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A sign of hope for the Rohingya people

  • 31 January 2020


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.

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