Myanmar has been ordered by the United Nations’ highest court to prevent genocidal violence against its Rohingya Muslim minority and preserve evidence of past attacks.
In a momentous and unanimous decision, the international court of justice in The Hague ordered Myanmar to carry out emergency, “provisional” measures, intervening in the country’s domestic affairs by instructing the government of Aung San Su Kyi to respect the requirements of the Genocide Convention.
Declaring that there was prima facie evidence of breaches of the convention, the court found that the estimated 600,000 Rohingya remaining in Myanmar are “extremely vulnerable” to violence at the hands of Myanmar’s military forces.
The ruling amounts to a rejection of Aung San Su Kyi’s defence of her country against accusations of systematic human rights abuses and war crimes during a three-day hearing at the ICJ last month.
The case was brought by the Gambia, a predominantly Muslim west African state that alleges Myanmar has breached the 1948 genocide convention enacted after the Holocaust. It argues that the violence is continuing.
Gambia’s attorney general and justice minister, Abubacarr Marie Tambadou, told the court in December : “Another genocide is unfolding right before our eyes yet we do nothing to stop it. This is a stain on our collective conscience. It’s not only the state of Myanmar that is on trial here, it’s our collective humanity that is being put on trial.”
The complaint is one of the first attempts to use the international justice system to help the estimated 730,000 Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar following army clearance operations in Rakhine province during 2017.
Lawyers for the Gambia had called on the ICJ to impose protective provisional measures to prevent further killings and destruction in Myanmar. The case was heard by a panel of 17 international judges, including one each nominated by Myanmar and the Gambia.
Six of Myanmar’s most senior army officers have been accused of genocide by a UN fact-finding mission and recommended for criminal prosecution.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to attend the court in person astounded human rights groups. Once an international icon representing peaceful defiance of military dictatorship, the 74-year-old has seen her reputation plummet as she repeatedly defended her country’s army in the aftermath of the Rohingya exodus.
She urged ICJ judges to dismiss allegations that Myanmar committed genocide and instead allow the country’s court martial system to deal with any human rights abuses.
A Myanmar government-appointed panel, the Independent Commission of Enquiry, said on Monday it had found no evidence of genocide. Rohingya leaders have branded the probe a “whitewash”.
The ICJ only hears cases brought by one state against another. It has jurisdiction to hear complaints of breaches of the Genocide Convention even if the aggrieved state is not directly affected by violence or refugees.
The court can use its legal powers to impose provisional measures on member states in relation to their obligations under the convention. The court could order Myanmar to end an ongoing genocide, prevent genocide occurring in the future, stop the destruction of evidence and take steps to preserve evidence of genocide. - G