Along Myanmar’s north-western coast lies the State of Rakhine, home to many Rohingya people; an Indo-Aryan ethnic group who predominantly follow Islam, contrary to the country’s Buddhist majority. The Rohingya people have been denied Burmese citizenship and since 1978, have been subject to regular persecution at the hands of Myanmar’s past military dictatorship and extreme Buddhist’s nationalists. The stateless ethnic group saw two separate phases of particularly gruesome persecution in late 2016 and 2017 in which the UN claimed evidence for counts of wide-scale and systematic human rights violations. Extrajudicial killings, arson and gang rape have been the cause of thousands of deaths and by 2017, had forced over 700,000 into refugee camps along the border of neighbouring country, Bangladesh.
On Thursday 23rd of January 2020, half the world away in The Hague, Somalian Judge Abdulqawi Yusuf of The International Court of Justice (IOJ) ordered Myanmar to comply with the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide 1948 through imposing “provisional measures” against the country. Myanmar is compelled to take “all measures within its power” to prevent any militant force from genocidal attacks including murder, rape, the burning of villages and prevention of access to medicine. The country also must preserve any evidence of genocide for the ongoing trial and provide the court with a report on progressions made in the Rakhine State in 4 months’ time and every 6 months after that, pressurising Myanmar to cease all attacks.
The case was brought last November by Gambia on behalf of 57-nation-group, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and Gambia’s Lawyer, Andrew Loewenstein voiced a harrowing testimony of a Rohingya woman describing the brutal and systematic killings of all males in her village, including her 8-year-old nephew, a story far too familiar to many Rohingya people.
The international community have deplored the actions of Myanmar’s government and extreme militant groups. The case has been described as an ‘ethnic cleansing’ by the UK’s Theresa May and President Macron of France has named the persecution a “genocide.” The provisional measures announced by the court has been widely welcomed by the international community, particularly Bangladesh, in which over 1 million Rohingya refugees currently live.
The Burmese Civilian Leader and once, symbol for peace, Aung San Suu Kyi has defended her government’s action, stating that “ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression for what’s happening” and that statements labelling the persecution as a genocide are “unproven.” She justified the reasoning for militant action against the Rohingya people as defence against the extremist terrorist group of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) who are active in the region. Her methods of combatting the terrorist group has been described as “unproportioned,” as attacks from ARSA do not warrant indiscriminate murdering of each member of the ethnic group from which ARSA has derived. Aung’s stance has been the centre of international outrage and confusion. After being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution in bringing democracy to Myanmar, she is defending the same army which took her freedom away during the 20-year period she spent under house arrest.
But do Myanmar have to follow the court’s ruling? The IOJ is often referred as the “World Court,” due to its importance and the judgement itself is binding. However, the binding effect of the judgement may not be enforced as Russia and China, who have significant power on the UN Security council, have expressed sympathy towards Myanmar; meaning the prospects of security for the Rohingya people is dwindling.
Rob Ó Beacháin – Law Editor