More than 600 000 Rohingya refugees are reported to have been forced to flee from Myanmar to Bangladesh in recent months. Others are in hiding as internally displaced. They have all fled from an exceptionally brutal military campaign of ethnic cleansing in the province of Rakhine.
An unknown number have not managed to escape the pogroms and several hundred are estimated to have been killed. Refugees who have reached Bangladesh have told about killings also of small children in the hands of military forces and mob groups.
The Myanmar government describes the military activities as a legitimate response to some violent actions by a small extremist group. However, it is clear that there is no proportion between what this group has actually done and the ongoing atrocities against hundreds of thousands of members of this Muslim minority which has been discriminated for generations and deprived of their citizenship.
The vast majority of the victims are women and children who, in fact, are increasingly targeted by soldiers and other armed elements..
The brutality during this systematic campaign of ethnic and religious cleansing has gradually assumed genocidal proportions. We are faced with a situation that possesses all the earmarks of crimes against humanity.
It is extremely important that all organs of the United Nations as well as regional intergovernmental organizations respond effectively and with a greater sense of urgency to these atrocities.
The wave of uncontrolled violence must be made to stop; fleeing people given secure protection; and relief organizations equipped to provide support and safety in refugee camps and settlements. The international community must more generously contribute to the resources of the humanitarian organizations.
The seriousness of the situation has made a number of us who have previously served as human rights experts for the United Nations – as Secretary General Special Representatives or UN Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights – to jointly appeal to the Myanmar Government to put an end to the systematic campaign against Rohingya (see below).
This group of 17 experts from different parts of the world stated that all Rohingya – as a first step – must be allowed to return to their homes voluntarily, with dignity and safety guaranteed. Further, it must be officially recognized and confirmed through full implementation that they can no longer be denied nationality and citizenship rights.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has called for an end of statelessness and implementation of the right of every person to a nationality. These principles must be enforced. It is an outrage that Rohingya living on their ancestral land have been denied these fundamental rights.
International presence is crucial in the present situation. The Secretary General Guterres has requested immediate and safe access for UN agencies and their non-governmental partners to all affected areas. This is imperative as the politically generated humanitarian crisis needs to be immediately addressed.
The UN Human Rights Council recently stated that the independent international fact-finding mission must be allowed to work unhindered so as to “establish the facts and circumstances of the alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces”.
This important signal about monitoring should serve as a sobering reminder that one day justice will have to be established by proper procedures. Indeed, the time has come for the Security Council to refer this matter to the International Criminal Court at the Hague, so that a proper investigation can be initiated and perpetrators of these crimes against humanity can one day be held accountable for this unconscionable violence.
Certainly, there is a risk that such an initiative in the Security Council might be blocked by a veto from one of the permanent members. However, even a full discussion on this issue in that very forum will have some impact and may encourage other initiatives by international forces to act against these massive crimes.
Silence cannot be an option.