Episode 98 – Uncovering Myanmar’s Atrocities with Nicholas Koumjian

From top left clockwise: Stephanie, Janet and Lindes speak with the Head of the IIMM Nicholas Koumjian.

Today is the second episode in our series exploring the United Nations investigative mechanisms and the work they do.

This month we sit down with Nicholas Koumjian, the Head of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar. Established in 2018, the IIMM was set up in response to what the UN says were reports of “gross human rights violations amounting to serious international crimes.”

The IIMM’s role is to collect, preserve and analyse evidence of international crimes, including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Myanmar since 2011.

After years of military dictatorship, Myanmar formed a nominally civilian government in 2011 and began a series of political and economic reforms, including the release of the of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. However human rights violations including forced labour, human trafficking and the use of child soldiers remained issues even after the end of military rule.

Koumjian has a team investigating crimes against the country’s persecuted Muslim Rohingya community, specifically events in late 2016 and 2017, where Rohingya living in Northern Rakhine State were driven out of their homes. A report released by the OHCHR said that abuses included gang rape, mass killing, and the killing of children.

The IIMM has just published two analytical reports on systematic hate speech at Facebook and on sexual and gender-based crimes against the Rohingya.

In 2021, the military took control of the country again in a coup, and as Koumjian explains, the IIMM also has a team working on issues relating to post-coup violence. According to Human Rights Watch, the junta has “driven the country further into a human rights and humanitarian catastrophe.” Systematic abuses include arbitrary arrests, torture, extrajudicial killings, and indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

Koumjian has a long and storied career in international criminal justice, with 35 years of experience as a Prosecutor. Before working at the IIMM he was a prosecutor at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, a Trial Attorney at the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and has dealt with war crimes cases in Timor-Leste, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Sierra Leone.

For more on this series, check out last month’s interview here with Catherine Marchi-Uhel, the head of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), investigating crimes in Syria. And next month, we will be speaking to Christian Ritscher, the head of UNITAD.

This week Koumjian recommends the book Judgement at Tokyo by Gary J Bass and to wind down, enjoys watching films, and had just watched Pulp Fiction.

This podcast has been produced as part of a partnership with JusticeInfo.net, an independent website in French and English covering justice initiatives in countries dealing with serious violence. It is a media outlet of Fondation Hirondelle, based in Lausanne, Switzerland