protected and that their human rights are upheld. You can’t defeat armed extremism by committing war crimes.”

RAPE USED AS A WEAPON OF WAR IN TIGRAY, ETHIOPIA

Last Thursday, 25 March, the UN Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for Ethiopia, Wafaa Said, briefed UN member states on the situation in Tigray, corroborating reports of targeted killings, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced displacement. Said reported that five medical facilities in Tigray recorded 516 rape cases in mid-March and that “women say they have been raped by armed actors, they also told stories of gang rape, rape in front of family members and men being forced to rape their own family members under the threat of violence.”

The UN estimates that the actual number of women raped is likely much higher given that the stigma surrounding rape prevents self-reporting and approximately 82 percent of the 229 health centers in Tigray are not functioning. Physicians treating refugees in Sudan have stated rape was being used as a weapon of war against the population of Tigray.

A communications blackout and other restrictions have hampered efforts to investigate allegations of atrocities that have taken place in Tigray since November. However, on 26 March the UN confirmed it had finally gained access to two Eritrean refugee camps, Hitsats and Shimelba, which satellite image analysis from January indicated had been systematically destroyed. According to the UN Refugee Agency, most shelters in the Hitsats camp, as well as the UN offices, had been burnt to the ground and all humanitarian facilities were looted and vandalized. Of the 20,000 Eritrean refugees who previously resided in the camps, an estimated 11,000 remain unaccounted for.

Attacks on refugee camps and humanitarian workers are prohibited under international law and may constitute war crimes.

On 25 March the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights agreed to conduct joint investigations into abuses allegedly committed by all parties to the conflict in Tigray. The joint investigation must ensure that all atrocity crimes – including sexual violence and attacks on refugees – are investigated, regardless of the rank, national origin or affiliation of the alleged perpetrator.