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Statements Multiple Mechanisms

Thousands of Rohingya refugees continue to flee violence

New Rohingya refugees

04 July 2018

38th session of the Human Rights Council
Oral Update on the situation of human rights of Rohingya people 
Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

4 July 2018

Distinguished President,
Chair of the Coordinating Committee,
Colleagues and friends,

In recent months, Myanmar has challenged allegations that its security forces have engaged in an ethnic cleansing campaign which has led to the flight of over 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh since August 2017. The authorities have also expended considerable energy in attempting to convince the world that it is ready and willing to allow the refugees to return. 

In January, Myanmar signed an agreement with Bangladesh on the physical arrangement for repatriation. In May, it concluded a memorandum of understanding with UNHCR and UNDP to create conducive conditions for return. It also announced that it would establish a Commission of Enquiry to investigate human rights violations in the period subsequent to 25 August 2017. Throughout, Government representatives have repeatedly stated that Myanmar is ready to accept returnees. 

And yet, although it has been almost a year since the post-25 August violence began, not a single Rohingya refugee has returned under the formal framework agreed with Bangladesh. Many – if not all – of those who have returned of their own accord have been detained. Fifty-eight Rohingya who returned between January and April this year were arrested and convicted on unspecified charges. They then received a Presidential pardon, but have simply been transferred from Buthidaung prison to a so-called “reception centre,” in conditions that appear tantamount to administrative detention. 

Around 90 Rohingya who reportedly attempted to travel by boat from Bangladesh to Malaysia, but came ashore in Rakhine State due to engine problems were also detained. They have since been handed over into the custody of the authorities of various village tracts, which in half of the cases, are not their village tracts of origin.  

Moreover, thousands of Rohingya people continue to flee Rakhine State. As of mid-June, there have been 11,432 new arrivals in Bangladesh in 2018. In April, 140 Rohingya who departed from central Rakhine by boat reached Malaysia and Indonesia respectively; ten people on board one of the boats reportedly died en route

All the newly arrived refugees who have been interviewed by OHCHR described continuing violence, persecution and human rights violations, including killings and the burning of Rohingya homes. One woman who arrived in late May said she left after two incidents in which Rohingya homes in her village in Rathedaung township were burned, and villagers were killed by soldiers shooting indiscriminately into the streets. A man from Buthidaung township said he fled when military burned ten to twenty Rohingya homes in a neighbouring village. Several new arrivals reported that people are being disappeared. One man from Buthidaung township told OHCHR that he fled after his father was taken away by military; he has no information on his father’s well-being or whereabouts.  Many said they had run out of money to pay for the bribes that are a daily reality for Rohingya in Rakhine, and reported never venturing out of their homes for fear of physical attack. 

No amount of rhetoric can whitewash these facts. People are still fleeing persecution in Rakhine – and are even willing to risk dying at sea to escape.

Mr. President, 

Myanmar has stated repeatedly that the root cause of the current crisis is the alleged attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, ARSA, on several police posts last year. This is misleading. Cycles of violence and human rights restrictions against the Rohingya long pre-date ARSA, which was reportedly established in 2013. In both 1978 and 1992, military operations drove as many as 250,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh on each occasion, with an unknown number of people killed and wounded. 

Since at least 1978, the concomitant campaign to erode the legal personality and rights of the Rohingya has steadily intensified. 

As this Council is aware, the 1982 Citizenship Law provides for citizenship primarily on the basis of ethnicity, in violation of the prohibition against racial discrimination –   effectively barring Rohingya access to citizenship, which they had enjoyed under previous legislation. Since the 1990s, Myanmar has also required Rohingya intending to marry to obtain approval from immigration officials; imposed a two-child policy on Rohingya families; and excluded them from the most recent national census. At the same time, the Rohingya’s fundamental rights, including the rights to freedom of movement, religion, health, education and access to livelihood, were increasingly and systematically restricted over time. 

