A sign of hope for the Rohingya people

 

On 23 January, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) handed down an unprecedented unanimous decision on provisional measures in the case of The Gambia v Myanmar. It gave orders that Myanmar must protect its Rohingya population from acts that amount to genocide and preserve all possible evidence of genocidal acts. The judgement also instructed that Myanmar must report to the court on compliance with these provisional measures within four months and every six months after that.

Men and boys perform a special prayer for a good outcome at the ICJ hearing at a mosque at the Cox's Bazar Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh on 23 January 2020. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)The full ICJ decision however, concerning whether Myanmar has violated the Genocide Convention, could be years away and the potential for a successful case before the International Criminal Court is limited by the fact that Myanmar would likely be unwilling to cooperate with bringing defendants forward. De-facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was present at the hearing, denied allegations of genocide and the government of Myanmar has since issued a statement stating that no genocide has taken place in Rakhine State.

While any of the 149 countries who are signatories to the Genocide Convention could have initiated the case, it was The Gambia who did so with the support of the 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Gambian Justice Minister Abubacaar Tambadou was led to initiate the case after visiting Cox's Bazar, hosting the largest refugee camp in the world where hundreds of thousands of displaced Rohingya now reside. After listening to their stories, he was reminded of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and felt compelled to act.

Vice President Xue of China offered a separate opinion in the decision, in which he stated that the evidence demonstrated 'a case of a protracted problem of ill-treatment of ethnic minorities in Myanmar rather than of genocide'. This raises questions around how China may exercise its power within the UN Security Council concerning the Rohingya going forward. Notably, when the atrocities of 2017 were occurring in Myanmar, UN Security Council inaction was supported by Russia and China.

This judgement is internationally binding, yet the ICJ does not hold powers of enforcement. Breaches can be referred to the UN Security Council, whose central limitation in its decision-making remains the power of veto, as has been seen in the case of Syria, for which 12 vetoes have been issued since 2011. This once again raises questions about the ability of the Security Council to act in response to the gravest of human rights violations as it failed to do in cases such as Rwanda, and whether this judgement provides enough impetus for an increase in international pressure. Both Canada and the UK have expressed their support of the decision.

The plight of the Rohingya people gained international attention when the military 'clearance operations' of 2017 took place that has seen over 700,000 people, the majority of which are Rohingya, flee from Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh. Nevertheless, the persecution of the minority dates back decades. Myanmar's 1982 Citizenship Act does not recognise the Rohingya as citizens. Unlike other groups that have been forced to flee their homes, the Rohingya are more vulnerable due to their statelessness.

While the judgement has given hope to some, the population still remains largely in dismal and precarious refugee camp conditions. Aid targets to support the population have not been met and as has occurred in many humanitarian crises across time, there is friction between local organisations who have been first on the ground and international organisations who attract greater donor support.

 

"This supports an urgent call to the international community to fulfill their Responsibility to Protect under international law and act where there have been failures to do so in the past."

 

In March 2019, Bangladesh announced it would no longer accept Rohingya refugees and some 600,000 still remain in Rakhine state. Some 100 children are born every day in the refugee camps of southern Bangladesh, with over half the Rohingya refugee population being children, who do not have access to education.

One recent initiative in Cox's Bazar was the introduction of 30 solar lamps, as the camps were previously without electricity at night, yet who of the hundreds of thousands of people actually benefit from this is unknown. There have been reports since last year of an increasing crackdown on movement of people in and out of the camps including to access medical care, limitations on internet and the introduction of fencing of the outer boundaries of the camps.

Myanmar has failed to demonstrate intent to safely repatriate this minority or move toward a political solution. While the actions Myanmar may take in light of the orders are yet to be seen, early signs are not positive. On 25 January, two days after the judgement was handed down, two people were killed and several injured in a Rohingya village in Rakhine state as the result of an artillery attack by the military.

This supports an urgent call to the international community to fulfill their Responsibility to Protect under international law and act where there have been failures to do so in the past.

 

 

Bree Alexander's words have appeared with Enchanting Verses, Westerly Magazine and Australian Multilingual Writing Project. Under pseudonym Lika Posamari, she was shortlisted for the Overland Fair Australia Prize 2018 (NTEU category) and published a poetry chapbook The Eye as it Inhales Onions.

Main image: Men and boys perform a special prayer for a good outcome at the ICJ hearing at a mosque at the Cox's Bazar Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh on 23 January 2020. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Bree Alexander, Rohingya, Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi

 

 

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