The ICC: Protection for the Rohingya?

Written by: Regina Paulose

In November 2012, the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) of the ICC released its Report on Preliminary Examination Activities 2012, which examines situations in various countries for acts which could potentially amount to crimes against humanity and/or war crimes. Some of the countries mentioned in this report are North Korea, Columbia, and Afghanistan.[1] While one could question some of the cases the OTP is currently investigating,[2] this author takes the position that there are other atrocious human rights situations which need the immediate attention of the ICC.  In particular, the OTP should begin to make efforts to investigate and address the continued persecution and abuse of the Rohingya population in Burma.[3]

The Status Quo Conflict and Response

According to some scholars, the Rohingya’s origins are not entirely clear.[4] Setting aside this debate, the Rohingya mainly reside in Burma on the western side. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in Burma where the majority of the population is Buddhist. It is estimated that there are currently 800,000 to 1 million Rohingya living in Burma. Since the 1970’s the regime in Burma has been trying to drive out or restrict the Rohingya.[5] This sentiment was put into law in 1982 when it created a Citizenship Law, which mandates that a person must prove their Burmese ancestry dating back to 1823 in order to have freedom of movement and access to other basic rights such as education in the country.[6] (Recall: Armenian Genocide and Nazi Germany). This law is one of the prime reasons why the Rohingya have become “stateless.”

The Rohingya have been the target of violence and recent clashes, which has left “dozens dead and tens of thousands internally displaced.”[7] One does not have to look further than the last 8 months to truly see how the regime continues to treat the Rohingya. In June 2012, an outbreak in communal violence between the Buddhist and Muslim Rakhine and the Rohingya lead to massive sweeps resulting in detention of Rohingya men and boys. (Recall the massacre at Srebrenica). Reports indicated that these groups were subject to ill treatment and were held “incommunicado.”[8] In October 2012, satellite images showed that homes of the Rohingya were being destroyed by security forces. The security forces then overwhelmed and cornered the Rohingya to drive them out of the area. This destruction is on top of the gruesome reports of beheading and killing of women and children.[9] (Recall: Rwanda).  The violence has continued in spurts, but is clearly directed at the Rohingya and motivated purely by hatred.

Faced with no other alternatives and with no access to justice in their country, the Rohingya have begun to flee only to be met with rejection from other countries. On the first day of 2013, some members of the Rohingya group were intercepted by Thai authorities and were deported back to Burma.[10] The Thai Navy is under orders to send them away from Thailand. Bangladesh has also expressed that it is not willing to accept Rohingya into their country.

Some countries however are reaching out to the Rohingya. For instance, Malaysia does accept the Rohingya as refugees. Iran recently sent humanitarian aid in order to help and has called upon the UN to take action.[11] Regionally, ASEAN offered to conduct “talks” but that was “rejected.” The regime explained that it sees the escalating violence as an “internal problem.”[12]

After a close examination of these events, the U.S. Presidential visit in November 2012, made the waters murky. President Obama felt that Burma was “moving in a better direction” and that there were “flickers of progress.” During the visit the President met with an advocate of the Rohingya population. While President Obama stated that his visit was not an endorsement of the current government, simple questions arise as to what the U.S. would be willing to do (or not do) to prevent this sectarian violence from escalating.[13] Not surprisingly, after the visit, Thein Sein made 2013 human rights news, when his regime admitted to using air raids against the Kachin rebels who are battling the government for control over certain territories.[14]

Rohingya Refugees

The ICC and its potential involvement

There are two interesting points of discussion that this scenario creates. The first is how the Office of The Prosecutor (OTP) would be able to meet jurisdictional requirements if it were to seriously consider prosecution. The controversial propio motu powers of the Prosecutor would allow her to investigate this situation. Articles 13, 15, and 53 of the Rome Statute require temporal jurisdiction, territorial or personal jurisdiction, and material jurisdiction. In addition, there are requirements in the Statute concerning admissibility. Burma is not a state party to the Rome Statute. The real challenge with this case would be with meeting the territorial or personal jurisdiction elements. Of course the easiest way to meet this requirement would be if the UN Security Council (UNSC) would be willing to refer the case as it did with Bashir of  Sudan.  As stated above, the U.S. Presidential visit does not make clear at this time what the U.S. position would be, especially considering the U.S. also eased sanctions, perhaps as a symbol of new relations, on the regime in November.

