Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was once seen as a champion for human rights, is preparing to defend her country against accusations of genocide. Myanmar’s military has committed atrocities against the ethnic Rohingya Muslims, including mass murder, rape, and arson. The Gambia, a West African state, backed by 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Peace, filed a case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), arguing that the actions of Myanmar’s military violate provisions of the Genocide Convention. This lawsuit marks the first time that a country without a direct connection to the alleged crimes has used its membership in the Genocide Convention to bring a case before the ICJ.
Aung San Suu Kyi left for the Netherlands on Sunday for three days of hearings that will begin on December 10th in the Hague. “This is the last chance for her to restore her international stature,” said Abdul Malik Majahid, chair of the U.S.-based Burma Task Force, to The Guardian. “The best thing she could say would be to admit that crimes have been committed and [that she will] cooperate. Evidence of genocide should be preserved, the Rohingya should have their citizenship restored and be allowed to return.” Despite international condemnation, Suu Kyi, whose government has defended the atrocities as a legitimate response to attacks by Rohingya militants, remains overwhelmingly popular at home.
Myanmar’s crimes against the Rohingya minority span decades and are well-documented by the United Nations, the media, and human rights groups. However, until The Gambia brought the case before the ICJ, the government of Myanmar has, for the most part, been beyond the reach of justice. The Gambia’s case identified two specific elements of Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya as “particularly indicative of genocidal intent”: its systematic denial of legal rights to Rohingya, such as their ability to marry and bear children and severe restrictions on freedom of movement, including detention camps; and its support for, and participation in, hate campaigns aimed at demonizing and dehumanizing the group.
The Gambia also pointed to incidents from October 2016 and August 2017 as genocidal acts, including ethnic cleansing campaigns that forced more than 740,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh, mass executions of men, women, and children, the systematic burning of Rohingya villages, and the commission of rape on a massive scale. They also highlight ongoing acts of genocide, such as the destruction of more than 30 villages between November 2018 and May 2019 and the denial to Rohingya of access to food. They note that the 600,000 Rohingya still living in Myanmar are under threat of further genocidal acts.
While the Myanmar government has repeatedly avoided taking steps towards justice for the crimes committed by its military, if the ICJ rules in favour of The Gambia, it could provide the victims some relief. The Gambia has asked the court to declare that Myanmar has and continues to breach its obligations under the Genocide Convention; must cease ongoing genocidal acts and fully respect its obligations moving forward; must ensure that perpetrators of genocide are held to account before a competent tribunal; and must provide reparations to Rohingya victims of genocidal acts. Under article 94 of the UN Charter, all member countries must abide by ICJ decisions in cases to which they are a party. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has also launched a separate investigation into alleged crimes against humanity committed by Myanmar’s leaders.
“As a country recently emerging from decades of brutal dictatorship, The Gambia’s leadership on the Rohingya genocide is especially striking and welcome,” said Alison Smith, international justice director at No Peace Without Justice. “Other members of the Genocide Convention should follow The Gambia’s lead and lend their clear and unwavering support.” Canada, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Turkey, and France have also asserted that Myanmar has committed genocide against the Rohingya. While hundreds are currently rallying in Myanmar to show support for Suu Kyi ahead of the hearings, there is hope that the ICJ will hold Myanmar accountable and rule in favor of The Gambia, thus giving voice to the victims and working to prevent further suffering.
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