What an ICJ trial means for the Rohingya and Burma

On December 10, 2019, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) began its hearing in the Hague, Netherlands, to determine whether the Buddhist-dominated Burmese military committed genocide against the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority in Rakhine State. The trials come after Gambia filed a lawsuit accusing Burma of perpetrating genocide against Rohingya Muslims. 

The Rohingya have experienced continuous violence due to various military crackdowns and a history of discrimination on the part of the Burmese government. A 1982 Burmese citizenship law denies the Rohingya citizenship, stating that the Rohingya are not considered part of Burma’s official indigenous races despite the group’s presence in Burma for generations. Amnesty International reported on the apartheid-like conditions and open-air prisons that the Rohingya are subjected to, in addition to the numerous accounts of gang-rapes, pillaging, forced labor, starvation, and complete burning down of villages that have resulted in the almost 1.2 million people in need of humanitarian aid because of the crisis. The most recent military crackdown occurred in August 2017, where civilians were attacked and killed, with some even showing up to refugee camps in Bangladesh with bullet wounds. 

Since August 2017, an estimated 700,000 Rohingyas have fled Burma and now reside in overcrowded and under-resourced camps. Response from the international community has been minimal: the United Nations has recommended arms embargoes and sanctions on Burmese officials, but Security Council action is continuously blocked by China and Russia, who side with the Burmese government in justifying the crackdowns as an attempt for increased stability in Burma. 

Gambia’s attorney general and justice minister Abubacarr M. Tambadou visited Rohingya refugees in May 2018 and recalled his experience working in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide stating, “The world failed to help in 1994, and the world is failing to protect vulnerable people 25 years later.” With the backing of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, Gambia filed the first international lawsuit against Burma, alleging that the nation had breached the 1948 UN Genocide Convention. 

ICJ hearings commenced at the Hague between December 10-12, but the Burmese government continues to deny any genocidal intent and defends the bloody crackdowns as anti-terrorism efforts. Burma leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose legacy as a Nobel Peace Prize winner has been tarnished due to her support of the Burmese military and failure to even recognize violence in the nation, avoided using the word “Rohingya” through the entirety of her 3,379-word speech at the ICJ to further delegitimize the minority. Suu Kyi declared that the case was made on “misleading and incomplete” claims and that hearings may further ignite the violence. 

The ICJ announced that on Thursday, January 23, 2020, a decision would be made as to whether provisional measures should be placed on Burma to order an end to the nation’s genocidal campaign. If the case is successful, there will be great incentive for the Burmese government to hold its top leaders accountable and extend aid to the numerous other ethnic groups in Burma suffering from violence in their respective states. For decades, in ethnic areas such as Shan, Ta-ang, Pa-Oh, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, and Mon, the Burmese military has carried out mass gang rape, sexual violence, pillaging of homes, and grave crimes that are constantly overlooked. The infamous “Four Cuts Campaign” was intended to drive out ethnic armed organizations and led to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced peoples and refugees fleeing to neighboring countries. 

Accountability in an international, independent court holds major implications not only for the Rohingya but for the dozens of other ethnic groups enduring persecution. Justice is necessary for a nation as diverse as Burma to truly find sustainable peace, and the mere existence of an ICJ investigation is one step closer to breaking the cycle of impunity. It is for this reason that the U.S. Campaign for Burma implores the International Court of Justice to fully and impartially exercise its mandate and power, and urges the international community to show their solidarity in pursuing justice and accountability in Burma.

 


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