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UN rights chief says genocide committed against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority

Human Rights Watch has said that Myanmar’s army burned down dozens of Rohingya homes within days of signing a refugee repatriation deal with Bangladesh.

world Updated: Dec 18, 2017 17:50 IST
Agencies, Geneva/Yangon
Human Rights Watch,Rohingya crisis,Myanmar
Rohingya refugee men carry wood at the Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on December 17, 2017. (Reuters)

The top UN human rights official has said he would not be surprised if a court one day ruled that acts of genocide had been committed against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar, according to a television interview to be aired on Monday.

UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein told BBC that attacks on the Rohingya had been “well thought out and planned” and he had asked Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi to do more to stop the military action.

Zeid has already called the campaign “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and asked rhetorically if anyone could rule out “elements of genocide”, but his latest remarks put the case plainly, toughening his stance.

“The elements suggest you cannot rule out the possibility that acts of genocide have been committed,” he said, according to excerpts of the interview provided in advance by BBC.

“It’s very hard to establish because the thresholds are high,” he said. “But it wouldn’t surprise me in the future if the court were to make such a finding on the basis of what we see.”

Zeid’s remarks coincided with Human Rights Watch saying on Monday that Myanmar’s army burned down dozens of Rohingya homes within days of signing a refugee repatriation deal with Bangladesh, showing the agreement was a mere “public relations stunt”.

This combination of satellite images provided by Human Rights Watch/Digital Globe show four villages in Maungdaw township, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar, on November 25 (top) and December 2 (bottom), 2017. Satellite imagery shows Rohingya villages in Myanmar continue to be destroyed even after Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement last month to return refugees from the Muslim minority who fled their country amid violence. ( AP )

The rights group, citing analysis of satellite imagery, said buildings in 40 villages were destroyed in October and November, increasing the total to 354 villages that had been partially or completely razed since last August.

Dozens of buildings were burned the same week Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a memorandum of understanding on November 23 to begin returning refugees from Bangladesh within two months, HRW said in a report.

“The Burmese army’s destruction of Rohingya villages within days of signing a refugee repatriation agreement with Bangladesh shows that commitments to safe returns were just a public relations stunt,” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said in the report, adding safety pledges for returnees could not be taken seriously.

Myanmar denies committing atrocities against the Rohingya and has previously rejected UN criticism for its “politicisation and partiality”. The Myanmar military says the crackdown is a legitimate counter-insurgency operation.

Zeid said Myanmar’s “flippant” response to the serious concerns of the world community made him fear the current crisis “could just be the opening phases of something much worse”.

He told BBC he feared jihadi groups could form in the huge refugee camps in Bangladesh and even launch attacks in Myanmar, perhaps targeting Buddhist temples there.

He did not say, in the excerpts provided, which court could prosecute suspected atrocities. Myanmar is not a member of the International Criminal Court, so referral to that court could be done only by the UN Security Council. But Myanmar’s ally China could veto such a referral.

The UN defines genocide as acts meant to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group in whole or in part. Such a designation is rare under international law, but has been used in contexts including Bosnia, Sudan and an Islamic State campaign against the Yazidi communities in Iraq and Syria.

Almost 870,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, including about 660,000 who arrived after August 25, when Rohingya militants attacked security posts and the Myanmar Army launched a counter-offensive.

UN investigators have heard Rohingya testimony of a “consistent, methodical pattern of killings, torture, rape and arson”. Zeid said he phoned Suu Kyi, asking her in vain to stop the military operation.

Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi’s less than two-year old civilian government has faced strong international criticism for its response to the crisis, though it has no control over the generals it has to share power with under Myanmar’s transition after decades of military rule.

Responding to gloval pressure, Suu Kyi’s government inked an agreement with Bangladesh in late November to start repatriating the Rohingya refugees within two months. But HRW said it was difficult to believe this could be carried out responsibly.

“Myanmar is playing the most cynical of games, with Aung San Suu Kyi and her team signing a refugee repatriation deal that contains no real guarantees of protection to returnees, while on the ground the security forces continue their campaign of torching the villages the Rohingya want to return to,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, told AFP.

Last week, Doctors Without Borders released a survey which found that nearly 7,000 Rohingya had been killed in the Rakhine violence.

The military has put the number in the hundreds and denied targeting civilians or committing atrocities, while Suu Kyi said major security operations stopped in early September.

First Published: Dec 18, 2017 16:57 IST