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The long road to justice for Rohingya Muslims

28th Feb 2020
The long road to justice for Rohingya Muslims

A Rohingya Muslim woman, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, lies unconscious on the shore of Bay of Bangal after the boat she was traveling in capsized at Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh, on September 14, 2017 (Credit: Zakir Hossain Chowdhury Anadolu Agency)

It is rather ironic that just days before the world marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz; the UN’s highest court was ordering the Government of Myanmar to cease all acts of genocide against the Rohingya Muslims.

In a unanimous decision, the Government of 73-year old Aung San Suu Kyi was instructed to respect the requirements of the 1948 genocide convention from a year after her birth. Some 29 years ago, the Nobel Peace laureate had been awarded rather questionably for her apparent non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.

Since the 2017 military genocide of the Rohingya, over 900,000 Muslim refugees have been estimated to have fled to south-eastern Bangladesh.

Tens of thousands have been killed or raped during the genocide, while the ICJ warned Myanmar that an estimated 600,000 Rohingya remained “extremely vulnerable” to attacks by the military. It has been a long road for Rohingya Muslims to seek any kind of justice and no doubt there is much, much further still to go.

The ICJ’s orders are binding on Myanmar and create legal obligations that must be enforced. The provisional measures imposed by the court require the Government to prevent genocidal acts, ensure military and police forces do not commit genocide, preserve evidence of genocidal acts and report back on its compliance within four months.

It is being left to the UN Security Council to assess compliance, with Myanmar receiving diplomatic support from China, one of the five permanent members.

The case was brought to the ICJ by the Gambia. The predominantly Muslim west African state alleged Myanmar had breached the genocide convention, which was enacted after the Holocaust. The request was for “provisional measures”, the equivalent of a restraining order on states.

It is one of the first attempts to use the international justice system to help the Rohingya people. It follows the ICJ imposing provisional measures on Serbia in relation to preventing genocide in the 1990s, though this is the first time they have been unanimous and so wide-ranging.

Although there is still a long way to go before the order becomes reality and actual improvements are enacted in the lives of the Rohingya, it is a further rebuke of Aung San Suu Kyi, especially after she went personally to The Hague to defend the actions of the Myanmar military.

In December, she launched a trenchant defence of Myanmar against genocide allegations, insisting that the accusers were painting an “incomplete and misleading” picture of a military crackdown that triggered an exodus of Rohingya Muslims. Even on the eve of the report, the country’s de facto Prime Minister appealed for more time to deliver justice for war crimes.

Separate claims have been lodged in both the International Criminal Court and Argentina’s courts over torture and other war crimes.

The interim ICJ orders preventing genocide may encourage judges elsewhere to take action against individuals. It is hoped that the success for the Gambia at The Hague may also encourage other countries to join the action which will now progress to more detailed judicial investigative hearings. The court is expected to put huge pressure on the government to comply with the ruling.

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