Rohingya Muslims stranded along the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh in July. Some 750,000 Rohingya were forced to flee to Bangladesh. Adam Dean for The New York Times
GENEVA — The United Nations Human Rights Council stepped up pressure to punish Myanmar’s military commanders for a brutal campaign against Rohingya Muslims, deciding on Thursday to create a body to expedite criminal prosecutions.
The council overwhelmingly supported a resolution to set up an “independent mechanism” that will collect and analyze evidence of the “most serious international crimes” and prepare dossiers that will make it easier for prosecutors to bring cases to trial in national, regional or international courts.
The council’s action came a month after a United Nations fact-finding team said Myanmar’s army commander, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and other top generals should be prosecuted in an international court. It recommended prosecution on charges of genocide for a campaign that forced some 750,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh, and crimes against humanity in connection with actions against other ethnic minorities.
The team presented a 444-page report to the council this month, setting out harrowing details of a Myanmar Army campaign that led to the systematic slaughter of thousands of people, the mass rape of women and girls, and the wholesale destruction of villages.
Myanmar has flatly rejected charges that its security forces committed mass atrocities, and it refused to cooperate with the fact-finding team. Its ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Kyaw Moe Tun, told the council that the team’s report was based on “unverified information” and that the resolution would impede dialogue and the repatriation of those who fled.
Thirty-five of the council’s 47 members backed the resolution. The only countries to oppose it were China, the Philippines and Burundi. The others abstained or did not vote.
Thursday’s resolution was the product of a collaboration between all 28 countries in the European Union and all 57 states in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. It was co-sponsored by more than 100 countries from all regions.
“This is unprecedented,” Farukh Amil, Pakistan’s ambassador and the coordinator of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, told reporters after the vote, referring to the level of cooperation. “This is a very powerful message that has gone to the government of Myanmar.”
The body created by the council will be similar to the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism set up by the General Assembly two years ago to assist in investigation and prosecution of those responsible for human rights atrocities in Syria. Diplomats expected the new entity to be up and running within the year.
A significant difference is that unlike the Syria body, which operates on voluntary contributions from states, the Myanmar body will be financed from core United Nations funds and spared of the need to lobby internationally for resources.
The council also voted to extend the mandate of the fact-finding team for a year.
Diplomats saw Thursday’s decision as a first step toward tackling the far more contentious issue of how or where to prosecute those identified as responsible.
The International Criminal Court has ruled that it has jurisdiction to investigate the forced eviction of Rohingyas from Myanmar. But calls for the United Nations Security Council to refer Myanmar to the court for investigation of the full range of atrocities would likely be vetoed by China.
Another option would be the creation of an ad hoc tribunal of the sort set up to prosecute crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. But that would also require Security Council backing, and China could block that, too.
“The pressure to move forward on this is very high,” Walter Stevens, the European Union’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, told reporters.
Diplomats and human rights groups saw the Human Rights Council vote as demonstrating its ability to deliver meaningful action on critical human rights issues soon after the United States decided to pull out on the grounds that it was ineffective.
It “shows multilateralism remains very important,” Mr. Amil, Pakistan’s ambassador, said. “The U.N. works, the Human Rights Council works.”
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