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Special Session of the Human Rights Council on the human rights situation of the minority Rohingya Muslim population and other minorities in the Rakhine State of Myanmar

ZeidRa'ad Al Hussein
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Geneva, 5 December 2017

Distinguished President,
SRSG Patten,
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, 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 violent acts, 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 may 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 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 Rohingyasharply 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 Rohingyas – 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?

Mr President,

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; 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.

Mr President,

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.

Mr President,

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 will 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.

Thank you

Human Rights Council
Special session on the human rights situation of the Rohingya and other minorities in Rakhine State in Myanmar
Statement by United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten
Tuesday 5th December, Palais des Nations, 10am [10 mins]

Distinguished President of the Council,
I would like to firstly commend the Human Rights Council for holding this special session on the human rights situation of the minority Rohingya Muslim population and other minorities in the Rakhine State of Myanmar, and to extend my appreciation to all Council members and observer States who supported the convening of this critical and timely meeting.
I take this opportunity to commend the Government and people of Bangladesh who have opened their borders, their homes and their hearts to the Rohingya community, which many have called “the most persecuted people on earth”. I also extend my sincere appreciation to the Government of Bangladesh for the lives they have saved and are continuing to save by providing relief and refuge to a truly desperate population. History will remember the hospitality and humanity they have shown.

My mandate, as Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, was created by the United Nations Security Council through the unanimous adoption of resolution 1888 in September 2009. This was a milestone in the global recognition of sexual violence as a tactic of war and terror, a threat to collective security, and an impediment to the maintenance of peace and the Rule of Law. It was an unequivocal call to action, against a long historical backdrop of wartime rape being invisible and shrouded in silence. Some Council members described the role of the Special Representative as being a “voice for the voiceless”.
Indeed, the face of my mandate is the face of a survivor. When I learnt about the scale and magnitude of the Rohingya crisis, I realized that I had to go to Cox’s Bazar personally to hear the stories and perspectives of conflict-affected women and girls first-hand. I conducted a visit to Bangladesh from the 5th to the 13th of November, and deployed an interagency technical team comprised of IOM, UNICEF and UNFPA, to carry out an initial assessment of the situation, to inform my mission.
Today, I come before you to amplify the voices of the survivors I met in Cox’s Bazar, who so bravely shared their stories with me because they wanted the world to know about their plight. These women and girls belong to a remote, deeply deprived, and disconnected community that is virtually sealed off from the wider world. It is a central component of my mandate to help bring their suffering out of the shadows.

During the course of my visit, I went to several camps and settlements, namely Kutupalong, Uchiprang, Leda and the Konapara border area. The stories of pain and suffering I heard from the Rohingya women and girls are simply unimaginable.
Over three days, I heard the most heart-breaking and horrific accounts of sexual atrocities reportedly committed in cold-blood out of a lethal hatred for these people, solely on the basis of their ethnicity and religion. The wounds are extremely raw. Dozens of women and girls dissolved into tears when recounting acts of unmitigated brutality. The acts they described were by no means isolated incidents: Every woman or girl I spoke with reported having either endured or witnessed sexual violence.
The forms of sexual violence I consistently heard about from survivors and witnesses included: rape, gang-rape by multiple soldiers, forced public nudity and humiliation, and sexual slavery in military captivity. One survivor described being held in captivity by members of the Myanmar Armed Forces for 45 days, during which time she was reportedly raped many times. A number of survivors still bore visible scars, bruises, burns and bite marks, attesting to their ordeal.
There are indications that this reported pattern of widespread and systematic sexual violence was used as a tool of dehumanization and collective punishment. Several women and girls recounted how, upon the arrival of soldiers in their village, they were allegedly forced to strip naked and threatened with rape in front of their husbands and fathers while their homes were set ablaze. They related how, in some cases, village leaders were compelled to sign documents stating that they had set fire to their own homes, in order to save the women and girls of their community from rape.
Some women reported having witnessed sexual violence and torture committed with extreme brutality, for instance, women and girls being tied to either a rock or a tree before multiple soldiers literally raped them to death.
I met a number of profoundly traumatized and devastated women who related how their daughters were allegedly raped inside their house and left there to perish when their houses were torched.
Many women and girls reported having witnessed family members, friends and neighbours being slaughtered in front of them. The two words that echoed across every account I heard were “slaughter” and “rape”.
Most women I spoke with shared details of how these brutal acts of sexual violence occurred in the context of collective persecution, the burning and looting of villages, torture, mutilation, and the slaughter of civilians - even newborn babies, who represent the next generation and the future of the Rohingya community.
Tragically, the killing of babies was a recurrent feature in the accounts I heard. According to many eyewitnesses, this had been reportedly taking place long before August 2017. Some women recounted how soldiers would regularly drown babies in the village well. A few women told me how their own babies were allegedly thrown in the fire as they were dragged away by soldiers and gang-raped.
These shocking accounts indicate a pattern of grave violations of international humanitarian and human rights law committed against Rohingya women and girls in the context of military operations, with the widespread threat and use of sexual violence serving as a driver and “push factor” for forced displacement on a massive scale, and a calculated tool of persecution and terror seemingly aimed at the extermination and removal of the Rohingya as a group.

