Will Myanmar comply with the UN court’s order on Rohingya?
The surprisingly strong ruling against Myanmar by the United Nations’ top court this week is sure to increase international pressure on the country to protect its Muslim Rohingya minority, who critics say have been the victims of a government-sanctioned genocide.
But on Friday — a day after the International Court of Justice in The Hague ordered Myanmar to protect the Rohingya and report back regularly on the steps it has taken to do so — it was still unclear what the country’s response would be. The government has said almost nothing about the ruling, except to deny that the widely documented killing and persecution of the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military amounted to genocide.
Rights lawyers and an attorney for the African nation of Gambia, which brought the case, said the unanimous decision by the 15-judge panel had gone beyond even what Gambia had asked for. Myanmar and Gambia were each allowed to appoint a member of the panel, and even Myanmar’s choice — Claus Kress, a German law professor — sided with Gambia.
“This is an important ruling for a number of reasons,” said Carla Ferstman, a senior lecturer at the Human Rights Center at the University of Essex in England. She said the decision “means it won’t be enough for Myanmar to just avoid doing bad things. It must take active steps, and then prove it has done so, with a clear timetable for reporting.”
Myanmar has been condemned around for the world for its military’s assault on the Rohingya in the western state of Rakhine, which since 2017 has driven more than 700,000 people across the border into Bangladesh. Rights groups documented mass killings, rape and the burning of entire villages.
More than 100,000 Rohingya have been forced into camps within Myanmar, many of them in waves of violence that predated the 2017 campaign.
But for all of the denunciations by the United Nations, rights groups and various governments, the case brought by Gambia led to the first international court ruling against Myanmar since the atrocities began.
“The court confirmed that no matter where genocide occurs, it’s a matter for the entire international community, and that a state does not have to be connected or affected by the genocide in order for them to take action to prevent, end and punish it,” said Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the New York-based Global Justice Center.
Gambia, which brought the case on behalf of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, has asked the court to declare that Myanmar has violated the Genocide Convention. That decision could be years away.
But in its ruling on Thursday, the court ordered Myanmar to take steps to prevent acts of genocide against the 600,000 Rohingya estimated to remain in the country, and to prevent the destruction of any evidence of genocide.
Going further than Gambia had asked, the court also ordered Myanmar to file a report every six months until the case is resolved, spelling out what it has done to protect the Rohingya. (Gambia had asked only for a single report.) The first report is due in four months.
The court has no enforcement powers, but the United Nations Security Council can act on its findings. The world body’s secretary-general, António Guterres, welcomed the ruling and said he would transmit it to the Security Council.
Radhakrishnan said that if Myanmar disobeyed the order, it could mean an end to the “shocking level of leniency” she said the country had enjoyed on rights issues since its transition to partial democracy began in 2011.
“Now, the failure to comply with such a clear legally binding order would have the potential to change this dynamic and have Myanmar face real consequences,” she said.
The question now is whether Myanmar will comply.
The government’s chief spokesman, Zaw Htay, did not respond to phone calls or written questions about the court order. He has previously said that he would only answer reporters’ questions at news conferences in the secluded capital, Naypyidaw. His last news conference there was more than two months ago.
Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, a spokesman for Myanmar’s military, which operates autonomously from the civilian side of the government, said in a brief interview that it would “cooperate with the government and we will work under the guidance of the government” in response to the ruling. He did not elaborate.
Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry issued a short statement after the ruling on Thursday that did not address the court’s order, but repeated the government’s denial that the Rohingya had been subjected to genocide.
The statement echoed what appears to be Myanmar’s new public relations approach: admitting that war crimes were committed in Rakhine, but denying that they amounted to genocide.
On Tuesday, a government-appointed commission released a summary of a report concluding that the security forces had engaged in mass killings of civilians in several locations in Rakhine, leaving as many as 900 dead. But it said it found no evidence of “genocidal intent.” The full report has not been released.
“The commission found that war crimes had occurred, and those are now being investigated and prosecuted by Myanmar’s national criminal justice system,” the Foreign Ministry said in its statement.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader — a Nobel Peace laureate who has defended the military against the genocide accusations — made much the same point in an article published on Thursday in The Financial Times.
The genocide case has pit predominantly Muslim Gambia, which only recently tossed out its longtime dictator, against predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, which has yet to fully emerge from decades of military control.
“It is a very strong decision and it has given hope to Rohingya around the world,” said Arsalan Suleman, who was a diplomat in President Barack Obama’s State Department and is now an attorney on Gambia’s legal team. He praised Gambia’s “moral leadership” at a time when, he said, it often seems lacking on the global stage.
“You have a country in Africa, not an extremely well-developed country, but a country that really cares about human rights and dignity, and it has made it a national concern to fight for the Rohingya,” Suleman said.
In telephone interviews, Rohingya living in the Thae Chaung camp for internally displaced people, one of 14 such camps in Rakhine State, praised the court ruling and expressed hope that Myanmar would abide by the order.
“We are living in terrible conditions,” said Ko Kyaw Aung, 32, who moved to the camp in 2012, after an anti-Rohingya mob destroyed his home and small grocery shop. “There is still no hope of closing down the camp and returning to our land.”
He said the court’s order was “the only hope to bring justice and dignity” to Rohingya in the Rakhine camps, who he said numbered about 130,000.
Dr. Ferstman, of the University of Essex, said the ruling amounted to “a good day for smaller nations, for less powerful groups, who doubt they can also achieve justice.”
“Today, we have seen that the system can work for all and Gambia — a country with no direct link to Myanmar — should be applauded for bringing this case,” she said.