U.S. sanctions on Myanmar military leaders inadequate: U.N. investigator

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia/DHAKA, Bangladesh (Reuters) – Sanctions imposed this week by the United States on Myanmar’s military leaders over human rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims do not go far enough, U.N. special rapporteur Yanghee Lee said on Thursday.

The United States banned Myanmar military Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, three other senior commanders and their families from entering the United States in the strongest steps yet taken by Washington in response to the massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

Lee said a travel ban was not enough and called for the commanders’ assets to be frozen.

“They were never going to travel to the U.S … let’s be realistic,” she told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.

A U.S. State Department spokeswoman defended the actions taken against members of Myanmar’s military and called on others to do the same.

“We remain focused on actions that will change the behavior of the Burmese military, hold those responsible for atrocities and other abuses to account, provide justice to victims, and support democracy and prosperity in Burma,” the spokeswoman said.

Lee said the sanctions – applied, in addition to Min Aung Hlaing, to his deputy Soe Win and brigadier generals Than Oo and Aung Aung – should be extended to two more military leaders identified in a U.N. investigators report in 2018.

The report, compiled by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, had called for the six generals to be tried for genocide.

A military crackdown in Myanmar in 2017 drove more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, according to U.N. figures. U.N. investigators have said Myanmar’s operation included mass killings, gang rapes and arson and was executed with “genocidal intent.”

Myanmar denies the charge.

The U.S. State Department so far has stopped short of calling the abuses genocide. Such a declaration could require Washington to impose stronger sanctions on Myanmar, where the United States has competed for influence with China.

At a separate news briefing in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, the International Criminal Court (ICC) deputy prosecutor James Stewart said Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda earlier this month sought permission from the ICC judges to open an investigation into alleged crimes committed against the Rohingya.

“The outcome of this request is still pending and is before the court’s judges,” said Stewart, adding that he was visiting Bangladesh as part of a delegation from the Hague-based ICC to explain the judicial process to the government and other parties.

Bensouda said last month she would ask ICC judges for permission to investigate crimes that had “at least one element” in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a member of the ICC, but Myanmar is not.

The U.N.’s Lee, speaking in Kuala Lumpur, said reports from Myanmar in recent weeks suggested that human rights violations and abuses committed by the army and insurgents against civilian populations may be getting worse.

Last month, Lee said the army may be committing gross human rights violations under cover of a mobile phone blackout in Rakhine and Chin states.

On Thursday, Lee said the blackout had left many villages unprepared for severe monsoon floods in the area, and has hampered disaster relief and humanitarian responses to the floods.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff in Kuala Lumpur and Serajul Quadir in Dhaka; additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; editing by Nick Macfie, Frances Kerry and Leslie Adler)

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