The United Nations’ top human rights official has raised the prospect of Myanmar’s defacto leader Aung San Suu Kyi facing charges over the deaths and expulsion of thousands of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, says he would not be surprised if a future court found the military campaign against the Rohingya people amounted to genocide.
The UN has previously described the deaths and displacement of the Rohingya people as a text book example of ethnic cleansing.
Earlier this month the human rights chief called for a criminal investigation.
But now Mr Zeid says he cannot rule out the possibility of military and government leaders facing charges of genocide.
“The gravity and the scale would suggest a commission of a crime that requires a response by the international community,” he told the BBC.
“The question of intentionality going back to the genocidal acts … it’s very hard to establish that because the thresholds are high. And that’s why we continue to say that a court has to do this. But it wouldn’t surprise me in the future if a court were to make such a finding on the basis of what we’re seeing.
“Because of the organisation and planning that seems to have gone into this. We can infer that from the actions on the ground.”
‘There’s the crime of omission’
Mr Zeid said he personally warned Ms Suu Kyi to stop the killings in a phone call earlier this year. But regrettably nothing happened.
“She said ‘this is awful, certainly we want to look at it’,” he said.
“But then a couple days after that they began to question the methodology we had chosen. They began to question whether the facts were correct.”
Indeed, Ms Suu Kyi had probably sanctioned the military’s actions against the Rohingyas, he said.
And Mr Zeid suggested that she too might be culpable of failing to act.
“There’s the crime of omission,” he said.
“If it came to your knowledge that this was being committed, and you did nothing to stop it then you could be culpable as well for that.
“Given the scale of the military operations clearly these would have to be decisions taken at a high enough level.
“The international news media was awash with imagery of burning villages, of claims that atrocities were being committed. So certainly one can make the argument that there was time sufficient for a halt to the operations and inquiries to be launched. And that didn’t seem to happen, so I’m quite sure, that yes, a future jurisdiction in a court would probably ask those very questions.”
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Military leaders say it was a legitimate operation
Myanmar denies committing atrocities against the Rohingya.
Military leaders have said the crackdown was a legitimate counter-insurgency operation.
About 660,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh since late August, when Rohingya militants attacked Myanmar military and border posts, sparking a military backlash.
Mr Zeid said Myanmar’s “flippant” response to the serious concerns of the international community made him fear the current crisis could just be the “opening phases of something much worse”.
He also said he feared jihadist groups could form in the huge refugee camps in Bangladesh and launch attacks in Myanmar, perhaps targeting Buddhist temples.
It is unclear which court might prosecute suspected atrocities.
Myanmar is not a member of the International Criminal Court, meaning a referral to that court would require the support of the UN Security Council.
But Myanmar’s ally China could veto such a move.
The UN defines genocide as acts meant to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group in whole or in part.
Although rare, such a ruling has been used against the perpetrators of atrocities in Bosnia, Sudan and by the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
Rohingyas have told UN investigators of a “consistent, methodical pattern of killings, torture, rape and arson”.