Rohingya justice: Why the ICJ’s public rebuke of Myanmar matters

Tun Khin

On January 23, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague imposed emergency “provisional measures” on Myanmar regarding its actions against and treatment of the Rohingya minority – my people. To the average person this may sound like incomprehensible legalese. But for many Rohingya, who had long been waiting for the international community to take meaningful action to end their suffering, this was some of the best news they had ever received.

With this decision, the United Nations’ “World Court” effectively instructed the government of Aung San Suu Kyi to respect the requirements of the 1948 genocide convention and bring an end to its military’s attacks on the Rohingya. This decision marked the first time that a credible international body said “enough” to the government that for so many decades has abused and oppressed us.

My people’s plight captured global headlines in August 2017, when the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar military) launched a vicious “clearance operation” in the Rakhine State, which was home to more than a million Rohingya. Over the course of a few weeks, soldiers rampaged through the region, killing thousands, committing mass rapes, burning villages to the ground, and driving more than 700,000 people to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh.

As shocking as the violence was, it was only the tip of the iceberg. For decades, the Myanmar authorities have confined the Rohingya to a virtual open-air prison in the Rakhine state. It denied us citizenship since 1982, effectively rendering us stateless. Our freedom of movement even within Myanmar is extremely limited. We are expected to acquire official permission, and often pay bribes, to leave our home villages. Healthcare and education are off-limits to most Rohingya. This is all part of a deliberate effort by Myanmar not only to dehumanise us, but also to make our lives so miserable that we have no option but to leave.

Of course, even leaving the country is not easy for people who have next to nothing. Other than people who have been pushed in to Bangladesh as result of the violence, and forced to survive in refugee camps, only a few managed to leave the Rakhine state and build a life for themselves abroad.

I was one of these “lucky” people. I fled Rakhine state in the 1990s when I was denied access to a university education simply because I was Rohingya. I have since watched from afar how the Myanmar authorities have carried out their genocidal campaign against my people with impunity.

This is why the ruling means so much to us. I was in the court at The Hague when the verdict was delivered. I had to try really hard not to cry. As I witnessed an official body openly condemn Myanmar for what it did to us, I thought of my friends, family and acquaintances who suffered so much. I thought of the scores of people who shared with me the pain of losing loved ones to the violence of the state. That verdict convinced me that my decades of campaigning for the Rohingya finally achieved something.

The case against Myanmar at the ICJ was brought by The Gambia, a self-described “small country with a big voice on human rights”. The actual case will take years to conclude, but the imposition of provisional measures is a significant victory along the way.

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 security forces do not commit genocide, preserve evidence of genocidal acts and report back on its compliance.

It remains to be seen whether Myanmar will listen to the court and take genuine action. The official reaction has so far been muted, apart from a press release by the Foreign Ministry claiming that the court’s verdict presented a “distorted picture of the situation”.

Unfortunately, it is highly likely that the Myanmar government will simply continue to do what it has long been doing to avoid taking responsibility for its crimes – delays, denials, empty promises and endless pleas for “more time”. Aung San Suu Kyi has herself been leading the government’s PR efforts. It is both sad and ironic that someone who so many Rohingya supported for many years has now become both an apologist and enabler of the Tatmadaw’s genocide.

But there is still some space for optimism.

Myanmar will now be required to provide regular reports to the ICJ on what it has done to improve the situation. A failure to comply could lead to the matter escalating to the UN Security Council. While China has so far shielded Myanmar from the action at the UNSC, the ICJ’s ruling will undoubtedly encourage the global community to do more to protect the Rohingya.

There is no question that the wheels of international justice have started turning. Last November, the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced it was launching an investigation into crimes against humanity committed by the Myanmar security forces against the Rohingya. In the same month, my own organisation, Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, launched a “universal jurisdiction” case against Myanmar in Argentina. This is based on the principle that some crimes are so horrific that they concern humanity as a whole, and can be tried anywhere regardless of where they were committed.

The pressure appears to be getting to the Myanmar leadership. On January 20, Myanmar published its own investigation into the events that transpired in the Rakhine state in the past few years, for the first time admitting that “war crimes and serious human rights violations” had taken place. This report, however, was a blatant PR exercise to deflect attention from the ICJ ruling, and it failed to address many of the most serious violations. It is abundantly clear that Myanmar cannot be trusted to investigate itself, and the international community must deliver justice.

In 2017, as the deadly crackdown by Tatmadaw sent hundreds of thousands fleeing across the border, I spent a month in Bangladesh. During that time, I listened to the stories of countless refugees and witnessed their pain. They told me how they dodged bullets as they fled towards the border. They told me how they helplessly watched their family members being killed and their villages torched to the ground. But they never talked about revenge. They never expressed any desire to avenge what our home country did to them. They told me that all they want is justice. They told me that they want justice for themselves, for the loved ones they lost and the Rohingya community as a whole.

As the court’s decision to rebuke Myanmar for its treatment of the Rohingya was read at The Hague, I was thinking of those refugees. I was thinking how this decision is going to bring them one step closer to achieving justice.

Ultimately, we the Rohingya want to return to our homeland and live in peace with other communities that also call Myanmar home, without having to fear for our lives. Last month, the ICJ offered us a glimmer of hope that this could one day become a reality – now we need the world’s help to secure the future of our people.

 

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