Updated at 6:09 p.m. ET on 2020-01-23
The U.N.’s top court ordered Myanmar on Thursday to protect Rohingya Muslims from genocidal acts, with 17 judges unanimously supporting the imposition of measures on the country to refrain from destroying evidence of alleged crimes that could be used in future hearings.
The small Muslim-majority West African nation of Gambia filed a lawsuit at The Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ) in November on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, accusing Myanmar of violating the 1948 Genocide Convention during the alleged expulsion of Rohingya to Bangladesh amid a military-led crackdown on the minority community in Rakhine state in 2017.
In a hearing in December, Gambia requested that the court order emergency provisional measures to protect Myanmar’s Rohingya from further rights abuses.
The legally binding court order handed down Thursday lists four points in its provisional measures, mandating that Myanmar must prevent the killing or serious injury of the Rohingya, ensure that the military does not harm the Rohingya or conspire to commit genocide, preserve evidence related to the allegations, and report on its compliance with the measures until the ICJ issues a final decision on the case.
The ICJ will transmit its order to the U.N. Security Council as specified in the court’s statute.
In response, the Myanmar government issued a statement taking issue with the court's decision, saying the ICJ must still reach a “factually correct” finding on the charges that genocide occurred in northern Rakhine state, but did not state whether it would comply with the court’s legally binding ruling.
“It is important for Myanmar that the Court reaches a factually correct decision on the merits of the case,” said a statement issued by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
The ministry also took aim at heavy criticism from human rights groups over its handling of the Rohingya crisis.
“The unsubstantiated condemnation of Myanmar by some human rights actors has presented a distorted picture of the situation in Rakhine and affected Myanmar’s bilateral relations with several countries,” the statement said. “This has hampered Myanmar’s ability to lay the foundation for sustainable development in Rakhine.”
The ministry also said that an inquiry commission set up by Myanmar has found that genocide against Rohingya Muslims during a 2017 military-led crackdown did not occur.
Thousands of Rohingya died during the 2017 violence, which included indiscriminate killings, mass rape, torture and village burnings, while more than 740,000 fled to safety in neighboring Bangladesh.
A 2018 investigation of the crackdown by a U.N.-backed Independent International Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Myanmar found that the country had acted with “genocidal intent” against the Rohingya.
Both the Myanmar government and military have denied the accusations.
About 600,000 Rohingya still live in Myanmar, with more than 100,000 residing in camps for the internally displaced. In its report issued in September 2019, the FFM said that the remaining Rohingya “may face a greater threat of genocide than ever.”
Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, who led the defense team at the three-day ICJ hearing in December, said that the Rohingya exodus was the result of “an internal armed conflict” started by Muslim insurgents who attacked police outposts, and that government forces responded with a “clearance operation” to remove the assailants from the area. She also asked the ICJ to drop the case.
A report issued Monday by the Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE), formed by Myanmar in 2018 to investigate accusations of abuses against the Rohingya, concluded that security forces committed war crimes and serious human rights violations, but did not act with “genocidal intent,” despite extensive documentation of atrocities by the U.N’s fact-finding mission and human rights groups.
A ‘major victory’
International rights groups hailed the decision as a crucial measure for protecting Rohingya living in Myanmar and preserving evidence.
“The ICJ order to Myanmar to take concrete steps to prevent the genocide of the Rohingya is a landmark step to stop further atrocities against one of the world’s most persecuted people,” said Param-Preet Singh, associate international justice director at New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“Concerned governments and U.N. bodies should now weigh in to ensure that the order is enforced as the genocide case moves forward,” she said in a statement.
Nicholas Bequelin, regional director of London-based Amnesty International, called the decision “a message to Myanmar’s senior officials: The world will not tolerate their atrocities, and will not blindly accept their empty rhetoric on the reality in Rakhine state today.”
About 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Myanmar “face a real risk of further atrocities,” he said in a statement, urging Myanmar to comply with the ICJ rulings.
Matthew Smith, chief executive of Southeast Asia-based Fortify Rights, applauded the court’s decision as “a major victory for Rohingya everywhere.”
“We encourage Naypyidaw to comply fully with the order,” he said in a statement. “The [U.N.] Security Council will be seized of this issue and any failure to comply would invite unprecedented international action, including sanctions and more.”
Charles Santiago, a Malaysian lawmaker and chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), said the ruling signifies that Myanmar can no longer act with impunity concerning its maltreatment of the Rohingya.
“The ICJ decision sends a clear message to Myanmar that the world is watching, and that it cannot continue to restrict the rights of the Rohingya with impunity,” he said in a statement.
“The Rohingya have for decades faced oppression and violence at the hands of the Myanmar state, including restrictions on movement, citizenship, access to healthcare and education, and even the right to marry.”
Santiago also called on Myanmar to immediately execute the ICJ’s order, adding that the Rohingya still in Myanmar live in “an apartheid system, in close proximity to the security forces who have persecuted them for so many years.”
Myanmar views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though many have lived in the country for generations, and subjects them to systematic discrimination, including restricting their movements and denying them access to basic services.
Sanctions against the military
The International Campaign for the Rohingya also welcomed the ICJ’s ruling.
“It is now imperative that the international community apply sufficient pressure on Myanmar to comply with the International Court of Justice’s rulings and end its genocide of the Rohingya,” Simon Billenness, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.
He called on individual governments and corporations to take targeted action against Myanmar’s military, which is heavily involved in business and the economy.
“We urge governments to impose tough sanctions on the Myanmar military and its business empire,” he said. “We further call on corporations to end any business relationships with companies owned or controlled by the Burmese army. There can be no longer be ‘business as usual’ with the perpetrators of genocide.”
This report was written by Roseanne Gerin of Radio Free Asia, a sister entity of BenarNews.