Rohingya refugees arriving in Bangladesh in September. CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times
Myanmar came under renewed international pressure on Tuesday for its treatment of Rohingya Muslims as United Nations officials said it should be investigated for crimes against humanity and possibly genocide by security forces.
The country’s security forces “deliberately and massively targeted civilians” in operations that drove more than 626,000 Rohingya, half the population of Rakhine State, into neighboring Bangladesh, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, told a special session of the Human Rights Council that convened in Geneva on Tuesday.
“Can anyone, can anyone, rule out that elements of genocide may be present?” Mr. al-Hussein, said, detailing “acts of appalling barbarity” committed by the security forces since August after decades of systematic discrimination and persecution.
The human rights chief had previously described Myanmar military operations in Rakhine as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing. His reference to genocide elevates the charge to the gravest of crimes against humanity: acts aimed at destroying in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.
The Rohingya are still fleeing across the border and human rights violations in the area are still occurring, Mr. al-Hussein said. The scale and gravity of the atrocities being reported warrant investigation by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, he said
The Myanmar authorities have made few concessions to international criticism of their military actions against the Rohingya, which appear to be broadly popular with the country’s majority-Buddhist population. On a recent visit to Myanmar, Pope Francis did not publicly use the word “Rohingya” — and drew criticism for that decision. He later said using the term “would have been a door slammed in the face.”
The security forces’ campaign is already the subject of a fact-finding mission by the United Nations Human Rights Council, with a report expected in March. Mr. al-Hussein sought on Tuesday to ratchet up the pressure by urging the United Nations General Assembly to set up a separate body to investigate the individual criminal responsibility of the authorities involved in the operations in Myanmar.
The fact-finding team has thus far been refused access to Myanmar, but the team’s chairman, Marzuki Darusman, said it had still been able to collect significant information from refugees and had heard many allegations of “extreme severity,” including genocide.
“We have not come to any conclusion on these issues but we are taking such allegations very seriously and are examining them in depth,” he told the council in a recorded video message.
Additional investigations by Pramila Patten, the United Nations special representative dealing with sexual violence in conflict, are focusing on reports of widespread sexual assaults by the Myanmar military.
Ms. Patten told the human rights panel Tuesday that she had heard “the most heartbreaking and horrific accounts of sexual atrocities reportedly committed in cold blood out of a lethal hatred of these people solely on the basis of their ethnicity and religion.” The testimony was collected from Rohingya women who had escaped to Bangladesh.
Refugees described to her, she said, how women and girls had died while being raped by gangs of men, or raped and then left to die as their houses were burned down. The killing of babies, the next generation of Rohingya, was a recurrent feature in the women’s testimony, she said.
Diplomats and human rights groups said the council’s special session, convened with unusually wide backing from council members and cross-regional support, underscored Myanmar’s international isolation on the issue and the pressure on its rulers to alleviate the crisis.
Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the army commander, told officers graduating from the Defense Services Academy this past weekend that troops had “strictly followed orders and acted in accordance with the rules of engagement during the recent Rakhine crisis.”
Htin Lynn, Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, responding at the forum on Tuesday to the grim recital of atrocities, said: “People will say what they want to believe. And sometimes they will say what they were told to say.”
Mr. Lynn said Myanmar was ready to work with the United Nations on improving the situation in Rakhine. He said the country was working with Bangladesh to begin repatriation of Rohingya refugees beginning in two months.
United Nations agencies, however, insist that the conditions for voluntary and safe repatriation of refugees do not yet exist. Aid agencies, with the exception of the International Red Cross and the World Food Program, are still barred from working in Rakhine. That has prevented a comprehensive assessment of the destruction after military operations that burned hundreds of villages, or of the assistance refugees would need if they returned.
No repatriation should occur without sustained international monitoring of the conditions, Mr. al-Hussein told the council.
“The world cannot countenance a hasty window-dressing of these shocking atrocities,” he said, “bundling people back to conditions of severe discrimination and latent violence.”
(c) 2017 The New York Times