Updated at 5:29 p.m. ET on 2019-07-22
International Criminal Court prosecutors are in Bangladesh to lay the groundwork for an investigation into alleged crimes of humanity against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority so they can begin a probe quickly if the ICC gives them the green light, the delegation’s chief said Thursday.
The team is not visiting Bangladesh “to investigate or collect evidence” for such a case, James Stewart, leader of the four-member delegation from the Hague-based court, told reporters in Dhaka, emphasizing that the international prosecutors were awaiting authorization for a probe.
The international prosecutors are here to explain the legal process to government officials and affected people on how the ICC might investigate reported atrocities, which forced more than 740,000 stateless Rohingya to cross into Bangladesh as they fled a 2017 crackdown in Rakhine state by Myanmar’s army, he said.
“We are here to engage with the government and other relevant stakeholders including in affected areas, to explain and answer questions on the ICC process, and where we are currently in the judicial proceedings,” Stewart said as he read out a statement at the start of a news conference.
On July 4, the ICC’s top prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, made an official request for a pre-trial chamber to authorize an investigation “into alleged crimes against humanity, namely deportation, other inhumane acts and persecution committed against the Rohingya people from Myanmar.”
Stewart, deputy prosecutor of the court, said he expected that the pre-trial chamber to receive submissions from the Rohingya victims of crimes against humanity by the end of October.
“If the pre-trial chamber grants us the authorization to open an investigation, we hope we [can be] ready very quickly to engage in an investigation,” he told reporters.
“So we are, in essence, preparing the way for an investigation, if we are successful with our application.”
The team arrived in Bangladesh on Tuesday and will visit Rohingya refugee camps in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district on Saturday, before leaving the country early next week.
The ICC prosecutes individuals suspected of committing crimes against humanity. Last year, the court determined that it could prosecute alleged crimes against Rohingya who had fled from their homes and villages in Rakhine state, amid the military offensive that started in August 2017.
In March, a team from the ICC visited Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar as part of a preliminary examination into a potential case.
Because Myanmar is not a state party to the Rome Statute that established the ICC, the court has no jurisdiction there, Stewart said.
But it might be able to launch an investigation into crimes of humanity that were committed against the Rohingya in part on Bangladeshi territory, he noted.
The ICC cannot investigate atrocities committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar, he said, but it is possible for the court to probe crimes against humanity through their expulsion by Myanmar that forced them to cross the border between the two countries.
“The deportation occurred into Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a state party to the Rome Statute. So the crime was completed, if I can put it that way, in Bangladesh. That changes the picture completely. That’s what gives us the ability to look into this case,” he said in response to a question from a BenarNews reporter.
“At this stage, although we have approached the government of Myanmar, so far they have not wanted to engage with us. But we remain available to discuss issues with them,” he added.
Sanctions against generals
Attorney Khandker Mahbub Hossain, who defended alleged war criminals prosecuted over Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan in 1971, said the ICC had a transparent trial process.
“Though Myanmar is not a state party, the pre-trial court has ruled that the ICC has jurisdiction over the Rohingya atrocities. Even the ICC tried the perpetrators, Myanmar would not execute the judgement of the ICC,” he told BenarNews.
“But if the ICC convicts the Myanmar generals for crimes against humanity, it would carry a value at the international level,” he said.
Last year, a U.N. fact-finding team recommended that the six Myanmar generals, including Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing be referred to the ICC for prosecution for genocide against the Rohingya people.
On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States was imposing a travel ban on Min Aung Hlaing and three of the other generals who had been named by the U.N. team, in the first sanctions launched by any foreign country against members of Myanmar’s military brass in the wake of the brutal 2017 crackdown in Rakhine state.
But at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, Yanghee Lee, the special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar who has been barred by its government from visiting the country, described the new U.S. sanctions against the four generals as not being tough enough.
“It is naive and farfetched, but I think we should freeze their assets and the assets of their families, too,” she told reporters, adding that the families should also be subjected to a travel ban.
Such sanctions, she said, should be applied not only to the four generals named in the U.S. travel ban but all six Myanmar generals who were identified by the U.N. fact-finding team last year for prosecution before the International Criminal Court.
Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.