The UN rights chief called on Tuesday for a fresh international investigation into Myanmar's abuses against its Rohingya Muslim minority, warning of possible "elements of genocide".
Speaking before a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on the abuses against the Rohingya, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein condemned "widespread, systematic and shockingly brutal" attacks against the Rohingya, as well as decades of discrimination and persecution. An army-led crackdown has forced some 626,000 people to flee from northern Rakhine state and across the border into squalid camps in Bangladesh in recent months, leaving hundreds of villages burned to the ground.
Myanmar's military denies accusations by the UN and US that it has committed ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. But Zeid decried policies that had dehumanised and segregated the minority, and left it wallowing in statelessness for decades. He described horrific violence and abuse, including allegations of "killing by random firing of bullets, use of grenades, shooting at close range, stabbings, beatings to death and the burning of houses with families inside". "Given all of this, can anyone rule out that elements of genocide may be present?" Zeid asked the 47-member council.
Myanmar's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Htin Lynn, did not address those accusations, but insisted to the council that the humanitarian situation at its border with Bangladesh was of "paramount concern", and that Yangon was "making every effort to resolve the issue." He also denied Zeid's claim that Yangon was doing little to rein in hate speech and incitement to violence against the minority, insisting "my government is doing everything possible to deter these individual acts." But Zeid slammed the government's inaction, warning that "by continuing to dehumanise the Rohingya, the state authorities will fuel even wider levels of violence in the future, drawing in communities from across the region."
He urged the rights council to ask the UN General Assembly to launch a new "impartial and independent mechanism", to work alongside a fact-finding mission already dispatched by his office. In March the rights council approved the fact-finding mission to investigate alleged crimes by security forces, particularly in Rakhine. But Myanmar has so far refused to cooperate and has blocked access to the team of investigators, who have begun their work outside the country. The rights council rarely holds special sessions, which can only be convened at the request of at least a third of its 47 member states, or 16 countries.
Today's session was held at the request of Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia, with the support of 33 council members and more than 40 observer states. Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Shahriar Alam warned that the massive exodus over such a short period was "comparable only with the exodus following the 1994 Rwanda genocide". After months of wrangling, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a deal on November 23 to start repatriating refugees within two months. But rights groups say the conditions are not in place to ensure safe, voluntary and dignified returns.
According to the UN's top expert on the situation in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, Myanmar authorities appear to have already started building camps for returnees, raising serious concerns about the conditions the Rohingya would return to. Comments from the top UN representative on sexual violence, Pramila Patten, also painted a harrowing picture of the dangers faced by the minority inside Myanmar. She warned that rampant sexual attacks on Rohingya appeared to be "used as a tool of dehumanisation and collective punishment," citing witness accounts of women and girls tied to rocks or trees "before multiple soldiers literally raped them to death."
Civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been the target of global vitriol for a perceived failure to stand up for the stateless minority. But she remains a heroine for most of her compatriots, who largely consider the Rohingya as unwanted illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Zeid meanwhile lamented the refusal inside Myanmar but also by some international players to even name the Rohingyas, creating "a shameful paradox: they are denied a name, while being targeted for being who they are."