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Discrimination to Destruction: A Legal Analysis of Gender Crimes Against the Rohingya

Since August 2016, the Burmese military (Tatmadaw), Border Guard, and police forces have conducted a systematic campaign of brutal violence against Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s northern Rakhine State. These attacks come in the midst of a decades-long campaign of persecution of the Rohingya through discriminatory measures to police and control the group, including denying citizenship rights, restricting movement and access to healthcare, and limiting marriage and the number of children in families. While all members of the Rohingya population were targeted for violence, gender was integral to how the atrocities were perpetrated.

This brief seeks to bring to light the international crimes—crimes against humanity and genocide—committed against Rohingya women and girls since 2016 by Burmese Security Forces and highlight the role gender played in the design and commission of these atrocities. The military has long used rape as a weapon of war and oppression in its conflicts with ethnic groups, and in the recent attacks, Rohingya women and girls were targeted for particularly brutal manners of killing, rape and sexual violence, and torture.

Rape and sexual violence were widespread, pervasive, and often conducted in public. The acts resulted in serious bodily and mental harm to women, including in some circumstances, death. Many women reported being gang raped, some by as many as eight perpetrators. The rapes were accompanied by other acts of violence, humiliation, and cruelty. Women were beaten, punched, kicked, and subjected to invasive body searches. Their bodies were mutilated, their breasts and nipples cut off and vaginas slashed. Women and girls were not spared by age or condition—with girls as young as five and pregnant women among the victims.

Gendered crimes and consequences were not limited to sexual violence and rape. Rohingya women and girls were often murdered by being burned alive or butchered by knives used for slaughtering animals—methods of killing that mirror the destruction of objects and property, demonstrating the Security Forces’ misogyny and deeply gendered conceptions of power.

When these acts are compared against the elements of international crimes, they reveal a series of criminal conduct informed and defined by the gender of the victim. These include, as analyzed in this brief, the crimes against humanity of murder, persecution, forcible transfer or deportation, rape and other sexual violence of comparable gravity, and torture, as well as the genocidal crimes of killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction and imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.

The international community has, at long-last, begun to recognize the imperative to ensure justice and accountability for the crimes committed by Burmese Security Forces and the impossibility for justice in Burma’s domestic system. As the international community begins to develop mechanisms for justice and accountability—whether through international investigations and evidence collection, at the International Criminal Court, or in third-party states—it is essential that a strong gender perspective and analysis is incorporated at all levels of these processes, from investigation to prosecution to redress and reparations.

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