UN envoy: Sexual attacks against Rohingya Muslims may be war crimes

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Widespread atrocities against Rohingya Muslim women and girls have been orchestrated and perpetrated by Burma’s military and may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, the UN envoy on sexual violence in conflict has said.

Pramila Patten, who met many Rohingya victims of sexual violence in Bangladesh camps during a visit this month, said she fully endorses the assessment by UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein that Rohingya have been victims of “ethnic cleansing”.

Patten said at a news conference that the widespread use of sexual violence “was clearly a driver and push factor” for more than 620,000 Rohingya to flee Burma. It was “also a calculated tool of terror aimed at the extermination and removal of the Rohingya as a group”, she added.

Burma’s government has denied committing any atrocities, as has its military. The government refused a request from Patten to visit northern Rakhine state where many Rohingya lived.

Buddhist-majority Burma does not recognise the Rohingya as an ethnic group, insisting they are Bengali migrants from Bangladesh living illegally in the country. It has denied them citizenship, leaving them stateless.

The recent spasm of violence began when Rohingya insurgents launched a series of attacks on August 25. Burma security forces then began a scorched-earth campaign against Rohingya villages that the UN and human rights groups have called a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Patten said that during her visit to camps for the displaced, she heard “the most heartbreaking, most shocking, and horrific accounts of abuses committed cold bloodedly with unparalleled hatred against the Rohingya community”.

Patten, a former member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, said: “My observations point to a pattern of widespread atrocities, including sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls who have been systematically targeted on account of their religion and ethnicity.”

“And a clear picture has emerged about the alleged perpetrators of these atrocities and their modus operandi,” she added.

“The sexual violence has been commanded, orchestrated, and condoned and perpetrated by the armed forces of Burma, the Tatmadaw. And other actors involved include the Burma border guard police and militia composed of Rakhine Buddhists and other ethnic groups.”

Rohingya Muslim girls carry water pots in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh (Wong Maye-E/AP)

Patten said the UN population agency had provided services to 1,644 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

She also said she could see a basis for characterising these violations as war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide. “But it is not my role to make that determination,” she added.

Patten said she plans to participate in a Human Rights Council meeting on Burma in Geneva on December 5 and hopes to brief the Security Council in New York on December 12.

The council would have to refer Burma to the International Criminal Court for the violence against Rohingya to be considered as possible war crimes. That appears highly unlikely as China, an ally of Burma, is one of the council’s five powers that can veto any action.

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