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Rohingya refugees stand on a hill overlooking a new arrival at the refugee camp of Tang Khali near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

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By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations has yet to determine whether violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar meets the legal definition of genocide, Jyoti Sanghera, Asia Pacific chief at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Wednesday.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein has called the situation "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing", but he has not used the word genocide.

"We are yet looking at the legal boundaries of that," Sanghera said. "It could meet the boundaries, but we haven’t yet made that legal determination at OHCHR."

A U.N. team took witness statements from Rohingya refugees last month, and another human rights mission is currently on the ground, gathering evidence from some of the 582,000 Rohingya who have fled into Bangladesh in the last two months.

"The testimony gathered by the team referred to unspeakable horrors," Sanghera told an audience at Geneva's Graduate Institute. “Even as I speak this evening the world is witnessing a horrific spectacle of massive forced displacement and suffering.”

A few hundred thousand Rohingya are thought to remain in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state, she said.

The refugees described massive detention and systematic rape by Myanmar security forces, deliberate destruction of Rohingya villages so that people could not return, and deliberate targeting of cultural and religious leaders that aimed to "diminish Rohingya history, culture and knowledge", she said.

Imams had their beards shaved or burnt off, and women and girls were raped inside mosques. Some refugees said their non-Rohingya neighbours had been given weapons and uniforms and worked in concert with the security forces.

“Unsettled post-colonial questions and tensions fuelled by colonial powers of the past have been exploited by the military junta in Myanmar to keep ethnic rivalries simmering," Sanghera said.

"Systematic and acute discrimination of the Rohingya Muslims continues to be kept alive by the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, to a point referred to recently by the High Commissioner for Human Rights as 'ethnic cleansing' of an entire people.”

Designating the Rohingya as victims of genocide under a 1948 U.N. convention would increase pressure on the international community to take action to protect them, and could expose Myanmar officials to a greater threat of international justice.

The U.N. convention, passed in the wake of the Nazi holocaust, requires countries to act to prevent and punish genocide, which it defines as any of a number of acts committed with the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part" a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

It is one of four categories of crimes subject to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; editing by Ralph Boulton and Peter Graff)

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