THE UNITED NATIONS’ most senior human rights official has said that there may be “elements of genocide” present in Burma (Myanmar) that have caused the exodus of more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims into neighbouring Bangladesh in recent months.
Speaking at a special session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called for an international criminal investigation into perpetrators of alleged gross human rights abuses in Burma’s Rakhine State since Aug 25.
Having previously stated that the situation appeared to be ethnic cleansing, Zeid said on Tuesday that decades of statelessness, persecution and violence against the Rohingya minority coupled with recent mass exodus resembled genocide.
“Can anyone rule that elements of genocide may be present?” he asked, reiterating the need for independent international investigation into alleged atrocities.
“Ultimately, this is a legal determination only a competent court can make. But the concerns are extremely serious, and clearly call for access to be immediately granted for further verification,” said Zeid. To date, Burmese authorities have denied access to Rakhine State for human rights groups including a specially-established UN fact-finding mission.
The International Organisation for Migration reported on Tuesday that the number of new arrivals in Bangladesh since violence broke out a little over three months ago has reached 626,000 people – around half of the estimated number of Rohingya residing in Rakhine State.
This brings the total number of Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar to more than 838,000.
Zeid said that his office, the OHCHR, had sent three teams to Bangladesh to monitor the situation of Rohingya refugees, where they documented eyewitness accounts of “appalling barbarity” committed against the Rohingya, including burning people to death inside their homes, mass rape of women and girls, and indiscriminate shooting of civilians.
Zeid asked, at the Human Rights Council:
“How much do people have to endure before their suffering is acknowledged and their identity and rights are recognised, by their government and by the world?”
“We cannot afford to hear that historical and tragic refrain one more time, that no one knew it would turn out to be like this – what a lie that would be.”
Bangladesh and Burma last month signed a preliminary agreement to pave the pay for repatriating displaced persons from the Rakhine, a move slammed by rights groups.
SEE ALSO: Rohingya repatriation faces many hurdles
Amnesty International has said such a return of Rohingya is “unthinkable” given the continuation of what it has called a discriminatory apartheid state. Zeid noted the refusal of Burmese officials and some international actors to identify Rohingya as Rohingyas which he called “yet another humiliation”.
Moreover, Burma’s powerful military head Senior General Min Aung Hlaing – responsible for presiding over the army’s so-called “clearing operations” in the Rakhine – has said it would be “impossible to accept the number of persons proposed by Bangladesh”.
“The world cannot countenance a hasty window-dressing of these shocking atrocities, bundling people back to conditions of severe discrimination and latent violence which seem certain to lead in the future to further suffering and more movements of people,” Zeid said.