The survivors and eyewitnesses reported that antipersonnel landmines have even been placed in some locations along the border, and that many Rohingya civilians were shot as they fled, arriving with gunshot wounds and other injuries.

I met with a woman who related to me how she allegedly survived rape during the onslaught against her village, but fell victim to landmines as she fled across the border. Both of her legs were amputated. She was in her wheelchair waiting for several hours to speak to me, as she was eager to let the world know what she had gone through.

All of the women I spoke with said they wanted to see the perpetrators punished. They all – without exception – demanded justice.

Some expressed a desire to return home, provided they would be granted citizenship and equal rights and status. In the words of one survivor of sexual violence and forced displacement: “I need land under my feet. I need to feel at home in my country, just as you are in yours”.

Yet many others said they had nothing left to return to but ashes. When discussing repatriation with a group of survivors of sexual violence, an elderly woman told me: “You will sign our death sentence if you send us back to Myanmar.”


The face of this elderly woman haunts me as I reflect on recent developments to implement a process of repatriation. While I welcome the on-going efforts of the Governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh to find a bilateral solution that would enable the safe, voluntary and sustainable return of the displacedRohingya community, it is imperative that their basic civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights must first be guaranteed.

It is important that we view the current crisis in its broader historical and political perspective. The Rohingya community has been trapped for many decades in a vicious cycle of violence, impunity, and forced displacement. There is a serious risk of this cycle repeating, if the underlying conditions do not change. Indeed, there have been successive waves of displacement since the 1970s - I met with a group of women who have been living in camps in Cox’s Bazaar for 25 years; some had been displaced multiple times.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh has rightly called the recent arrangement, signed on 23rd November, a “first step”. Myanmar and Bangladesh have clear obligations under international law not to return individuals to a situation in which they are at risk of persecution, torture or other serious violations of human rights, including sexual violence.

In this respect, I urge the international community to support both governments in a constructive manner to reach a comprehensive agreement that upholds international standards, and sets out all the necessary measures to ensure that returns are trulyvoluntary decisions based on informed consent, which take place in safe and dignified conditions that pave the way for lasting solutions.

This will not be possible without concerted efforts to hold the perpetrators accountable for their crimes, including sexual violence offenses. To this end, an impartial, independent mechanism to support investigation and prosecution would be an important step.

The United Nations Security Council Presidential Statement on Myanmar, adopted on 6th November, underscores the importance of preventing and responding to sexual violence, and explicitly calls on the Government of Myanmar to work with my Office.

In October, I had requested to go to Myanmar to meet with the relevant authorities, and am encouraged by a call I received last week from the Permanent Mission of Myanmar to the United Nations in New York, responding positively to this request.

I look forward to this visit and constructive engagement with the Government of Myanmar. I am committed to extending the full support of my Office, which could include technical support in the area of law reform and capacity-building of the national armed and security forces to foster compliance with international laws and standards, including zero tolerance for crimes of sexual violence. Such support can be provided through my Team of Experts on the Rule of Law, which helps to build the capacity of justice and security sector institutions to address sexual violence crimes. In addition, I stand ready to mobilize for the benefit of the Governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh the interagency network that I chair known as UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict, which supports efforts to deliver a coordinated, multisectoral response for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, including health and psychosocial support services.

However, I must emphasize that UN agencies and partners are facing a dramatic funding shortfall of around 10 million US Dollars to deliver essential gender-based violence services and programmes in the immediate-term. This funding can save lives and help survivors heal.

Mr. President,
I would like to thank you for the opportunity to address the Human Rights Council, and urge this body to do everything in its power to seek a swift end to the reported atrocities against the persecuted Rohingya minority; to bring the alleged perpetrators of sexual and other violence to justice; and to ensure a safe and dignified future for the survivors.
I welcome progress towards a resolution of this Council, and trust that all Member States here today will back that resolution with sustained political resolve and resources equal to the scale of the challenge.

Media Type: 
Publish Date: 
Tuesday, December 5, 2017