Over three months after the government of Myanmar started a relentless, violent campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority there, the United Nation’s human rights chief said that security forces there might be guilty of genocide.
Addressing the 47-member state forum on Tuesday, Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein described “concordant reports of acts of appalling barbarity committed against the Rohingya, including deliberately burning people to death inside their homes, murders of children and adults; indiscriminate shooting of fleeing civilians; widespread rapes of women and girls, and the burning and destruction of houses, schools, markets and mosques,” Reuters reported.
“Can anyone — can anyone — rule out that elements of genocide may be present?” he asked, calling on the forum to push the U.N. General Assembly to establish a way “to assist individual criminal investigations of those responsible” given that prosecutions for atrocities — including mass rape — against Rohingya “appear extremely rare.”
Zeid’s use of the term “genocide” represents an escalation in allegations against Myanmar, which the United Nations and United States have already accused of conducting an ethnic cleansing operation, pushing out over 600,000 of the estimated 1.1. million Rohingya who lived in Rakhine State. Since August, when the government responded to deadly attacks carried out by Rohingya insurgents, hundreds of Rohinyga villages have been razed by authorities, with thousands of people fleeing on a daily basis to neighboring Bangladesh.
Owing to extremely limited access to the region, it’s unknown how many people have been killed since the start of this most recent operation.
The U.S. House of Representatives is also expected to pass a measure condemning ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Myanmar, calling for “an end to the attacks in and an immediate restoration of humanitarian access to the state of Rakhine.” This measure comes after much equivocating by the State Department, which waited for three months before accusing Myanmar of ethnic cleansing, instead using the general — and nebulous — “atrocities” to describe the systematic destruction of villages, forced starvation, and mass rape of the minority group.
The United Nations defines “genocide” as acts “committed with the intent to destroy, in whole, or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Genocide is a crime under international law. “Ethnic cleansing,” however, is not seen in and of itself as a violation of international law and is defined as, “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.”
The Rohingya — subject to repeated, bloody crackdowns in Buddhist-majority Myanmar since the 1990s — are essentially a stateless people. They are not granted citizenship rights, are seen as outsiders, and are derisively referred to as “Bengalis.”
Given that they are still fleeing violence and starvation in Myanmar, Zeid also said that the Rohingya who have fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh should not return to Myanmar without proper monitoring. Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed a repatriation agreement, although it’s unclear where, exactly, the displaced Rohingya will live as their destroyed villages have been reclaimed as government land.
Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations, Htin Lynn, told the U.N. rights forum on Tuesday that his government was willing to ensure the “voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable repatriation” of Rohingya, promising “there will be no camps.” Thousands of Rohingya displaced in previous crackdowns are currently living in camps with little to no freedom of movement and access to food and medicine.
The government of Myanmar rejects all allegations of ethnic cleansing and human rights violations. It says it is responding to terrorists and threats against its national security.
An independent, international fact-finding mission investigating Myanmar’s actions against the Rohingya has yet to be given access to Rakhine State, but the head of the mission, Marzuki Darusman, said he hopes his team might be allowed in by early 2018.
Darusman’s team has been interviewing Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and said they are showing “signs of severe trauma” after experiencing “acts of extreme brutality.”