Another interesting point of discussion also concerns the potential charges. This author believes that this is a strong case for various charges under crimes against humanity against the Government. Another added dimension to this is that there are also civilians who target the Rohingya and seek to remove them from Burma. Since the posting of this article in January, there has been a recent increase in violence between Buddhist monks, civilians, and the Rohingya.  As previously noted, the regime has continuously called the situation with the Rohingya an “internal problem.”  The situation with the Rohingya can be distinguished from the conflict with the Kachin rebel/soldiers who are fighting for territory and independence.

Some other kind of action is now necessary besides dialogue and commentary from high level UN officials. Our cries of “never again” have become hollow.  The purpose of the ICC should be to facilitate deterrence in addition to punish perpetrators of grave crimes. The international community waits for these situations to become so grave that every action becomes too late. We cannot say we are students of history, when we continually are faced with the same situations over again and repeat the same mistakes. Our ability to ignore tragedy has come at the expense of hundreds of thousands of lives.

Interested in reading more or the full length analysis? Check out: A Road Well Traveled: Religion, Just War, and the Rome Statute, 2(2) A38JIL (2013) 178.

http://www.athirtyeight.com/2013/06/volume-2-issue-2.html


[1] A copy of this report can be found at ICC Coalition website which keeps an excellent record of documents pertaining to the ICC and the OTP: http://www.iccnow.org/?mod=browserdoc&type=14&year=2012

[2] This author questions some of the potential charging decisions being made by the ICC – for instance – the case involving North Korea and South Korea, is a clear act of aggression, but is under examination as a war crime. The death toll in this case is 22 people. The OTP is spending resources in Colombia, to assess whether the government is prosecuting the FARC properly. The author concurs that these cases are worthy of ICC attention, but questions why the ICC wont deal with situations that are ongoing which need immediate intervention. (Besides financial reasons).

[3] The great name debate: the U.S. recognizes the official name of the country as Burma.  Myanmar is the name was introduced by the former military regime, 23 years ago, and is preferred by the current regime. President Obama reportedly did refer to the country as Myanmar out of diplomatic courtesy when meeting with Thein Sein, President  in November 2012. See http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/19/politics/obama-asia-trip/index.html

[4] For a comprehensive report on the Rohingya situation, see Human Rights Watch, “The Government Could Have Stopped This” a report released July 31, 2012 and available at http://www.hrw.org/reports/2012/07/31/government-could-have-stopped . Khaled Ahmed, “Who are the Rohingya?” The Express Tribune, July 31, 2012, available at: http://tribune.com.pk/story/415447/who-are-the-rohingya/

[5] Gianluca Mezzofiore, “Myanmar Rohingya Muslims: The Hidden Genocide” August 22, 2012, available at: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/articles/376189/20120822/burma-myanmar-rohingya-muslims-ethnic-cleansing.htm

[7] UN News Centre, “Independent UN expert calls on Myanmar to carry out latest human rights pledges.” November 20, 2012, available at: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=43550

[8] Amnesty International, “Myanmar: Abuses against Rohingya erode human rights progress.” July 19, 2012, available at: http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/myanmar-rohingya-abuses-show-human-rights-progress-backtracking-2012-07-19

[9] Human Rights Watch, “Burma: Satellite Images Show Widespread Attacks on Rohingya” November 17, 2012 available at: http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/11/17/burma-satellite-images-show-widespread-attacks-rohingya

[10] Human Rights Watch, “Thailand: Don’t Deport Rohingya ‘Boat People’” January 2, 2013, available at: http://www.hrw.org/node/112247

[11] Ahlul Bayt News Agency, “Iran to Send 30 tons of Humanitarian Aid to Myanmar’s Rohingyas” January 5, 2013, available at: http://abna.ir/data.asp?lang=3&Id=378800

[12] ALJAZEERA, “Myanmar rejects talks on ethnic violence” October 31, 2012, available at: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/asia-pacific/2012/10/2012103161130375846.html

[13] Although I thoroughly question the impact of sanctions and their utility, some sanctions were eased on Burma in the days leading up to the Presidential visit.

