On 2nd September, in a historic move, Canada and The Netherlands have formally joined Gambia in the legal battle to hold the government of Myanmar accountable over allegations of genocide against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group. In 2017, Myanmar’s military committed crimes against humanity and about 900,000 Rohingya were forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh, where they are trapped in overcrowded camps. Last November, Gambia filed the case at the UN Court (ICJ), on behalf of the 57 member-state Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
The foreign minister of Canada, Francois-Philippe Champagne, and The Netherlands, Stef Blok, announced they will support Gambia in the case at the ICJ and focus on the prosecution of crimes related to sexual and gender-based violence, stating they will “assist with the complex legal issues that are expected to arise” and seek to “prevent the crime of genocide and hold those responsible to account.” Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Centre for Justice, applauded Canada and The Netherlands’ action, calling it “nothing short of historic” and noted: “just as important as their intention to intervene is their promise to focus on gendered crimes of genocide like sexual and gender-based violence, which was central to the atrocities against the Rohingya.” Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the initial hearings in The Hague in December last year, called for the dismissal of the case, rejected genocide claims, and warned the UN judges that the case will risk reigniting the crisis and could “undermine reconciliation.”
There has been a disappointing lack of commitment by the UN Security Council, as since February 2019 there has been no formal session addressing Myanmar. This however is not the result of a deadlocked Council through the veto power, but rather a lack of political will, as only 9 votes are needed and there is no veto possible on procedural matters such as the Council’s agenda. Canada and The Netherlands’ decision to support Gambia is thus long overdue and further countries, not only those with strong ties to Islam, should come forward and legally support Gambia in the case. As signatories of the 1948 Genocide Convention, states are obliged to prevent and punish actions of genocide. Contrary to Aung San Suu Kyi’s claims, lasting peace and stability in Myanmar cannot be achieved in the absence of justice.
According to Human Rights Watch, in 2017 about 900,000 Rohingya were forced to flee to Bangladesh following a brutal military campaign of discrimination and repression. The 600,000 remaining in Rakhine State are facing systematic human rights abuses. A UN independent report has urged investigation into war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Gambia’s case, filed in 2019 at the ICJ, states Myanmar’s violations include genocide against the Rohingya, through systematic mass murder, sexual violence, torture, forced displacement, and denial of access to food and shelter. The ICJ in January ordered Myanmar to take emergency measures to protect its Rohingya population, until a final ruling is made, a process which will likely take years. According to Yanghee Lee, the then UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, “nothing has happened since the January ruling.”
Looking ahead, it is thus critical that the international community moves quickly to stop the ongoing atrocities against the Rohingya, supporting independent accountability efforts and a repatriation process. For this, it is imperative that other states follow Canada and The Netherlands’ move as parties to the Genocide Convention and hold perpetrators to account. Additionally, a more strategic, cohesive and sustained action by UN bodies is critical to protect the countless civilians in Myanmar whose lives remain at serious risk.
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