Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein
5 December 2017
Chair of the Coordinating Committee Devandas Aguilar,
Chair of the Fact Finding Mission Darusman,
Colleagues and friends,
I am grateful for this opportunity to brief the Council on the human rights situation in Myanmar – and in particular, on our very urgent concerns regarding the conditions inflicted on the Rohingya in Rakhine State, which have prompted a massive exodus to Bangladesh since October 2016, and particularly since August 2017.
At the outset, I condemn all acts of violence, whether committed by the security forces or the insurgents.
The sheer number of people forced to leave their homes has been staggering. By 2 December, an estimated 626,000 refugees had fled to Bangladesh. Reports indicate that people are continuing to flee, with some 1,622 people escaping northern Rakhine State since 26 November. In other words, it appears that more than half the estimated number of Rohingya living in Rakhine State have been forced to leave their homes and country – and it is simply impossible to assess the number who have been detained, disappeared, killed or died en route.
As I have previously informed the Council, credible reports indicate widespread, systematic and shockingly brutal attacks against the Rohingya community by the Myanmar security forces, acting at times in concert with local militia. The latest campaigns, which began in October 2016 and intensified in August 2017, have been described as a response to attacks by insurgents, but appear to have deliberately and massively targeted civilians. They have been preceded by periodic campaigns of violence, as well as decades of systematic discrimination and persecution directed against the Rohingya, as I reported to this Council in June 2016.
Over the past year, faced with the refusal of the Myanmar authorities to give my Office access to Rakhine State, I have sent three teams to Bangladesh to monitor the situation and interview refugees. Witnesses in different locations have given 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. Multiple victims have also shown my staff severe wounds. In some locations, witnesses reported that men were separated from women and children, and were taken away by security forces.
There are credible indications that these violent campaigns have targeted Rohingyas because they are Rohingyas – on an ethnic or religious basis, and possibly on both grounds. In some cases, local authorities warned Rohingya communities in advance that their homes would be attacked, which indicates that these attacks were planned. Similarities in the patterns and modus operandi, over time and across a large area, also seem indicative of organised planning of a campaign of violence targeting large numbers of people who were killed, or threatened with death if they remained where they were.
I further note that information suggests mines were laid along the border with Bangladesh by Myanmar security forces in late August, following the flight of large numbers of people – possibly in order to prevent the refugees from returning to Myanmar.
It is essential to recognise the historical context. The Rohingya community, which claims long-standing roots in Rakhine State, has endured a progressive intensification of discrimination over the past 55 years – and more in the last five years than in the previous 50 all together.
Since the 1970s, there have been several movements of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing mounting persecution. Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which also affects other minorities, denies the Rohingya equal access to citizenship. This has rendered stateless the vast majority of the Rohingya, and violates their civil and political rights. Rohingya children have not been issued birth certificates since at least the 1990s – in contravention of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Myanmar ratified in 1991. Following the violence of 2012, discrimination against the Rohingya sharply increased. For example, not a single Muslim has been allowed to attend university in Rakhine State; access to bank loans and agricultural loans has been progressively restricted; and the Rohingya have been stripped of their identity cards, their right to vote and their right to form political parties. Moreover, the four laws adopted as a package in 2015, known as the Protection of Race and Religion package, are widely viewed as targeting Rohingya Muslims, although they have serious repercussions for the rights of other religious minorities, as well as women and children throughout Myanmar. The current civilian government, which has a majority in Parliament, has not addressed the evident discriminatory character of this legislative package, despite recommendations by multiple UN human rights mechanisms and my Office.
As non-citizens of Myanmar, Rohingyas are refused professional training, including in any medical professions and as teachers. In northern Rakhine State, local orders require them to obtain permission to marry, to build and repair houses and places of worship, and severely restrict their movement and ability to access healthcare, markets, farming land, areas for fishing, and employment of almost any kind. Inability to access healthcare is a direct cause of the very high incidence of maternal mortality and child mortality among Rohingya families. These are clear violations of these individuals’ economic, social and cultural rights.
In recent years I have also reported to this Council, and to the Security Council, persistent allegations of serious human rights violations by security forces, including arbitrary arrests and detention, ill-treatment and torture of detainees, and sexual violence. Prosecutions for alleged acts of violence against the Rohingya, including sexual violence– whether committed by security forces or civilians – appear extremely rare.
