The United Nations Human Rights Council strongly condemned Myanmar at a special session on Tuesday for the “very likely commission of crimes against humanity” by state security forces assisted by non-state actors in the country’s troubled Rakhine state.
Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, U.N. high commissioner for human rights, urged the Geneva-based Council to recommend that the U.N. General Assembly establish a new mechanism for assisting with criminal investigations of perpetrators of violence against Rohingya Muslims.
The Myanmar military stands accused of committing atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine state during two recent crackdowns targeting the persecuted ethnic group that began last August and in October 2016.
Zeid, who told the Council in September that the brutal campaign against Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine state appeared to be a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” said that credible reports indicated widespread, systematic, and brutal attacks against the Rohingya by Myanmar security forces with witnesses in different locations giving consistent accounts of the atrocities.
During the session, he cited systematic discrimination against Rohingya, policies of segregation, and recent allegations of killings, stabbings, beatings to death, burnings of houses with families inside, rape and sexual abuse, forced displacement, and the systematic destruction of villages, homes, and livelihoods.
Given this, Zeid asked the 47-member body how anyone could rule out that elements of genocide might be present.
The U.N., United States, and other entities have already said that the crackdown, which has forced an estimated 626,000 Rohingya and other minority ethnic groups to flee northern Rakhine, amounts to ethnic cleansing.
The resolution during the session, requested by Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia, received 33 votes in favor, nine abstentions, two absences, and three opposed, including China.
China has proposed a three-phase solution to address the crisis, involving ending the violence and restoring stability and order to the region, repatriating refugees, and developing long-term solutions to poverty in Rakhine state as a root cause of the conflict.
Bangladesh’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammed Shahriar Alam said his country remains very concerned that Myanmar has not conducted a credible national investigation into alleged human rights violations.
Htin Lynn, Myanmar’s permanent representative to the U.N. in Geneva, said that although Myanmar is ready to increase cooperation with the U.N. to support national efforts to improve the situation in Rakhine state, it is first necessary to focus on repatriating the refugees, according to a statement issued Tuesday by Zeid’s office (OHCHR).
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement on Nov. 23 for Rohingya living in camps to voluntarily return to northern Rakhine – a process that Myanmar has said will get under way within two months.
Htin Lynn said the returnees would be housed in temporary places – but not camps – until arrangements are made to relocate them to their places of origin.
During the session, the U.S.called on Myanmar to grant access to the fact-finding mission and unhindered humanitarian access to the region, adding that nothing could justify the campaign against the Rohingya in Rakhine, which it said was premeditated. It also called for the reform of Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law which prevents the Rohingya from becoming citizens though many have lived in the country for generations.
In March, the Council created a three-person independent fact-finding mission to investigate alleged human rights violations by the Myanmar military and security forces in the northern part of Rakhine.
Myanmar disassociated itself from the call for the urgent dispatch of a fact-finding mission, and the government refused to grant entry visas to commission members.
Instead, the Council dispatched three teams to Bangladesh to conduct interviews with Rohingya and other groups in sprawling refugee camps around Cox’s Bazar and elsewhere in southeastern Bangladesh.
The government and army have denied allegations of mistreatment of the Rohingya during the crackdown, and an investigation by the military in November denied allegations of atrocities against Rohingya, and said it had abided by laws and did not use excessive force during the crackdown
Rights groups welcomed the resolution and called for perpetrators of the violence to be held accountable for their actions.
“To date, there has been no accountability for the serious human rights violations committed by the Myanmar security forces, some of which constitute crimes against humanity,” Amnesty International said in an oral statement to the Human Rights Council. “The Myanmar authorities continue to downplay the seriousness of the reports, while refusing to cooperate with the fact-finding mission created by this Council.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the Human Rights Council had sent a strong message to the Myanmar government that the world will not turn away from the Rohingya crisis.
“The U.N. resolution makes clear that the international community retains a watchful eye over the plight of the Rohingya and demands action,” said Laila Matar, senior U.N. advocate at Human Rights Watch, in a printed statement.
“But it needs to ensure that its rhetoric is matched by its will to prevent further mistreatment, forced returns, and assaults to the human rights and dignity of the Rohingya,” she said.
“Those responsible for atrocities should be identified, sanctioned, and held to account,” Matar said. “The international community has made clear that it does not accept the denial of both the military and civilian leadership, whose attempts to whitewash these crimes undermine any chance of durable rights or reconciliation.”
In November, the U.N. Security Council failed to pass a resolution condemning the violence in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine and instead issued a statement after acquiescing to strong objections by China.
Instead, it issued a presidential statement calling on the Myanmar government to end the use of excessive military force and intercommunal violence that has devastated Rohingya communities during the military crackdowns.