On Thursday, January 23, 2020, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled to impose provisional measures on Burma, instructing the government to respect the requirements of the 1948 Genocide Convention. A panel of 17 judges unanimously voted for Burma to take “all measures within its power” to prevent continued genocide, which includes mitigating the killing of and mental harm to the Rohingya and preserving any evidence that genocide has occurred previously. The ICJ’s rule comes after Burma’s history of genocidal violence against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, where the group has endured rape, arson, and murder and is rendered stateless due to Burma’s stripping away of their citizenship.
Although the ICJ imposed provisional measures on Serbia in the 1990s, this is the first time the court has been unanimous- even the judge chosen by Burma expressed disapproval of the country. Burma is legally bound to comply with the court’s orders and must report back in four months and again six months later, allowing pressure to be kept on the government for nearly a year. Despite a current victory for the Rohingya people and persecuted ethnic minorities across Burma, some experts fear that the ICJ’s ruling could prompt revenge attacks from armed groups. Additionally, the court did not impose a provision allowing United Nations investigators to analyze on-the-ground crimes in Rakhine State, giving Burma the chance to cover up atrocities committed by the military that could be considered genocide. To hold Burma accountable if the ICJ’s measures are not followed, the court can call upon the United Nations Security Council to enforce the ICJ’s orders.
In tandem with Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to use the word “Rohingya” in her speech at The Hague in defense of Burma, the nation’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the ruling presented a “distorted picture of the situation” and blames condemnations from human rights groups for affecting Burma’s relations with the rest of the international community. In further rejection of the ICJ’s ruling, the Burmese government still holds its argument that military campaigns are waged for the sake of hampering “extremist threats” in Rakhine State. It is important to note that Aung San Suu Kyi’s legacy as a Nobel Peace Prize winner is widely confirmed as tarnished after her response to the court’s judgment, in which she defended genocide.
The ICJ’s ruling does present some justice for the thousands of persecuted and displaced Roghinya, however. Dozens of refugees crowded around any screens available to watch the proceedings at The Hague in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, and Kutupalong refugee camp. The ICJ has recognized that any Rohingya who remain in Burma are still at serious risk of violence. If Burma complies with the court’s rule, the first steps towards sustainable peace may be achieved. It is important to recognize that Burma is a diverse nation with dozens of ethnic minorities, many of which are experiencing persecution, trafficking, and discrimination in their respective states. A compliant Burmese government and pressure from the international community could mean justice for Shan, Ta-ang, Pa-Oh, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, and Mon groups, alongside the Rohingya, where the numbers for internally displaced peoples are on the constant rise due to fighting that continues on a daily basis. The U.S. Campaign for Burma urges the Burmese military, policymakers, and Aung San Suu Kyi to take the International Court of Justice’s measures, hold themselves accountable for the millions of individuals suffering, and stand on the right side of history.