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UN rights chief calls for panel to probe Myanmar atrocities

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New UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends the 39th UN Council of Human Rights in Geneva on Monday. AFp

UN rights chief calls for panel to probe Myanmar atrocities

The UN rights chief on Monday called for the creation of a new “mechanism” tasked with preparing criminal indictments over atrocities committed in Myanmar, amid allegations of genocide against the Rohingya minority.

In her first speech as head of the UN rights office, Michelle Bachelet called on the UN Human Rights Council to create “an independent international mechanism for Myanmar, to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of the most serious international crimes, in order to expedite fair and independent trials in national and international courts.”

“I urge the Council to pass a resolution, and refer the matter to the General Assembly for its endorsement, so that such a mechanism can be established,” she said.

Such a panel has already been created for the Syrian conflict.

Human suffering

A UN fact-finding mission last month issued a damning report concluding there was enough evidence to prosecute Myanmar’s army chief and five other top military commanders for crimes against humanity and genocide against the Rohingya.

Some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled northern Rakhine state to Bangladesh after Myanmar launched a brutal crackdown on insurgents in August last year amid accounts of arson, murder and rape by soldiers and vigilante mobs in the mainly Buddhist country.

Myanmar has vehemently denied allegations of ethnic cleansing, insisting it was responding to attacks by Rohingya rebels.

The fact-finding mission is asking the UN rights council, which opened Monday and will be in session through September 28, to renew its mandate for another year.

If created, the new mechanism focused on preparing cases for prosecution would comprise a separate group of experts.

Bachelet, a former Chilean president, stressed on Monday that the panel would also “complement and support the preliminary examination of the ICC Prosecutor.”

The International Criminal Court announced last week that it had jurisdiction to probe the crisis because of the cross-border nature of the alleged “deportations” of the Rohingya to Bangladesh – a decision Myanmar’s government has “resolutely” rejected.

Bachelet welcomed the ICC decision, describing it as “an immensely important step towards ending impunity and addressing the enormous suffering of the Rohingya people.

Possible ‘genocide’

“I emphasise the imperative of justice for Myanmar,” she said.

Meanwhile, she will open the council’s September session as the body continues to reel from Washington’s decision three months ago to withdraw.

As other countries scramble to fill the leadership gap on a number of rights issues created by the US departure, the council will this session be grappling with topics including possible “genocide” in Myanmar and the crisis in Venezuela.

Diplomats and activists from around the world will gather in Geneva to hear Bachelet’s maiden speech and try to determine whether she will mimic the abrasive style of her predecessor, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, or stake out a softer approach to tackling the job.

Critics accused Zeid, a member of Jordan’s royal family, of being too confrontational with his often fierce criticism of world leaders and numerous calls for international investigations of rights violations in places like Syria, North Korea and Myanmar.

Some diplomats and UN insiders have suggested that UN chief Antonio Guterres appointed Bachelet in the hope she would tone down the criticism a bit to avoid losing support from powerful member states.

Last month, Zeid urged his successor not to waver from publicly condemning serious abuses, stressing that “we are not in the silence business here”.

“Succeeding Zeid will not be easy,” Switzerland’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva Valentin Zellweger said last week.

The Jordanian, he said, had “forged an extraordinary reputation”, and his departure marked a “great loss” for the UN.

But Zellweger said he had full confidence in Bachelet, whose “politics have always been characterised by an understanding of human dignity”.

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