In addition, incitement to hatred and violence against the community has become very widespread following the violence which took place in Rakhine State in 2012. There has been little, if any, action taken by the authorities to counter the prevailing vision, among many in Myanmar, of the Rohingya community as alien, barely human – undeserving of their human rights, and a threat to be destroyed. These patterns of human rights violations against the Rohingya have been documented by successive Special Rapporteurs since 1992, as well as by my Office.
Refusal by international as well as local actors to even name the Rohingyas as Rohingya – to recognise them as a community and respect their right to self-identification – is yet another humiliation, and it creates a shameful paradox: they are denied a name, while being targeted for being who they are. The Rohingya have been physically attacked, oppressed, deprived of nationality and rights. 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?
My Office and succeeding Special Rapporteurs have for many years repeatedly and publicly reported the long-standing, systematic and institutionalised discrimination against the Rohingya, in policy, law and practice, and have offered the authorities assistance in making essential changes. In 2016, I told this Council that the pattern of gross violations of the human rights of the Rohingya suggested a widespread or systematic attack against the community, possibly amounting to crimes against humanity, and warranting the attention of the International Criminal Court.
In the absence of access to Rakhine State, it continues to be difficult to fully monitor the violations that have occurred, and are apparently still occurring. However, considering the decades of statelessness as well as systematic and systemic discrimination against the Rohingya; policies of segregation, exclusion and marginalization; long-standing patterns of violations and abuses with little or no access to justice and redress; and considering the recent 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; the serious bodily or mental harm inflicted on Rohingyas including children; the subjection to various forms of torture or ill-treatment, being beaten, sexually abused, raped; considering the forced displacement and systematic destruction of villages, homes, property and livelihoods; considering also that Rohingyas self-identify as a distinct ethnic group with their own language and culture, and are also deemed by the perpetrators themselves as belonging to a different national, ethnic, racial or religious group – given all of this, can anyone rule out that elements of genocide may be present?
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.
I deeply regret that the Government of Myanmar has largely failed to act on the recommendations regarding the situation of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities which have been made by the human rights mechanisms and by my Office.
I thank the Government of Bangladesh for its assistance, both to my Office and, above all, to the refugees, whose rights must be fully respected. I commend this Council for its responsiveness to the crisis in Rakhine State and its decision to mandate the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, whose report will be essential to establishing the facts of what has occurred.
I ask the Council to urgently call on the Myanmar authorities to put an immediate and absolute halt to the violence targeting the Rohingya.
I further call on the authorities to immediately permit my Office and the United Nations unfettered access to Rakhine State.
There must be access for humanitarian workers: while the authorities have recently permitted the World Food Programme to resume operations at a limited level, past experience indicates this access is unlikely to be unfettered or to include monitoring that can ensure aid is received by its intended recipients.
And there must be access for human rights monitors. If the authorities have nothing to hide, they have no reason to fear the presence of impartial observers. On the contrary: access for human rights monitoring is essential if there is to be any progress in re-establishing the basic foundations of trust and preventing the recurrence of violence.
It must be unequivocally clear that no repatriation of any refugees should occur in the absence of sustained human rights monitoring on the ground to establish the conditions for them to be able to live in safety and dignity. 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. The Council may recall that in 1997, while the process of repatriation for refugees who had fled from Rakhine State in 1992 had not yet been completed, tens of thousands of Rohingya were again forced to take flight from Myanmar.
To conclude, in view of the scale and gravity of the allegations which I have referred to in this statement, I ask this Council to consider making a recommendation to the General Assembly that it establish a new impartial and independent mechanism, complementary to the work of the Fact-Finding Mission, to assist individual criminal investigations of those responsible.
It will also be essential to address the rights of other minorities in Rakhine, including the Kaman, Mro, Hindu and Daignet communities, which also allegedly suffer discrimination. Moreover, failure to address the chronic poverty endured by the people of this region – including the Rakhine majority population – is detrimental to their rights, and a factor aggravating tensions between all communities. Efforts to correct this situation should urgently be undertaken by both international actors and the Myanmar Government.
My predecessor as High Commissioner, the Special Rapporteurs and I have over many years repeatedly warned that failure by the Government of Myanmar to correct the situation could have grave consequences, sowing the seeds of desperation, anger and even violent extremism. Were we all wrong?
It appears very probable that by continuing to dehumanise the Rohingya the state authorities could fuel even wider levels of violence in the future – drawing in communities from across the region, eventually forcing a confessional confrontation, and destroying whatever it is they may once have hoped for their country. 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. I urge the Council to take the appropriate action to stop this madness now.