Southeast Asian rights group Fortify Rights and 16 Myanmar nationals have filed a criminal complaint with Germany’s federal prosecutors against Myanmar’s junta for atrocities committed against ethnic Rohingya and other groups.
The 215-page complaint, with more than 1,000 pages of annexes, was filed on January 20 under the principle of “universal jurisdiction” and calls for the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
A brutal military offensive in their home state of Rakhine from 2016 to 2017 drove some 740,000 people across the border into Bangladesh, where they remain in squalid refugee camps.
The complaint also calls for accountability for atrocity crimes committed by the junta against various other groups in the nearly two years since the military seized power in a February 2021 coup.
Matthew Smith, CEO of Fortify Rights, said the purpose of the complaint is for German authorities to launch an investigation, collect and store evidence for future cases and ultimately issue arrest warrants for those responsible.
“In the event that happens, things like extradition to Germany become very real,” Smith said Tuesday during an event held at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand in Bangkok by Fortify Rights to announce the filing of its complaint.
“Of course there are many unknowns at the moment, but this will certainly send a message to members of Myanmar’s military junta and others responsible for crimes in Myanmar that they are not safe,” he said. “They are not safe to travel in our world.”
Fortify Rights’ complaint is the latest international effort to hold the junta accountable for atrocity crimes. Others include cases at the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justiceand one case of universal jurisdiction in Argentina for crimes committed against the Rohingya – all brought in 2019.
But Fortify Rights said its filing would not duplicate any of the efforts currently underway and would add to what it calls “mounting evidence” of the junta’s crimes. The ongoing efforts either cannot encompass the scope of crimes alleged in the new filing or will not hold individuals criminally responsible for atrocity crimes, it said.
“German authorities are well equipped to fill current gaps left by the currently pending accountability mechanisms,” the group said in a statement.
There are more than 100 investigations into universal jurisdiction cases underway in Germany, suggesting the prosecutor may be willing to take up the complaint, although a timeline for the process remains unclear.
Universal jurisdiction is a legal principle that enables a state to prosecute individuals responsible for mass atrocity crimes, regardless of where they were committed or the nationality of the perpetrator or victims. The principle is typically applied to crimes considered so serious that they represent offenses against the entire international community.
Investigations by German authorities into international crimes could also potentially be used in prosecutions in venues and jurisdictions outside of Germany, Fortify noted.
‘Relief for the suffering of the people of Myanmar’
Of the 16 complainants, nearly half are survivors of military-led “clearance operations” of the Rohingya in Rakhine state in 2016 and 2017, while the other half have survived post-coup atrocities across the country in 2021 and 2022.
They include six women and 10 men representing ethnic groups including Rakhine, Burman, Chin, Karen, Kerenni, Mon and Rohingya with diverse backgrounds including students, farmers, rights activists, business people, former village chiefs and homemakers.
All survived or witnessed crimes in Myanmar, and many have since fled the country.
Together, they allege that the military has systematically killed, raped, tortured, imprisoned, disappeared, persecuted and committed other acts amounting to genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in violation of German law.
Their complaint includes evidence that senior junta officials exercised responsibility over subordinates who committed crimes, knew of such crimes, and failed to take any measures to prevent the crimes and punish the perpetrators.
Fortify Right’s Smith told RFA that German authorities had confirmed receipt of the complaint and said prosecutors “will likely await further developments,” including the filing of additional complaints, until they make a decision on whether to proceed with the case .
Speaking to RFA in Burmese, veteran human rights lawyer Kyee Myint welcomed the international support “for things we can’t do domestically” under military rule.
“This trial is encouraging for our people … It is also a form of relief for the physical and mental suffering of the people of Myanmar who have been oppressed, burned to death, robbed, raped, and whose houses were burned and destroyed.”
In July, the ICJ rejected all of Myanmar’s objections to a case brought against it by The Gambia that accuses the country of genocide against the Rohingya, paving the way for the court to proceed to the merits phase of the process and consider the factual evidence against it. Myanmar, a process that can take years.
Translated by Myo Min Aung. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.