[14] See Thomas Fuller, “Myanmar Military Admits to Airstrikes on Kachin Rebels” New York Times, January 2, 2013, available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/03/world/asia/myanmar-military-admits-air-raids-on-kachin-rebels.html?smid=tw-nytimesworld&seid=auto&_r=1&. See also Associated Press, “Myanmar’s Kachin rebels accuse government of artillery attack on headquarter city” January 6, 2013, available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/apnewsbreak-myanmars-kachin-rebels-accuse-government-of-artillery-attack-on-headquarter-city/2013/01/06/dc668006-57fa-11e2-b8b2-0d18a64c8dfa_story.htm

Calculating the Truth in Human Trafficking

Written by: Dr. T.M. Steinfatt[1]

People gain interest in social issues in various ways. My interest in numbers of trafficking victims began in 1988 during research on health communication and AIDS in Thailand. These HIV/AIDS studies resulted in the book Working at the Bar, a detailed study of the beliefs and behavior of Thai sex workers.[2] In the late 1980s an estimate began circulating in Bangkok that 800,000 children under 18 were working in the Thai sex industry. It originated in print from a single individual employed in Bangkok by the Children’s Rights Protection Center (CRPC) who stated that of 2,000,000 Thai sex workers, 800,000 were children. A Bangkok Post editorial of January 17, 1989, questioned the basis for the estimate, joined by several Thai language media outlets. “Estimate” has two distinctly different meanings in English.

Empirical estimates are based on observed data and can usually be checked for accuracy. But estimate can also mean a guesstimate, a wild guess, as in estimating that the moon is made of green cheese. Many people, including the general public and many of those who write for and edit Western and international media sources, regularly fail to distinguish between the two. The 800,000 children “estimate” was taken essentially as fact in much of the media, and repeatedly publicized to billions of people across the globe. Simple repetition of the claim, with one media outlet quoting another as the source and then being quoted itself as the source, led to belief in and presumed credibility of the claim, severely damaging Thailand’s international reputation.

As an example in 2001, large numbers of sex trafficking victims were said to exist in Cambodia. The statement, presented jointly by several Cambodian NGOs at the 2001 Second World Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation Of Children in Yokohama, Japan, claimed the existence of 80,000–100,000 trafficked women and children per year in Cambodia, with “10,000–15,000 child prostitutes” in Phnom Penh alone.[3] In comparing these numbers with worldwide estimates it seemed unlikely that Cambodia could have 80,000–100,000 of the 700,000 such persons estimated to exist by the US State Department’s first Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report.[4] This would amount to 11–14% of the estimated 700,000 of the world’s cross-border international trafficking total within about 00.194% of the total world population. The most recent TIP Report was released in June 2011.[5]

Numerous other sex trafficking reports on Cambodia cited similar figures at that time. For example, in 2001 the Child Rights Foundation of Cambodia under the heading of “Trends in Sexual Slavery” reported the number of trafficked women and children as “17,000 in Phnom Penh, 30% under 18 years old, 80,000–100,000 nationwide.”[6] Many NGO and media reports published throughout the past decade quote the 80,000–100,000 numbers. Those few providing a reference source for these numbers cite one of those mentioned above, often.[7]

Most current published estimates of the numbers of sex workers, under-aged workers, and trafficked women and children in Cambodia cannot be relied upon. In following the references for the source of the 80,000 to 100,000 figures back to the earliest dated source[8] no study or empirical data in any form can be located to support the number. As with the false claim of 800,000 child sex workers in Bangkok, the presumed propaganda value of large trafficking numbers may be at work.[9] This author is forced to conclude that these 80,000–100,000 numbers are simply bogus, that they were fabricated at some point by someone, and the bogus numbers were simply reprinted, circularly citing other such reprints as the source.

These unsupported estimates of trafficking numbers in Cambodia led to our research there beginning in the summer of 2002 and our first paper.  A Fulbright to Cambodia from January to August of 2003, an extension of that Fulbright, and a research grant from USAID led to additional research and our second empirical paper.  In early 2007, UNIAP/UNESCO in Bangkok announced a competition to determine best methods of measuring human trafficking. My methods proposal received the top award in the UNIAP/UNESCO final competition for best methods of measuring human trafficking, held in Bangkok in November 2007. Data collection for that research, supported by a United Nations grant, began in May 2008 and ended that December, with the final report published by UNIAP/UNESCO in January 2011.  Those studies provide numbers concerning sex trafficking in Cambodia only.

They do not provide numbers representing all forms of trafficking victims. Abuse of female domestic laborers and spousal abuse victims are not included in these numbers, nor are any of the persons trafficked for maritime labor, for begging, for factory labor, or for any male trafficking victims. A 32 point detailed theory and rationale for the methods used in our studies to obtain data on sexual trafficking may be found in our 2011 UNIAP Report. 

