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Genocide case against Myanmar moves forward at World Court

The West African state of Gambia is accusing Myanmar of violating a post-World War II convention against genocide with its treatment of the Rohingya.

THE HAGUE. Netherlands (CN) — The United Nations' top court has given the green light for charges of genocide to move forward against Myanmar. 

The International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, on Friday rejected a series of preliminary objections made by Myanmar's government in Naypyidaw, finding that Gambia can bring a complaint under the 1948 Genocide Convention regarding the treatment of the Rohingya people, an ethnic minority who predominantly follow Islam. The vast majority of Myanmar citizens are Buddhists.

“Any state party to the Genocide Convention may invoke the responsibility of another,” said the court’s president, Judge Joan E. Donoghue, in reading the judgment Friday.

The Hague-based court will now move forward to assess the allegations that Myanmar has breached the post-World War II treaty outlawing genocide by murdering and displacing thousands of members of the Muslim-minority group. 

Some 740,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh following a bloody crackdown that began in 2017. U.N. investigators already have described the situation as a genocide. Myanmar claims that the Rohingya are not citizens, but illegal immigrants.

“We are pleased that the court has delivered justice,” Dawda A. Jallow, Gambia’s minister of justice, told reporters after the hearing. His government requested a number of emergency measures to protect the Rohingya, which the ICJ granted in 2020, ordering Myanmar authorities to regularly report on the plight of some 600,000 Rohingya who remained in the country. 

Ko Ko Hlaing, Myanmar’s minister for international cooperation, was dismissive of the ruling.

“We will try our utmost to defend our country and to protect our national interest,” he told reporters after the hearing, speaking over the shouts of protestors who had gathered outside of the Peace Palace in support of the Rohingya. During a hearing on the four preliminary rejections Myanmar raised in February, Hlaing argued Gambia was merely a proxy for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, an intergovernmental organization made up of Muslim-majority countries. 

The ICJ wasn't persuaded by claims that it doesn't have jurisdiction to hear the case.

“The court notes that The Gambia instituted the present proceedings in its own name, as a state party to the statute of the court and to the Genocide Convention,” Donoghue said. 

Several Rohingya who joined the delegation in The Hague expressed happiness at Friday’s ruling, keen to see the case move forward.

“This is very important for the victims …that they see the hope that justice will be delivered to them,” Dr. Ambia Perveen, chair of the European Rohingya Council, told reporters. Her family was forced to flee Myanmar when she was 5 years old.  

When the proceedings began in 2019, Myanmar’s then-leader, Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, defended her country, telling the court it was not committing widespread human rights violations. Following the military takeover of the country, Suu Kyi was sentenced to five years in jail for corruption. Myanmar’s high court rejected her appeal in May. 

The Rohingya are currently pursuing justice in a number of courts. Just down the road in The Hague, the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into the situation. Although Myanmar isn’t a party to the Rome Statute, which created the only permanent court for war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2002, neighboring Bangladesh is. Judges gave that investigation the go-ahead in 2019. In addition, Argentina opened an investigation last year into the plight of the Rohingya under the principle of universal jurisdiction

But the ICJ is the only legal venue that could hold Myanmar accountable.

“And though this case is just one of many roads toward justice, its resolution would be a major step towards justice and a sustainable, democratic Myanmar.” ​Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the international human rights organization the Global Justice Center, said in a statement. 

Hearings into the merits of Gambia’s complaint are not expected to be held until next year.

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