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U.N. Rights Chief: Myanmar's Treatment Of Rohingya Includes 'Almost ISIS-Type Crimes'

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Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh wait to receive food distributed by a Turkish aid agency at a refugee camp on Saturday.

Since late August, more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled a campaign of violence in Myanmar and crossed into Bangladesh, according to the United Nations, and the crisis is showing no sign of letting up.

Members of the mostly Muslim minority are fleeing violence by the Myanmar military and local militias, something the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein termed a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing" in a speech last month.

In the same speech, Hussein noted that human rights investigators have not been allowed into Myanmar's Rakhine state, the area where the violence is taking place. He urged authorities to allow his "office unfettered access to the country."

"No longer should there be any impunity for what we consider to be some of the most awful crimes we have ever seen," Hussein tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. Those crimes, he says, have included beheadings and the cutting of young children's throats.


Interview Highlights

On Myanmar's campaign of violence against the Rohingya

Eventually, only the judges can confirm what we strongly suspect is [ethnic cleansing]. It has all the hallmarks. The way in which it was carried out seemed so systematic and so methodical that it leaves little doubt that it was.

But the sad thing is that it's continuing. Our team continues to receive accounts of indiscriminate shooting, summary executions, arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances, rape and other forms of sexual violence and torture. And this is on top of attacks on places of worship and further expressions of religious intolerance, so this seems to be continuing as we speak today.

On the U.N. human rights office's attempts to enter Rakhine state

The problem for us is that we have now, for many years, asked for access to Rakhine state, to northern Rakhine in particular, and it's always been denied to us as the human rights office at the U.N. And we have heard that the authorities in Myanmar claim that our comments, our reports, need to be more accurate. Well then, they should let us in. Why are they not letting us in and what are they trying to hide? We strongly suspect we know what they're trying to hide, of course.

On criticism of the U.N.'s overall approach in Myanmar

I can only speak for my office, and very early on, we were very public about what we were seeing in northern Rakhine. We were not quiet and ... we warned that if we did not confront what was happening, that we were going to be facing a more severe crisis. And indeed that's what has happened.

In the end, there was criticism of how the U.N. was handling it on the ground in Myanmar, and we [the U.N. human rights office] don't have an office in Myanmar, we are not allowed in. But those who were present have been accused of going soft, and that is probably the subject of a later sort of investigation by the U.N., I would imagine, to understand and properly unearth what happened there.

On what needs to be done

We have to stop these [Myanmar] military operations, and clearly you can't do anything until that happens. And then the second thing from our perspective, no longer should there be any impunity for what we consider to be some of the most awful crimes we have ever seen — and we are used to seeing some appalling crimes being committed around the world.

This is their equal. Indeed, some of what we were seeing was almost ISIS-type crimes, beheadings and the cutting of throats of young children. And so, I think we need to see now in place some form of judicial accountability so this doesn't happen again. And finally, we need to see all of these people who were flushed out returned.

On the inaction of Myanmar leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi has moral standing and emotional standing amongst her people, and I've always felt that she could do more, she could say more.

It's mind-boggling, really. For me, when I'm told that she has no leeway, she has no authority — well then, the question has to obviously be asked, what is she doing in a position where she can't influence events of this gravity and scale?

I have not spoken to her since January, when I asked on that occasion that she use every influence to bring military operations then to a halt, and clearly it had no effect.

I don't think she's used every influence available to her. I mean, we were concerned that there seemed to be incitement that was almost encouraged by her office in the early part of this crisis. And the incitement more broadly across social media has been staggering, really. So, when the civilian government sort of accuses the U.N. of bias and that we are spreading misinformation — well, again, if you have nothing to hide, let us in.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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