Numerous successive identification regimes have also withheld or withdrawn citizenship from the Rohingya, and have perpetuated their statelessness. In 1989, the Rohingya handed over the national registration cards which they had held since 1951, but the promised “Citizenship Scrutiny Cards” were never issued to them.  In 1995, they received temporary registration certificates which afforded certain rights, including the right to vote, but expressly did not confer citizenship. In 2015, with a national election approaching, the temporary registration certificates were revoked, disenfranchising the almost 800,000 people who held them, the vast majority of whom were Rohingya. 

The latest form of documentation required of the Rohingya is the National Verification Card, or NVC. These are at the core of the current discussion surrounding the status of the Rohingya in Myanmar. The NVC does not grant citizenship; rather it states that holders “need to apply for citizenship” under the 1982 Citizenship Law. The Myanmar government has termed this process the “first step towards citizenship” – the same phrase once used to describe the defunct temporary registration certificates. In reality, however, the NVCs mark the Rohingya  as non-citizens, in keeping with the Government’s characterization of them as foreigners in their own homeland. 

Many refugees interviewed by my staff have said unbearable pressure was placed on them to accept the NVCs. One man stated that he was tied up and beaten by authorities who demanded that he accept the NVC; he refused. His daughter was taken away, never to be seen again and he fled to Bangladesh. Another man said that his son was kidnapped by security forces and held hostage until he could convince other Rohingya in his village to accept the NVC. Recent arrivals describe villagers being forced to accept NVCs at gunpoint. One refugee told us just days ago that Rohingya can now only stay in Rakhine if they accept the NVC.

Mr President,

Myanmar’s sincerity towards the repatriation process will not be measured by the number of agreements it signs and the committees it establishes, but by its recognition that the Rohingya are citizens, with the same rights that are enjoyed by other citizens, including the right to life and security of the person.  One mark of genuine intent to establish such rights would be to grant citizenship to some 120,000 internally displaced people, most of them Rohingya, who have been held in camps in central Rakhine since the violent attacks of 2012, and who should be allowed to return safely to their towns and villages.

Mr. President, 

In May, Myanmar announced the establishment of an “Independent Commission of Enquiry” to “investigate the violation of human rights and related issues following the terrorist attacks by ARSA”. The announcement was made after the Security Council visited Myanmar and Bangladesh, and as the International Criminal Court announced that it was examining the possibility of investigating crimes against humanity. 

Myanmar has a pattern of investigative whitewashing, including following the violent conflagrations of 2012 and 2016. The military has already absolved itself of responsibility for the past year’s violence – and only admitted responsibility for a massacre in Inn Din village when confronted by Reuters with incontrovertible evidence. There is every reason to believe that another internal inquiry will again seek to whitewash the terrible crimes which have occurred, laying the ground for a new wave of violence in the future. 

Myanmar must grasp that the international community will not forget the outrages committed against the Rohingya, nor will it absolve the politicians who seek to cover them up. To ensure a credible investigation, the Government must grant immediate access to independent international human rights investigators and the current Special Rapporteur, Yanghee Lee.  

I urge the Security Council to immediately refer Myanmar to the ICC, so that all allegations of crimes against humanity and genocide perpetrated against the Rohingya can be investigated, as well as allegations of war crimes against other ethnic groups such as the Kachin and the Shan. 

I further request that this Council recommend to the General Assembly the establishment of a new international, impartial and independent mechanism, complementary to the Fact-Finding Mission, to assist the criminal investigation of individual perpetrators. This mechanism should also develop a framework for the reintegration of the Rohingya and other victims, and provision of immediate and long-term support to victims.

More broadly, Mr President, I deplore the failure to include Rohingya in discussions on their own future, and the persistent failure of several members of the international community to uphold the community’s right to self-identify as Rohingya. Refusal to name the Rohingya as such, including in official documents and statements – even at this Council – adds disrespect to the terrible violations they have suffered.

I thank you Mr President.

Read the full UN Human Rights paper presented to the Human Rights Council here