War crimes round-up: Argentina probes Myanmar’s crackdown on Rohingya, German carmakers hit by Uyghur forced labour complaint

Geneva Solutions’s monthly “war criminal hunt” in collaboration with the Geneva-based NGO Civitas Maxima.

“In Buenos Aires, Argentina, victims are seeking justice against the perpetrators of the atrocities that forced 750,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee Myanmar in 2017. Argentina’s constitution provides for universal jurisdiction for international crimes, through which the judiciary was able to open its investigations in 2021. This case is a prime example of how vital this legal principle is: These atrocities are not being prosecuted in Myanmar, so victims of international crimes are turning to South America – confirming once again that Argentina is a pioneer of international justice, and reminding us that the exercise of universal jurisdiction is not solely a European-led practice.”

– Alain Werner, director of Civitas Maxima 

Rohingya testify in Argentina in Myanmar genocide case

Members of the Muslim Rohingya minority of Myanmar gave their first witness statements in an Argentinian court at the beginning of June in a genocide case brought against Myanmar’s military. 

Since 2021, Argentinian criminal courts have been investigating international crimes committed by Myanmar’s military, such as crimes against humanity and genocide, under the principle of universal jurisdiction. This notion allows and sometimes obliges countries to prosecute crimes that are considered to be particularly severe, regardless of where, when, and by whom they were committed. 

For the past forty years, Myanmar has denied citizenship to the Rohingya people, one of the country’s ethnic minorities and its largest Muslim community. In 2017, a military repression campaign carried out through massacres, rapes and arson forced 900,000 members of the minority to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh where they are now living in the world’s largest refugee camp.  Despite the 2017 crackdown being recognised as genocide by countries including the US, and despite a UN investigation concluding that the killings were done with “genocidal intent,” no one has ever been held accountable.

The trial and the testimonies in Argentina mark a step forward in the fight against impunity for the Rohingya people. Both the International Criminal Court, which launched an investigation into alleged crimes in 2019, and the International Court of Justice, which is examining Myanmar’s breaches of the Genocide Convention, are currently dealing with the case. 

German carmakers hit by complaint of  forced Uyghur labour

Top German carmakers Mercedes, Volskwagen and BMW are facing a complaint over alleged ties to suppliers in China’s Xinjiang region, who are suspected of using forced labour from the region’s Uyghur Muslim minority.

The complaint was filed by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a Berlin-based NGO, before the German Federal Office of Economics and Export control (BAFA). The filing follows a report by Sheffield Hallam University in the UK and the US non-profit research group NomoGaia in December last year that details extensive links between the global automotive industry and China’s Xinjiang region. According to ECCHR, the multinationals have not proven that they are adequately responding to the risk of forced labour within their supply chain. 

The ECCHR’s complaint comes after Germany introduced a new supply chain act earlier this year that imposes stricter measures for companies to prevent forced labour and ensure human rights compliance.

In a 2022 report, the UN Human Rights Office found that “serious human rights violations” had been committed in the Xinjiang region under the guise of counter-terrorism or counter-extremism government policies. The report also said that the treatment of people enrolled in labour, employment or vocational training schemes “may involve elements of coercion and discrimination on religious and ethnic grounds.”  

Rwandan genocide defendant found unfit to stand trial 

Rwandan businessman Félicien Kabuga, who has been on trial since 2022 on accusations of genocide and crimes against humanity committed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, will not face prosecution after judges declared him unfit to stand trial. 

The decision on 6 June by the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Individuals (IRMCT) comes after medical experts concluded that Kabuga, who is in his late 80s and is one of the last defendants charged in connection to the Rwandan genocide, was no longer able to understand the proceedings. 

The IRMCT is a special, UN-established court set up in 2010 and tasked with dealing with outstanding cases from the previous UN tribunals for crimes committed during the Rwandan and former Yugoslavia wars.

The decision by the IRMCT in Kabuga’s trial – the last case that this special tribunal was dealing with – is unprecedented in international criminal law. It means that judges will have to conduct a so-called alternative findings procedure, which is similar to a criminal trial but does not lead to a conviction, acquittal, or sentencing and does not require the defendant’s presence. 

What else happened? 

Complaint against Syria before UN court. Canada and the Netherlands filed a joint complaint before the International Court of Justice against Syria for alleged violations of the UN Convention Against Torture. In their filing, Canada and the Netherlands said that since at least 2011, in its “violent repression of civilian demonstrators” which evolved into civil war, Syria had committed countless violations of international law” including “torture” and “the use of chemical weapons (…) to intimidate and punish the civilian population”.

NGOs demand accountability in latest Mediterranean boat sinking. More than 180 human rights organisations have decried the Mediterranean sea as “a scene of crimes against humanity” and demanded a full investigation after yet another boat carrying hundreds of people seeking to migrate to Europe capsized in southern Greece on 14 June, with at least 82 reported dead. In an open letter, the organisations called for a “full, thorough and independent investigation” into the events by Greek and European authorities, as well as coast guard and border agency Frontex and justice for victims.  “It’s time for complete transparency about what happened and accountability of those responsible,” the letter said.

ICC investigates destruction of Ukraine dam. Ukrainian investigators and the International Criminal Court (ICC), are jointly investigating the destruction of the Kakhova hydroelectric dam in Russia-controlled territory in southern Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on 11 June, days after the disaster took place.

Ukraine and Russia have blamed each other for the dam burst, which flooded communities along the banks of the Dnipro river, dislodged landmines and caused widespread environmental damage. 

Daughter of German man on death row files complaint against Tehran. The daughter of a German citizen born in Tehran and sentenced to death in Iran has filed a complaint against Iranian authorities. Human rights NGO ECCHR is supporting the complaint by Gazelle Sharmahd, which was brought before federal prosecutors in Germany. Sharmahd’s criminal complaint targets eight high-ranking members of the Iranian judiciary and intelligence services over the abduction and detention of her father, who the ECCHR says is being “held without due process in a secret location, where he is suffering physical abuse” and where, “after a show trial” he now faces imminent execution. “The goal is to bring high-ranking officials of the Iranian government, judiciary, and security apparatus to justice”, the ECCHR said.

Victims in the Central African Republic to appeal reparations decision. Victims of an attack by an armed militia in the north west of the country in 2019, will appeal a decision by an UN-backed Special Criminal Court after they deemed that the reparations granted to them are insufficient. The Special Court was set up in 2021 to investigate human rights violations committed in the Central African Republic since 2003. The court’s first and only trial dealt with victims of an attack in which members of a rebel group raped and murdered several civilians in two villages of the CAR.

Afghanistan war crimes confirmed in Australian civil case. Australian soldier Ben Roberts-Smith lost a defamation case against three newspapers that accused him of having committed war crimes in Afghanistan.  Even though it was a civil court that ruled that Roberts-Smith had “broken the legal rules of military engagement” and committed war crimes, this is the first Australian court to confirm Afghanistan war crimes, backing the media in exposing international crimes committed within the Australian military. 

Last ruling of former Yugoslavia tribunal. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) lengthened the sentences for Jovica Stanišić and Franko Simatović, who were head and top deputy of the Serbian State Security Service. The two men, who before an appeal were charged with aiding and abetting attacks in Croatia are now charged with participating in a joint criminal enterprise when they trained paramilitary groups, which extends their prison sentence by three years. The tribunal, which was created by the UN Security Council in 1993 and has convicted 93 people in total for the crimes committed during the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, has now terminated its last and longest-running case. 

Picture: A Maxar satellite image taken at 12:15 p.m. local time shows damage to a section of the roadway and sluice gates at the Nova Kakhovka dam in Ukraine on June 5. MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES