Myanmar: Security forces’ killings of protesters should be investigated as crimes against humanity

The escalating killing of peaceful protestors by Myanmar’s security forces should be independently investigated as possible crimes against humanity, said the ICJ today on the eve of a closed-door UN Security Council session on the situation.

According to reliable information provided to the ICJ, security forces have unlawfully killed approximately 50 unarmed people – including at least five children – in more than 10 cities on different days since the military overthrew the civilian government on 1 February 2021.  On 3 March, at least 38 people were reported killed by security forces.

In addition, numerous protestors have been injured and a total of 1,498 people have been arrested, charged or sentenced in relation to the military coup, according to The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

“As the scale of the violence continues to increase, seemingly as part of a systematic, centralized policy to use lethal force against peaceful protestors, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Myanmar’s security forces are perpetrating crimes against humanity,” said Kingsley Abbott, Director of Global Accountability and International Justice at the ICJ.  “This underscores the urgent need for all states, including the permanent members of the UN Security Council, to stop shielding the Myanmar military and work together towards opening avenues to justice for the Myanmar people.”

The UN Security Council will meet this Friday for a closed-door session at the request of the United States which is President of the Council in March 2021.

“The UN Security Council should immediately refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court for a full independent and effective investigation,” added Abbott.

In addition to acts that may constitute murder as a crime against humanity, security forces have also reportedly committed acts which, when committed in a widespread and systematic manner, would amount to other crimes against humanity, including imprisonment, torture, and enforced disappearance – all of which also go towards supporting the existence of an attack.

“These killings and other crimes under international law are a direct result of the culture of impunity that has been allowed to persist in Myanmar for decades,” added Abbott.  “All states should support the different accountability initiatives underway, including the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar which is collecting evidence for use in future legal proceedings.”

“It is long past time for perpetrators of serious human rights violations in the country to be brought to justice before the International Criminal Court or in any national jurisdictions willing and able to exercise universal jurisdiction.”


On 12 September 2018, following an independent investigation, the United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar called for Myanmar’s military to be “…investigated and prosecuted in an international criminal tribunal for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes” concerning alleged violations in Shan, Kachin and Rakhine States and elsewhere throughout the country.

Under general international law, including customary international law and treaties and statutes of international criminal courts, crimes against humanity must be prosecuted.  The authoritative definition of crimes against humanity is contained in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Under Article 7 of the Rome Statute, for killings to amount to crimes against humanity, they must be committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.  According to the elements of crimes of the Rome Statute, “’Attack directed against a civilian population’ in these context elements is understood to mean a course of conduct involving the multiple commission of acts referred to in Article 7, paragraph 1, of the Statute against any civilian population, pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to commit such attack. The acts need not constitute a military attack. It is understood that ‘policy to commit such attack’ requires that the State or organization actively promote or encourage such an attack against a civilian population.”

Generally speaking, “widespread” refers to the geographical scope of the attack and the number of victims, but not exclusively.  “Systematic” refers to the organized nature of the acts of violence and the improbability of their random occurrence.

Myanmar is not a State Party to the Rome Statute of the ICC.  However, the ICC is investigating crimes committed against the Rohingya minority as part of waves of violence in Rakhine State in 2016 and 2017 where one element or part of the crime was committed inside Bangladesh, which is a party to the Rome Statute.  The ICC would be able to conduct a full investigation of the situation in Myanmar if the UN Security Council used its Chapter VII powers to refer the matter to the ICC pursuant to Article 13(b) of the Rome Statute.

Universal jurisdiction refers to the legal concept that States have the authority, and in some cases the obligation, to bring proceedings in relation to certain crimes, including crimes against humanity, because they are so serious it does not matter where the crimes were committed or the nationality of the perpetrators or the victims.  States are generally entitled to exercise jurisdiction for serious under crimes under international law.


Kingsley Abbott, ICJ Director of Global Accountability and International Justice; e:

Sam Zarifi, ICJ’s Secretary General, sam.zarifi(a)

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