Holding Junta accountable: The International Court of Justice case of Gambia vs. Myanmar

Myanmar’s counter-memorial on the International Court of Justice case of Rohingya genocide was extended for the second time. The International Court of Justice issued an order on May 12th, pushing the timeframe for Myanmar’s counter-memorial to Gambia’s claims from May 24th to August 24th. This extension was granted at the request of Myanmar, which argues it did not have enough time to gather adequate evidence to prove its case. The light of hope for justice for Rohingyas that gleamed with the ICJ’s decision to hear Gambia’s genocide complaint against Myanmar now appears to be fading with such delays. The horrors committed against the Rohingyas will mark their sixth anniversary next August, while the military aggressors of the Muslim minority group remain unpunished. For decades, their human rights violations against minority groups remained unpunished, resulting in the ongoing catastrophe in Myanmar, where neither Rohingya nor Burmans are safe.

By S.A. Korobi

The Gambia versus Myanmar case began in November 2019, with Gambia charging Myanmar of breaching its obligations under the 1948 Genocide Convention. The small West African state argued that Myanmar’s state-led attack on Rohingyas living in Rakhine state in August 2017 constituted genocide against the population. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where they are now living harrowing days in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar. Despite being directly affected by the fallout of the 2017 military assault on the Rohingyas, Bangladesh has not engaged in any legal disputes with Myanmar, though it has supported the case progress during this time.

Much of the world community has also shown solidarity for the Rohingya people and criticized Myanmar’s actions. Canada and the Netherlands have even formally intervened in the Gambia case, while the United States has vowed to give financial support for the case. However, these efforts have not been sufficient to bring the Myanmar military to justice for its atrocities against the Rohingya population. On the contrary, the court’s decision to extend the rebuttal date by four months from its initial date of April 24th will further postpone justice for the community.

This decision also comes at a time when there have been accusations against the Myanmar state for not following the provisional measures mandated by ICJ to protect the Rohingya population still living in Rakhine state. Nearly 6,00,000 Rohingyas are still living in the Rakhine state where their free movement is barred, they are getting detained for trying to flee from the camps along with having restricted access to medical assistance or any kind of relief aid from the humanitarian organizations. ICJ ordered its provisional measures finding proof that the community needs urgent protection from any kind of violence and acts of genocide but Myanmar’s policies of isolating the community into prison like life not only show its disregard for the court but also its genocidal intent of giving the group a slow death.

Years of not answering its crimes against ethnic minority groups like Rohingya have now made the Junta this invincible. It is continuing a full-blown armed campaign against the people of Myanmar who are resisting its forceful ascent as the Myanmar authority, dodging sanctions from the west and avoiding ASEAN’s plea to halt attacks against the civilians.

The same Burmese military that killed Rohingyas indiscriminately, burnt villages, and raped women without consequence is now using these same tactics against civilians throughout the country.  The Global Centre looks forward to the next stages of the case.

In this grim scenario, the ICJ case might become the key necessary to break the cycle of violence and impunity in Myanmar caused by its military. Although the first step to this has gone sideways as ICJ agreed to let Myanmar’s military be the representative of Myanmar in the case but the bigger picture must be the focus on bringing justice for Rohingyas no matter who represents Myanmar on the stand.

ICJ has already rejected Myanmar’s objections over the court’s jurisdiction in the case along with Gambia being a real applicant or proxy party to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Now the case has entered its merits phase where Myanmar has to show evidence for its side of the story against the charges put forward by the Gambia in the beginning of the case. The case can be monumental on the pathway to justice, not only for the Rohingya, but for everyone in Myanmar. So, it’s high time the international community puts all hands on deck.

United States, United Kingdom and European Union who have been active in sanctioning Junta officials and its financial routes must take a step further and join the Gambia case to show support. It doesn’t come as a surprise that 33 countries formally intervened in Ukraine v. Russian Federation, at the ICJ­, while such enthusiasm lacks for the poor Rohingya community. The two countries’ significant international importance is the defining factor behind such massive intervention. But the international community must understand that its intervention in the Gambia case will boost the legitimacy of the trial and ICJ’s verdict will carry more value.

They must also understand that this case isn’t only a step to hold the military accountable but it will also have far reaching effects on the Rohingya repatriation program and the ongoing anti-resistance movement against civilians by the military. It’s time to fulfill the international community’s pledge to protect people from crimes against humanity and acts of genocide which was the basis of the genocide convention along with the 2005 project of responsibility to protect.

What happens in the ICJ case remains to be seen. Junta’s recent efforts to repatriate Rohingyas from Bangladesh might be another plot to gain some points in the case while also garnering support for its planned election later this year. As the military’s real intentions for the Rohingya community remain unclear, it must be noted that the ICJ case might bring justice to wrongdoings against the Rohingya but it won’t bring much change to their plight unless Myanmar changes its perception towards the community, formally recognizing them as one of their own thus ending their long statelessness.

S.A. Korobi, Student, Peace and Conflict Studies (MSS), Dhaka University, Bangladesh

Pressenza New York