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US lawyer to head probe into Myanmar atrocities

UN investigation aims to collect evidence of abuses against Rohingya to use in criminal proceedings

US lawyer to head probe into Myanmar atrocities

Rohingya refugees huddle in a group in Kangar on March 1 following their detention by Malaysian immigration authorities after arriving by boat. The United Nations is to gather evidence of atrocities against the Rohingya in Myanmar. (Photo by Ismael Kamaldin/AFP)

The United Nations has appointed the head of a mission to investigate atrocities against Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar.

On April 2, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres named American lawyer Nicholas Koumjian as head of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar.

The investigation was established by the U.N. Human Rights Council on Sept. 27, 2018, and welcomed by the General Assembly on Dec. 22.

The rights body voted to “establish an ongoing independent mechanism to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011.”

Another mandate of the panel is “to prepare files in order to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings … in national, regional or international courts or tribunals.”

Matthew Smith, chief executive of Fortify Rights, said the move was encouraging and demonstrated a commitment to start building criminal case files for prosecution.

“Rohingya, Kachin and other ethnic communities are committed to justice and accountability, and the government’s kneejerk denials won’t change that,” Smith told ucanews.com.

He said the civilian and military leaderships in Myanmar have consistently denied any wrongdoing and refused to cooperate with international efforts to prevent and investigate atrocities.

“We don’t expect their posture to change, but regardless the wheels of justice are starting to move forward,” Smith said.

Koumjian has more than 35 years of experience as a prosecutor, including almost 20 years in the field of international criminal justice.

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Since November 2013, he has been serving as the international co-prosecutor for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. He also worked as a prosecutor in the United States and has professional experience in international human rights law and transitional justice.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and Myanmar’s military have been facing pressure from the international community over atrocities against Rohingya in Rakhine State.

A U.N. fact-finding mission found that Myanmar's military committed four of the five acts constituting genocide against the Rohingya. It said military chief Min Aung Hlaing and five other senior generals must be prosecuted for genocide and war crimes against humanity.

Myanmar’s military has denied atrocities and insisted its clearance operations were justified to root out Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army militants who attacked border posts in August 2017.

In a resolution adopted on March 22, the U.N. Human Rights Council called on Myanmar authorities, particularly the military and security forces, “to end immediately violence and all violations of international law” in Myanmar, particularly in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states.

Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, has appealed for the crisis to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by the U.N. Security Council.

ICC officials visited Bangladesh from March 6-11 and said “independent and impartial preliminary examination” of the situation in Bangladesh and Myanmar is ongoing and will follow its course.

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