Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations says the confessions of two former Myanmar soldiers to the mass murders of Rohingya Muslims will have a “major impact” on an international criminal investigation into army-led atrocities in the Southwest Asian country.
Bob Rae, who served as Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar before being named to the ambassador position this year, told Global News that Canada and the Netherlands will be making a joint submission to the International Criminal Court based on the legal issues that arise from the solders’ confessions.
He said while the two men may face “very serious consequences,” what’s most important is that they are aware of the criminal nature of their actions and that they didn’t act alone.
“The evidence that has been described … is that this is not just about these two individuals. This is about what these two individuals know,” he said Tuesday.
“These people weren’t acting spontaneously. These weren’t a couple of bad actors who did this on their own. The evidence, I think, is that this is part of a broader strategy by the army. But all that remains to be tested in court.”
The confessions, which were first reported by the human rights group Fortify Rights earlier Tuesday, appear to be the first public confession by soldiers of involvement in army-directed massacres, rape and other crimes against Rohingya in the Buddhist-majority country.
More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh since August 2017 to escape what Myanmar’s military called a clearance campaign following an attack by a Rohingya insurgent group in Rakhine state. Myanmar’s government has denied accusations that security forces committed mass rapes and killings and burned thousands of homes.
Fortify Rights, which focuses on Myanmar, said the two army privates — Myo Win Tun, 33, and Zaw Naing Tun, 30 — fled the country last month and are believed to be in the custody of the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands, which is examining the violence against the Rohingya.
The group said the two soldiers testified on video that they were instructed by commanding officers to “shoot all that you see and that you hear” in villages where minority Rohingya Muslims lived.
They also gave “the names and ranks of 19 direct perpetrators from the Myanmar army, including themselves, as well as six senior commanders … they claim ordered or contributed to atrocity crimes against Rohingya.,” according to Fortify Rights.
Global News has not viewed the videos, although other outlets including the Associated Press have. The soldiers’ claims have also not been independently verified by other media outlets, although those who have seen the video say the soldiers’ account align with U.N. documentation of Rohingya survivor accounts of the atrocities.
The U.N.’s International Court of Justice agreed last year to consider a case alleging that Myanmar committed genocide against the group. The court’s proceedings are likely to continue for years.
Rae said confessions like those of the two soldiers may help the process along, as the Myanmar government continues to hold onto evidence of the army’s orders.
“We’ve been doing everything we can to assist the international criminal authorities and the ICJ in the course of their work to get access to the evidence,” he said.
“One of the key things that will help us to break this case … is getting people who are prepared to testify as to what they heard and what they were told. Not hearsay evidence, not secondhand evidence, not thirdhand documentary evidence, but something where somebody is saying, ‘I know this happened because I was involved in doing it.'”
The International Court of Justice is the U.N.’s top court. It settles disputes between nations and does not prosecute individuals. The International Criminal Court, which seeks to hold individuals responsible for crimes, has not issued any public indictments in the investigation it is conducting. Both courts are based in The Hague in the Netherlands.
Asked about the two soldiers Tuesday, the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor said it does not comment on its ongoing investigations, adding in a statement that it has been “independently and impartially collecting evidence from a variety of sources regarding the alleged atrocity crimes.”
“These confessions demonstrate what we’ve long known, which is that the Myanmar army is a well-functioning national army operating with a specific and centralized command structure,” Fortify Rights chief Matthew Smith said in a statement.
“Commanders control, direct, and order their subordinates in all they do. In this case, commanders ordered foot soldiers to commit genocidal acts and exterminate Rohingya, and that’s exactly what they did.”
Under the legal doctrine of command responsibility, higher-ranking officers are held responsible for heinous acts carried out by those serving under them.
That the two men described similar atrocities in separate areas also “may indicate operational consistency between battalions, co-ordination, and intent to commit genocide,” Fortify Rights said.
The group is calling on the ICC to try the two men and put them into witness protection.
Rae emphasized that any further developments in the case will be a “long, slow, drawn-out process” even with the soldiers’ confessions.
“We are involved in a very painstaking, brick-by-brick, step-by-step effort to get the people who are responsible into court and into a position where they will be held accountable,” he said.
“But the reality is, there’s nowhere to hide.”
— With files from Global’s Nick Logan and the Associated Press