In August 2018, the UN published its Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, which states that Myanmar’s top military generals must be investigated and prosecuted for genocide in Rakhine State and crimes against humanity and war crimes in the states of Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan. Just before the UN published this report, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on several members of the Burmese military, Border Guard Police commanders, and two Burmese military units for their involvement in mass atrocities.

When making the announcement, Sigal Mandelker, Treasury’s acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, justified the decision by stating that “Burmese security forces have engaged in violent campaigns against ethnic minority communities across Burma, including ethnic cleansing, massacres, sexual assault, extrajudicial killings, and other serious human rights abuses.”

The UK has made a similar decision to impose sanctions (asset freezes) against seven individuals involved in the atrocities, and the Council of the European Union imposed an asset freeze and a travel ban on seven individuals

In April 2018, the Council of the European Union also extended and strengthened the EU’s arms embargo on Burma and prohibited the provision of military training to and military cooperation with the Burmese army.

However, the main power actor, the UN Security Council, has not taken any steps to impose sanctions, and there appears to be no consensus on the issue. According to the UN Charter, the UN Security Council has a mandate to impose sanctions that then oblige all UN member states to follow before they consider the use of force.

Such sanctions are a recognized instrument of foreign policy that governments often use to pressure perpetrators or the involved state to, for example, force them to comply with international law or to condemn certain acts.

The question is, of course, what can the sanctions actually do and how can they change the persecuted communities’ situation. It is difficult to see how, for example, freezing a few individuals’ UK-based assets can change the situation that Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine or Christians in Kachin face. But even if they produce only small changes, such sanctions are still a powerful diplomatic tool because they send a strong message of condemnation of the atrocities that identified individuals or groups perpetrated, authorized, or otherwise assisted.

Such sanctions will not achieve much, though, unless more direct steps to address the mass atrocities perpetrated in Burma follow. Such steps include conducting independent investigations of the atrocities in Burma. Indeed, the UN intended to dispatch a team to Burma to investigate the Rohingya Muslims’ situation,  but they were not allowed into the country.

In 2018, the International Criminal Court (ICC) asked the Burmese government to comment on certain issues so that the ICC could consider whether the organization had jurisdiction over the deportations of more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims from Burma (a non-party to the Rome Statute that established the ICC and its jurisdiction) to Bangladesh (a state-party to the Rome Statute). In a statement dated August 9, 2018, the Burmese government declined to engage with the ICC and said that such a request for engagement may be “interpreted as an indirect attempt to acquire jurisdiction over Myanmar which is not a State Party to the Rome Statute.” The Burmese government further accused the ICC process of lacking fairness and transparency because the court allowed organizations to file amicus curiae submissions that the Burmese government branded as containing “allegations consisting of mostly charged narratives of harrowing personal tragedies calculated to place emotional pressure on the Court.” The Burmese government concluded that the “Prosecution’s Request for a Ruling on Jurisdiction under Article 19(3) of the Statute is meritless and should be dismissed.”

The Burmese government confirmed that in July 2018 it established an Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICE). The ICE reportedly consists of four members, including two international and two national members. It is to investigate the “allegations of human rights violations and related issues following the terror attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.” Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army is an insurgency group that the Burmese government blamed for the atrocities in Burma and the forced displacement of over 700,000.

The question is whether the ICE, a government established body, can deliver an independent and transparent inquiry, especially as the government is accused of having been complicit (whether by authorizing or not stopping) the mass atrocities that the Burmese military perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslims. This is indeed doubtful.

Imposing sanctions is a proactive diplomatic tool that sends a strong message of condemnation. However, more needs to be done, including steps to investigate the atrocities. If a state is accused of involvement in mass atrocities, we should not accept their assurances that they can investigate the crimes, as any such investigations are far from independent or transparent.

Ewelina U. Ochab is a human rights advocate and author of the book Never Again: Legal Responses to a Broken Promise in the Middle East. She works on the persecution of minorities around the world, with main projects including Daesh genocide in Syria and Iraq, Boko Haram atrocities in West Africa, and the situation of religious minorities in South Asia. She has written over 30 UN topical reports (including Universal Periodic Review reports) and has made oral and written submissions at the Human Rights Council sessions and the UN Forum on Minority Issues. Ochab is currently working on her Ph.D. in international law, human rights, and medical ethics. Follow her work on Twitter: @EwelinaUA.

Photo Credit: Members of the Myanmar Police Force patrolling in Maungdaw, Rakhine State, Myanmar/Burma, in September 2017. Screenshot of Voice of America video, via Wikimedia Commons.