The UN Human Rights Council voted on Thursday to set up a panel to prepare criminal indictments over atrocities committed in Myanmar, amid allegations of genocide against the Rohingya minority.
The top UN rights body voted to “establish an ongoing independent mechanism to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011”.
The text, a collaboration between the European Union and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), says the panel will be responsible for preparing files “in order to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings... in national, regional or international courts or tribunals”.
Thirty-five of the council's 47 members voted in favour of the resolution and only three — China, the Philippines and Burundi — voted against.
The remainder either abstained or refrained from casting a vote.
The council's decision, which was immediately hailed by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and other rights groups, will go to the UN General Assembly in New York for final approval.
The text was presented after a damning report was released to the council earlier this month, outlining in meticulous and searing detail atrocities against the Rohingya, who fled a violent military campaign that started in August last year.
The UN report also spoke of “crimes against humanity and war crimes” against other minorities in the northern Kachin and Shan States.
But Myanmar's representative Kyaw Moe Tun told the council the report lacked “balance, impartiality and fairness”, and said his government “categorically rejects” the resolution.
The 444-page report by a UN fact-finding mission concluded there was enough evidence to merit investigation and prosecution of Myanmar's army chief and five other top military commanders for crimes against humanity and genocide against the Rohingya.
Myanmar's powerful army chief Min Aung Hlaing this week insisted the United Nations had no right to interfere in his country's sovereignty.
Troops, sometimes aided by ethnic Rakhine mobs, committed murder, rape, arson and torture, using unfathomable levels of violence and with a total disregard for human life, investigators concluded.
More than 700,000 of the stateless Muslim minority took refuge in Bangladesh, where they remain — fearful of returning to mainly Buddhist Myanmar despite a repatriation deal.
The military has denied nearly all wrongdoing, justifying its crackdown as a legitimate means of rooting out Rohingya militants.
The UN and rights groups say the operations were vastly disproportionate and a troop build-up in the area occurred before insurgents attacked police posts in August 2017.
The campaign against the Rohingya has especially tarnished the international reputation of Aung San Suu Kyi, the long-detained democracy advocate and Nobel laureate who has been reticent in addressing the violence.
Her democratically-elected government remains in a delicate power balance with the generals, whose presence in parliament gives them an effective veto on constitutional changes.
'Atrocities may continue'
Presenting Thursday's resolution to the council on behalf of the OIC, Pakistan's ambassador Farukh Amil said the situation in Myanmar was a “grave tragedy that merited an exceptional and robust response from the international community”.
Austria's ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, speaking on behalf of the EU, said “unless impunity is urgently addressed, similar outbreaks of violence and atrocities may continue with further devastating domestic and regional impact”.
The International Criminal Court in The Hague independently ruled that it had jurisdiction to open a preliminary investigation, even though the country has not signed the treaty underpinning the tribunal.
Thursday's text took note of the ICC ruling, and requested “the mechanism to cooperate closely with any of its future investigations pertaining to human rights in Myanmar”.
It also said the UN fact-finding mission's mandate should be extended until the new mechanism is operational.
Thursday's decision marks the first time the Rights Council has itself opted to create such a mechanism.
A similar panel was created in 2016 to build cases for the prosecution of war crimes in Syria, but it was set up following a General Assembly vote.