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Human rights lawyer predicts international warrants in Rohingya genocide case

Argentina human rights lawyer Tomas Quintana at the Voice of America studio in Washington on May 2, 2024
Argentina human rights lawyer Tomas Quintana at the Voice of America studio in Washington on May 2, 2024

A court in Argentina is hearing evidence of genocide in the 2017 murder and rape of tens of thousands of Rohingya people and may soon issue international arrest warrants against members of the Myanmar military, according to a legal representative of the Rohingya complainants.

The complaint was filed under the principle of “universal jurisdiction” enshrined in Argentina’s constitution, which holds that some crimes are so heinous that alleged perpetrators thousands of miles away can be tried, according to Radio Free Asia.

The Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group, had faced persecution and discrimination in Myanmar for decades before the 2017 rampage by the Myanmar army, which forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar's ruling military is also facing proceedings at the International Court of Justice for genocide, while the International Criminal Court investigates war crimes.

In a recent interview with VOA, Argentine human rights lawyer and former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar Tomás Ojea Quintana welcomed progress in the case but emphasized the importance of international support to bring justice and heightened action to prevent future human rights abuses.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VOA: As the legal representative for the Rohingya in the case being heard by an Argentine court, could you provide us with some insight into the significance of this landmark hearing and its potential impact on seeking justice for the Rohingya?

Argentine human rights lawyer Tomás Ojea Quintana: For the Rohingya community, the Argentinian case is very important. It's a case which is based on the principle of universal jurisdiction that guarantees the right to access to a court of law to victims and survivors of crimes against humanity, or genocide. And this is what actually happened in Argentina, Buenos Aires. An investigation has been opened to investigate the 2017 genocide in Rakhine state against the Rohingya.

Even though there are a lot of logistical challenges, the court has started to produce evidence. In fact, they had an in-person hearing of seven Rohingya survivors of the 2017 genocide who traveled to Buenos Aires and gave testimony in front of the court. That was a really important hearing, both because the Argentinian court had the chance to get in contact with real victims of the genocide, and for the victims because they had the chance to speak out about the atrocities that they suffered. It was actually an act of reparation for victims to have the opportunity to tell the court what happened to them.

So now the court is analyzing the evidence and, as in an ordinary criminal investigation, the next steps will be for the court to summon the perpetrators to the Argentinian court. One way that the Argentinian court can summon the accused persons is by issuing international arrest warrants.

It is important to say that the United Nations, the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, a body which is based in Geneva and mandated as a repository of evidence — this U.N. body has been engaged with, and is providing information to the Argentinian court. Now, the case in Argentina has important evidence and, as the attorneys of the Rohingya people — the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK which is behind this case — we are considering, at some point in the future, that the court might issue international warrants. So, we are working on this important goal for this year.

VOA: Since that case was filed in 2019 with the Argentinian court, the Myanmar military has said they don’t care about international warrants and that they won’t cooperate with the case at all. So, what do you see as the next steps?

Quintana: We definitely knew that the government, or the junta, would not cooperate with the Argentinian court; but if and when the international arrest warrants are issued by the Argentinian court, we are proposing that a notification is sent all over the world about these international arrest warrants — to the United Nations, but also to ASEAN, to the Association of Southeast Asian Countries Organization, to the Organization of Islamic Countries, to the European Union, to the International Court of Justice, to the International Criminal Court; but also to those states that have imposed targeted sanctions against individuals from Myanmar.

We have to go step by step, and the first step is that international arrest warrants are issued and this will be, of course, a message to the Rohingya and to the other people in Myanmar who are suffering the crimes of the military junta that the international community will not forget what happened, and that they will use all instruments that are at hand to pursue justice.

VOA: Now you are in the United States. What support for this case have you seen from the international community, for example, the United Nations and organizations like the IIMM (the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar), and what has been the response to the case from countries like China and Russia?

Quintana: The U.S. has been really showing interest in the case and we look forward to having more support from other members of the international community. We haven't reached out to the Chinese or Russian governments, but our idea is to reach out to everyone, because when you talk about genocide, political interests cannot be argued, and not even cultural dimensions. A genocide is a genocide. The next step is accountability. You mentioned the IIMM and, as I mentioned before, the United Nations through this body has been very supportive to the case as well.

VOA: There has been a recent escalation of violence in Rakhine State between the military and the Arakan Army, as well as growing tension between the Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine communities. U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Volker Türk has warned of a grave threat to civilians in Rakhine State and expressed concern that past atrocities may be repeated. So how do you assess the risks faced by vulnerable communities such as the Rohingya in this situation?

Quintana: It's extremely serious. There is a risk that what happened in 2017, where all the world witnessed the worst atrocities committed in Rohingya villages, in different townships, all at the same time, all coordinated with the same patterns of abuses against men, but also women, using gang rape as an instrument of genocide, and also committing crimes against children. There is a risk that something similar could happen, and I agree with the High Commissioner. What is required at this point in time is a reaction from the international community. Even though we welcome good statements about what's happening there, the U.N. Security Council has not been taking real action, which is required here. The case in Argentina is a single small initiative towards justice, but it's real and it's important for the Rohingya community. It gives them hope in their struggle for justice, and in their struggle to improve their situation on the ground in Rakhine State.