Myanmar's military carried out mass killings and gang rapes of Rohingya with "genocidal intent" and the commander-in-chief and five generals should be prosecuted, UN investigators said on Monday.
It was the first time the United Nations explicitly called for Myanmar officials to face genocide charges over their campaign against the Rohingya, and is likely to deepen the Southeast Asian nation's isolation.
The UN mission found Myanmar's armed forces had taken actions that "undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law", forcing more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee starting in late August 2017.
Speaking in Geneva on Monday, Marzuki Darusman, the mission's chairman, said his researchers amassed evidence based on 875 interviews with witnesses and victims, satellite imagery, and verified photos and videos.
Marzuki said victim accounts were "amongst the most shocking human rights violations" he had come across and would "leave a mark on all of us for the rest of our lives".
He described Myanmar's military as having shown "flagrant disregard for lives" and displayed "extreme levels of brutality".
"The Rohingya are in a continuing situation of severe systemic and institutionalised oppression from birth to death," Marzuki said.
The UN does not apply the word "genocide" lightly.
Its assessment suggests crimes against the Rohingya could meet the strict legal definition used in places such as Bosnia, Rwanda and Sudan's Darfur region.
'Burning entire villages'
The team cited a "conservative" estimate from aid group Reporters Without Borders that some 10,000 people had been killed in the violence, but outside investigators have had no access to the affected regions, making a precise accounting elusive, if not impossible.
The UN report said military generals, including Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, must face investigation and prosecution for "genocidal intent" in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state, as well as crimes against humanity and other war crimes in the states of Kachin and Shan.
The report singled out Myanmar's military, known as the Tatmadaw, but added that other Myanmar security agencies were also involved in abuses.
"Military necessity would never justify killing indiscriminately, gang-raping women, assaulting children, and burning entire villages," the report said.
"The Tatmadaw's tactics are consistently and grossly disproportionate to actual security threats, especially in Rakhine state but also in northern Myanmar."
|A Rohingya family in Balukhali camp [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]|
In Rakhine state, there was evidence of extermination and deportation, the report added.
"The crimes in Rakhine state, and the manner in which they were perpetrated, are similar in nature, gravity and scope to those that have allowed genocidal intent to be established in other contexts," the UN mission concluded, adding there was "sufficient information" to prosecute the military's chain of command.
Christopher Sidoti, a member of the investigatory committee, urged the UN Security Council and General Assembly to act on the report's findings.
"We are convinced the international community holds the key to dismantling the destructive veil of impunity in Myanmar," he said.
'This is extremely significant'
Mohammed Jamjoom, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Cox's Bazar
"What we've heard in the report really lines up with witness testimonies I've heard here.
For most of the past year, when official bodies of governance spoke about the atrocities committed in Rakhine state, they called it ethnic cleansing.
Now there's a very extensive UN fact-finding mission recommending that top tier military officials in Myanmar be prosecuted and investigated for genocide.
When the members of the panel in Geneva laid out their investigation, they said that they conducted 875 interviews, they talked about the destructive veil of impunity in Myanmar and they said that until that is lifted, the cycle of violence in Myanmar will continue.
They said there needs to be a mechanism by which these crimes can be prosecuted and the cycle of violence in Myanmar can be ended.
That's going to be very difficult, we don't know exactly where this goes. At some point, it will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council and then potentially to the UN Security Council.
But we must remember that Myanmar is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, so the International Criminal Court does not have jurisdiction."
Criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi
Investigators compiled a list of suspects, which included Min Aung Hlaing and other military commanders.
The mission said a full list of suspects will be made available to any credible body pursuing accountability, adding that the case should be referred to the International Criminal Court, or an ad hoc criminal tribunal.
Myanmar's civilian leadership also drew criticism for its failure to prevent the abuses.
"The State Counsellor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has not used her de facto position as Head of Government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events in Rakhine State," the report said.
The Government and the Tatmadaw have fostered a climate in which hate speech thrives, human rights violations are legitimized, and incitement to discrimination and violence facilitated.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been criticised internationally for her failure to speak out against abuses in Rakhine State and has had several human rights awards rescinded for her stance.
In August 2017, Myanmar's armed forces launched a campaign ostensibly against Rohingya armed groups in Rakhine state.
Investigators documented mass killings, the destruction of Rohingya dwellings, and "large-scale" gang rape by Myanmar soldiers.
The UN's report drew praise from the ground in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, where refugee camps have taken in hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from across the border.
"We are happy for this. If these army people are punished the world will take note of it. They are killers. They must be punished," said Mohammed Hasan, 46, who lives in the Kutupalong refugee camp.
"They killed thousands, we have seen that. They torched our homes, that's a fact. They raped our women, that's not false."