Speaking in a panel discussion on lessons learned, opportunities and challenges of international justice for victims of the crime of genocide, Mr. Nicholas Koumjian, the Head of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, stressed the importance of preserving evidence while it is fresh.

 “Evidence includes things such as, of course, people’s memories about what happened, the injuries to their bodies that may over time hopefully heal, the location of mass graves and the bodies, and evidence at crime scenes that can be recovered and preserved before disappearing,” he said.

Mr. Koumjian was speaking at an online event to commemorate the International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime and the 72nd anniversary of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This event was organised by the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, President of the 75th session of the General Assembly, and Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide delivered the opening remarks.

“Victims have rights to truth, justice, reparation and a comprehensive package of guarantees of non-recurrence,” said Mr. António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. “Today, I want to acknowledge the contribution of national mechanisms, as well as relevant international tribunals and investigative bodies, in ensuring accountability for atrocity crimes. The Human Rights Council, General Assembly and Security Council investigative bodies – fact-finding missions, groups of experts, high-level missions and commissions of inquiry – also play a fundamental role.”

Speaking on behalf of the Mechanism, Mr. Koumjian joined speakers from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, UNITAD and civil society in the panel discussion that followed.

Mr. Koumjian explained the Mechanism’s mandate and work, as well as some of the main challenges that it faces. He stated that the Mechanism was created to promote accountability by enabling national, regional and international courts to carry out trials against persons who may be responsible for crimes and impose sentences if they are found responsible.

“The great challenge is to build these cases,” he added. “When you’re talking about atrocities, whether they’re in Myanmar or many of the other locations that have already been mentioned, we’re talking about allegations of thousands of incidents – of hundreds of thousands of victims who each have an individual story, of thousands of potential perpetrators responsible for that in thousands of locations.”

He discussed the added challenge in cases involving serious international crimes of proving the responsibility of individuals, including the direct perpetrator, as well as other persons in the chain of command who may have given orders or failed to prevent these crimes or punish the perpetrators.

Mr. Koumjian also spoke about the importance of dialogue with victims – something he has learned from his years of experience working on Bosnia, Cambodia, Darfur and Sierra Leone. Mr. Koumjian stressed that victims want recognition of what they suffered and recognition of who was responsible, particularly by seeing individuals held to account.

While dialogue with victims is very important, it is also very challenging, particularly in the Myanmar context where access to victims is difficult. Hundreds of thousands of victims are refugees living in neighbouring countries and many victims are still inside the country, which is made even more difficult by the refusal of Myanmar authorities to allow the Mechanism to enter the country.

“We continue to reach out and we will continue to reach out to the Government of Myanmar, seeking their cooperation to allow us to carry out our important mandate,” Mr. Koumjian said.

In spite of the challenges, Mr. Koumjian said that the Mechanism is doing all it can to build up its dialogue with victims to listen to what they have to say and to have them better understand what the Mechanism can and cannot do for them in their pursuit of justice and accountability.

“To overcome these challenges, we’re going to need the cooperation of many others, including either national or international courts that could bring some justice to these victims,” he concluded.