I would like to thank the Council, in particular the Presidency of Japan, for inviting me to brief you on my recent visit to Cox’s Bazaar.
The Presidential Statement on Myanmar, adopted by this Council on 6th November, underscored the importance of preventing and responding to sexual violence, and of cooperation between the Government of Myanmar and my Office in this regard.
I am pleased to inform the Council that the Government of Myanmar has extended an invitation to me to visit Naw Pyi Taw and Yangon from the 14th to the 16th of December to meet with the State Counsellor, Ministers of Defense and Home Affairs, and representatives of the armed and security forces. I look forward to this visit and hope it will generate commitments in line with the measures requested by this Council in resolution 2106.
Since the Council established my mandate in 2009, it has served as a “voice for the voiceless”.
Today, I come before you to amplify the voices of the survivors who so bravely shared their stories with me because they want the world to know their plight.
I visited Bangladesh from the 5th to the 13th of November, including several camps and settlements, namely Kutupalong, Unchiprang, Leda, and the Konapara border area. I also deployed an interagency technical team comprised of IOM, UNICEF and UNFPA, to carry out an initial assessment of the situation.
Over the course of three days, I heard the most heartbreaking and horrific accounts of sexual atrocities reportedly committed in cold-blood out of a lethal hatred for the Rohingya community based on their ethnicity and religion. The accounts were consistent and corroborated by international medical staff and other service-providers operating in the area.
The acts described were by no means isolated incidents: Every woman or girl I spoke with reported having either endured or witnessed sexual violence.
The forms of sexual violence I consistently heard about from survivors and witnesses included: rape, gang-rape by multiple soldiers, forced public nudity and humiliation, and sexual slavery in military captivity. One survivor described being held in captivity by members of the Myanmar Armed Forces (the Tatmadaw) for 45 days, during which time she was reportedly raped over and over again. Several survivors still bore visible scars, bruises, burns and bite marks, attesting to their ordeal. One woman showed me how she can no longer see out of her left eye, which was bitten by a solider during a vicious sexual assault.
There are indications that this pattern of widespread and systematic sexual violence has been used as a tool of dehumanization and collective punishment. Women and girls recounted how, upon the arrival of soldiers in their village, they were forced to strip naked and threatened with rape in front of their husbands and fathers while their homes were set ablaze. They related how, in some cases, village leaders were compelled to sign documents stating that they had set fire to their own homes, in order to save the women of their community from rape.
I met a number of profoundly traumatized women who related how their daughters were allegedly raped inside their home and left to perish when the houses were torched.
Some witnesses reported women and girls being tied to either a rock or a tree before multiple soldiers literally raped them to death.
Many reported having witnessed family members, friends and neighbors being slaughtered in front of them. The two words that echoed across every account I heard were “slaughter” and “rape”.
Most women I spoke with shared details of how these brutal acts of sexual violence occurred in the context of persecution, which reportedly began long before August 2017, as manifested through looting, torture, and the slaughter of civilians – even newborn babies, who represent the future of the Rohingya community.
Some women recounted how soldiers drowned babies in the village well. A few women told me how their own babies were allegedly thrown in the fire as they were dragged away by soldiers and gang-raped.
These shocking accounts indicate a pattern of grave violations of international humanitarian and human rights law committed against Rohingya women and girls in the context of military operations. The widespread threat and use of sexual violence served as a driver and “push factor” for forced displacement on a massive scale, and as a calculated tool of terror seemingly aimed at the extermination and removal of the Rohingya as a group. Some rape survivors reported being insulted and told: “You are not citizens of Myanmar – you must leave”.
All of the women I spoke with said they wanted to see the perpetrators punished. They all – without exception – demanded justice.
Some expressed a desire to return home, provided they would be granted citizenship and equal rights. Others said they had nothing left to return to but ashes. When discussing repatriation with a group of survivors, an elderly woman told me: “You will sign our death sentence if you send us back to Myanmar.”
The face of this elderly woman haunts me as I reflect on recent developments to implement a process of repatriation. While I welcome the on-going efforts of the Governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh to find a solution that would enable the safe, voluntary and sustainable return of those displaced, it is imperative that their basic security and rights be guaranteed.
It is important that we view the current crisis in its broader historical and political perspective. The Rohingya community has been trapped for decades in a vicious cycle of violence, impunity, and forced displacement. There is a serious risk of this cycle repeating, if the underlying conditions do not change.
I therefore urge the international community to support the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh to reach a comprehensive agreement that upholds international standards, and sets out the necessary measures to ensure that returns are truly voluntary decisions based on informed consent, which take place in safe and dignified conditions that pave the way for lasting peace.
I am committed to extending the full support of my Office, which can include technical assistance in law reform and capacity-building of the national armed and security forces to foster compliance with international standards, including zero tolerance for sexual abuse. Such support can be provided through my Team of Experts on the Rule of Law, which was mandated by this Council to help build the capacity of justice and security sector institutions. In addition, I stand ready to mobilize for the benefit of the Governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh the interagency network that I chair known as UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict, which supports efforts to deliver a coordinated, multi-sectoral response for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, including healthcare and psychosocial support.
Yet, UN agencies and partners are facing a dramatic funding shortfall of around 10 million US Dollars to deliver essential gender-based violence programs in the immediate-term. This funding can save lives and help survivors heal. For instance, the “women and child-friendly spaces” I saw in the camps, run by UN agencies and their partners, are a lifeline for survivors and require sustainable resources.
I urge this body to do everything in its power to seek a swift end to the atrocities; to ensure the alleged perpetrators of sexual and other violence are brought to justice; and to create conditions for a safe and dignified future for the survivors.
History will judge our action – or our inaction.
A Security Council resolution demanding an immediate end to violations against the civilian population in Rakhine State and measures to hold the perpetrators accountable would send an important signal. It is critical that the Council call for humanitarian agencies to be given immediate, unhindered access to populations in need.
The Council should further consider sending a delegation to Myanmar and Cox’s Bazaar, to assess the situation firsthand.
Repatriation will not be possible without concerted efforts to hold the perpetrators accountable for their crimes. To this end, an impartial, independent mechanism to support investigation would be an important step. Those who are found to be implicated in abuses should be removed from positions of command responsibility and prosecuted.
Finally, I take this opportunity to commend the Government and people of Bangladesh who have opened their borders and homes to the Rohingya community, which many have called “the most persecuted people on earth”. I extend my appreciation to Bangladesh for the lives they have saved and are continuing to save by providing relief and refuge. History will remember the humanity they have shown.
Tragically, the population exodus – and the abuses that are driving it – continue. I met with rape victims who had arrived in Bangladesh just four days earlier; I saw refugees huddling under a tarpaulin who had arrived that very day.
“Ethnic cleansing” must never be allowed to achieve its goal. The international community must take swift and serious action to support the Government of Bangladesh to accommodate this desperate population, and work with the Government of Myanmar to address violations against civilians, including sexual violence.
Mr. President, Members of the Council,
In the face of this humanitarian crisis, which has ripple effects for regional peace and security, inaction is not an option.