On 23 January, the International Court of Justice, the United Nations’ highest court, ordered Myanmar to prevent genocidal violence. The decision comes despite de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi personally defending her country against the accusations last month. Thousands of Rohingya died and more than 700,000 fled to Bangladesh during an army crackdown in 2017.
Professor Philippe Sands QC, who acted as counsel for the Gambia who filed the lawsuit against Myanmar, said:
“On the cusp of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the court’s clear and forceful order, which is binding, is a significant day for international law, the rights of individuals and groups, and the meaningful obligation of every state and person to desist from any act that could plausibly be characterised as genocide.”
The panel of 17 judges voted unanimously to order Myanmar to take “all measures within its power” to prevent genocide, which they said the Rohingya remained at serious risk of. These include the prevention of killing, and “causing serious bodily or mental harm” to members of the group, as well as preserving evidence of possible genocide that has already occurred.
The orders are automatically sent to the UN security council, where Myanmar’s response will be assessed. The country receives diplomatic support from China, which is one of the five permanent members of the council.
On the same day as the ruling was announced, Aung San Suu Kyi admitted that war crimes may have been committed against Rohingya Muslims but denied genocide, saying refugees had exaggerated the extent of abuses against them. In an opinion piece published in the Financial Times ahead of the ICJ ruling on the issue, she said Myanmar was the victim of “unsubstantiated narratives” by human rights groups and UN investigators.
“The international justice system may not yet be equipped to filter out misleading information before shadows of incrimination are cast over entire nations and governments,” she said. “Human rights groups have condemned Myanmar based on unproven statements without the due process of criminal investigation.”
During the three-day hearing at the court in December, Ms Suu Kyi, who led her country’s defence personally, asked the ICJ to drop the case which she described as “incomplete and incorrect”. The ICJ ruling amounts to an outright rejection of her arguments against the accusations of systematic human rights abuses and war crimes.
The case, lodged by the African Muslim-majority nation of the Gambia, called for emergency measures to be taken against the Myanmar military until a fuller investigation could be launched. The measures are binding and not subject to appeal, but the court has no means of enforcing them.
Yet the case has not been heard in full and Thursday’s ruling deals only with Gambia’s request for so-called preliminary measures, the equivalent of a restraining order for states. It gives no indication of the court’s final decision, which could take years to reach. Just three cases have been recognised under international law since the Second World War: Cambodia in the late 1970s, Rwanda in 1994 and Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1995.
With more than half a million Rohingya believed to still be living in Rakhine, UN investigators have warned there is a “serious risk that genocidal actions may occur or recur”.
The Rohingya, who numbered around one million in Myanmar at the start of 2017, are one of the many ethnic minorities in the country. Rohingya Muslims are the largest community of Muslims in Myanmar, with the majority living in Rakhine state. But Myanmar’s government denies them citizenship, refusing to recognise them as a people and seeing them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
According to an article written by Wendy Bone for The Investigative Journal, for the past 40 years more than one million Rohingya have been denied higher education, proper medical care, and citizenship. More recently, at least 24,800 Rohingya were killed, 42,000 received gunshot wounds, and 18,500 women and adolescents have been raped.
Valerie Peay, Director of the International Observatory of Human Rights (IOHR), said:
“The Rohingya have been massacred, persecuted and those who survived, forced to flee their own country. The ICJ’s ruling shows that the world is on watch for Myanmar to finally protect its people and resolve this travesty of justice.”
As part of IOHR’s new series Spotlight on Statelessness, we interviewed Saiful Huq Omi, a documentary photographer who has documented the Rohingya people for the past twelve years as well as Hafsar Tameesuddin and Sujauddin Karimuddin, two Rohingya activists, about the repercussions of the Rohingya crisis. Their testimonies below broadcast on IOHRTV paint the extent of the atrocities: