How Can The International Community Respond To The 'Ethnic Cleansing' In Myanmar? NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein about what can be done about the violence perpetrated by Myanmar's military against the Rohingya minority.

How Can The International Community Respond To The 'Ethnic Cleansing' In Myanmar?

How Can The International Community Respond To The 'Ethnic Cleansing' In Myanmar?

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NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein about what can be done about the violence perpetrated by Myanmar's military against the Rohingya minority.


It is almost impossible to get your head around the scale, the sheer number of people who have fled from Myanmar in the last couple of months. Officials now put that number at more than half a million. Now, these are Rohingya Muslims flooding out of predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. They're escaping a brutal campaign by Myanmar's military. Homes and crops and villages burned. Rape and murder have been documented. The top human rights official at the United Nations, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, has sounded the alarm.


ZEID RA'AD AL-HUSSEIN: The situation remains or seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.

KELLY: And U.N. High Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein joins me now from the United Nations. Welcome to the program.

AL-HUSSEIN: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: That was last month, that clip that we just played. So let me follow up on that. Does it seem to be ethnic cleansing, or is it?

AL-HUSSEIN: Eventually, only judges can confirm what we strongly suspect is. It has all the hallmarks that it leaves little doubt that it was, but the sad thing is, Mary Louise, is that it's continuing. Our team continues to receive accounts of indiscriminate shootings, summary executions, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearances, rape and other forms of sexual violence and torture. So this seems to be continuing as we speak today.

KELLY: It seems almost to be accelerating as we speak today.

AL-HUSSEIN: Yes. I mean, 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.

KELLY: Let me, before we move on, just ask about the U.N.'s role because a number of former United Nations officials have come forward to argue that the U.N. should have seen this coming, that the warning signs were all there and that the United Nations chose not to see them or chose not to make too big a fuss for fear of alienating Myanmar's rulers and undermining other efforts, like the promotion of democracy and transition from military rule to democracy in that country. How do you respond? Does the U.N. bear some responsibility for this crisis?

AL-HUSSEIN: Well, 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 going back to I think March of this year, 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 I - we 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.

KELLY: Your position means that you have a voice. If you could say something today, call for one change, call for one country to get involved or the United Nations to take up one piece of concrete action to try to do something, what would it be?

AL-HUSSEIN: We'd have to stop these military operations. I mean, 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've ever seen. Indeed, some of what we were seeing was almost ISIS-type crimes - beheadings and the cutting of throats of young children. And finally, we need to see all of these people who were flushed out returned.

KELLY: When you say military operations have to stop, who has the leverage to do that, to force Burma's military to stop carrying out this campaign?

AL-HUSSEIN: Well, clearly, the commander in chief, Min Aung Hlaing, has that responsibility. I also feel that Aung San Suu Kyi...

KELLY: The de facto leader of the government in Myanmar.

AL-HUSSEIN: That's right. She has moral standing and emotional standing amongst her own people. And I've always felt that she could do more. She could say more.

KELLY: Do you believe that she is persuadable, that there is something, someone who could speak to her and convince her to do more?

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

KELLY: Have you reached out to her? Have you asked her to do more?

AL-HUSSEIN: 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.

KELLY: But it sounds like you see her as key to resolving this.

AL-HUSSEIN: Well, 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. So when the civilian government sort of accuses the U.N. of bias and that we're spreading misinformation, well, again, if you have nothing to hide, let us in.

KELLY: Mr. High Commissioner, thank you.

AL-HUSSEIN: Thank you so much.

KELLY: That was Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein. He's U.N. high commissioner for Human Rights. He joined us from the United Nations in New York.


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