Empirical evidence of the size and location of sex trafficking can be obtained through observational research. That evidence indicates sizeable numbers of victims, but substantially smaller numbers than are commonly spread as rumors and propaganda. The numbers of sex workers and of those trafficked is several levels of magnitude smaller than much NGO propaganda usually suggests. The solution is not to promulgate and propagate fake numbers, but to learn to locate and talk with those who are oppressed, listen to what they want and will accept, and to consider carefully both the effect of often brutal interventions on those persons’ lives, and the likely consequences for the returning workers who escaped the raids in terms of future police actions against them and their workplaces.

Understanding the number of persons trafficked in areas targeted for intervention is a requirement in reducing that number by a substantial amount. If numbers of trafficked persons are not known, no accurate measure of the efficacy or of possible negative effects of specific individual anti-trafficking interventions can be known. Obtaining accurate counts of trafficking victims in specific locales and at specific points in time allows evaluation of effectiveness of any anti-trafficking measure applied there. Such numbers create the potential to judge whether trafficking is increasing or decreasing, where, and by about how much, through comparison with later counts. Such data allows tentative inferences based on empirical methods concerning the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of trafficking approaches applied or not applied in the interim. If one does not know the trafficking numbers then there is no good basis for judging effectiveness of interventions. It is not sufficient to know that a particular intervention resulted in a number of captured traffickers and a listed number of trafficked women and children removed to the care of an NGO.

The problem of human trafficking cannot be effectively addressed unless we understand its actual size and which remedies can effectively reduce it. Accurate knowledge of the size and extent of trafficking are needed in order to plan and implement a practical and effective anti-trafficking strategy. Both overestimates and underestimates of the number of victims will result in the failure to allocate resources efficiently, and they may result in the ultimate failure of many anti-trafficking interventions. Overestimates of trafficking numbers may produce prevention and intervention programs that are overly extensive an in the wrong locations, wasting funds provided for anti-trafficking efforts. If guessed numerical estimates are given credence, and the guesses are kept high for funding reasons following an intervention, then an intervention that was effective may be branded as ineffective. Some strong anti-trafficking programs may subsequently be discarded due directly to inaccurate guessed numerical estimates. The effectiveness of interventions cannot be understood accurately without grounded empirical evidence of their effect, whether positive, negative, or neutral. It is important to understand how such guessed estimates appear in the public record in order to consider the validity of such numbers if and when they appear.


[1] Professor at the School of Communication at the University of Miami (Fl). He is also a Fullbright Scholar. For a more complete reading of Professor Steinfatt’s research see “Measuring the Number of Trafficked Women in Cambodia: 2002” Globalization Research Center, University of Hawaii-Manoa (November 13-15,2002). “Measuring the Extent of Sex Trafficking in Cambodia – 2008, SIREN Trafficking Estimates, UNIAP, (January 2011). “Measuring the Number of Trafficked Women and Children in Cambodia: A Direct Observation Field Study” (October 5, 2003).  “Sex Trafficking in Cambodia: Fabricated Numbers versus Empirical Evidence” Crime Law Soc Change (October 28, 2011 online).  He can be reached at: tms@miami.edu
[2] Steinfatt, T. M. (2002). Working at the bar: sex work and health communication in Thailand. Westport: Greenwood Press.
[3] NGO Statement. (2001). NGO Statement to the 2001 Consultative Group Meeting On Cambodia. Available at: http://www.bigpond.com.kh/users/ngoforum/cg2001/child.htm
[4] U.S. Department of State. (2001). Trafficking in Persons Report 2001. Available at: http://www.state. gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2001/index.htm
[5] U.S. Department of State. (2011). Trafficking in Persons Report 2011. Available at: http://www.state. gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2011/index.htm
[6] CRF. (2001). CAMBODIA: after the first world congress against commercial sexual exploitation of children: contribution to the second world congress in Yokohama, Japan. Phnom Penh: Child Rights Foundation (December). P.14
[7] CRF. (2001). CAMBODIA: after the first world congress against commercial sexual exploitation of children: contribution to the second world congress in Yokohama, Japan. Phnom Penh: Child Rights Foundation (December).
[8] Sophea, M. (1998). Notes of presentation made by Mr. Mar Sophea, National Program Coordinator of IPEC for Cambodia, in, the workshop on Combating the Trafficking of Children and their Exploitation in Prostitution and other forms of Child Labor in Mekong Basin Countries, 31st January 1998, Bangkok. Phnom Penh: ILO/IPEC.

[9] Steinfatt, T. M., (2006). Trafficking, Politics, and Propaganda. Encyclopedia Entry in M. Ditmore (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, vol. 2. Greenwood Press, pp. 494–498.