Gambia is a nation of just two million people, covering an area of around 10,000 square kilometres sandwiched between Senegal and the Atlantic Ocean. Yet since last year, the West African country has been on a grand mission to put an end to crimes dating back to 2017, allegedly committed by the government of Myanmar, a nation of more than 53 million people, against the Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority in Rakhine, one of Myanmar’s constituent states.
In November, Gambia filed a 46-page application to the International Court of Justice, in which it accused authorities in Naypyidaw, the Myanmar capital, of failing to prevent their military, known as the Tatmadaw, from committing genocide.
On Thursday, the ICJ released its first ruling on the case: a provisional order for Myanmar to immediately cease violence against the Rohingya. It is a vindication of Gambia’s efforts, a stern warning to Naypyidaw, and an important point of reflection for all nations.
Hopefully, it will also initiate a broader process to alleviate the suffering of more than 1.3 million Rohingya people, 60 per cent of whom have fled Rakhine and found themselves displaced in refugee camps across southeast Asia.
Rakhine sits on the other side of the planet from Gambia. Myanmar, therefore, argued that it lacks the standing to bring it to court because the alleged brutalisation of the Rohingya has had no direct impact on Gambian territory or citizens. The ICJ, however, rightly disagreed.
Genocide is a crime too severe for such quibbles, and no voice speaking out against it should be silenced. Last week, Gambia did not just speak out on behalf of its own people, nor did it speak only for the Rohingya. It spoke for the millions of individuals around the world who have been victimised by genocidal acts since the Genocide Convention came into force in 1948.
The ICJ order is legally binding, though the court lacks any guaranteed enforcement mechanism. Non-compliance can only be referred to the UN Security Council. Enforcement of ICJ rulings, therefore, comes down to the political will of other nations – particularly the Security Council’s permanent members – and such willpower is sorely needed.
In recent months, under considerable pressure from diplomats and activists, Myanmar has signalled some limited willingness to respect the international judicial process. Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s ranking civilian leader, attended ICJ hearings in December in person, giving testimony in defence of the Tatmadaw. Suu Kyi’s government also appointed its own independent panel in 2018 to investigate events in Rakhine.
It issued its findings in advance of the ICJ ruling last week, concluding that while individual Tatmadaw officers were probably guilty of war crimes, there was no coordinated effort to commit genocide. The mixed conclusion is unsurprising, given that almost since the crisis in Rakhine began, Myanmar’s efforts to curb the problem have been half-hearted and incomplete.
An Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, headed by the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, recommended in 2017 that Myanmar take steps to grant the Rohingya more rights and reign in the military’s actions.
Naypyidaw not only ignored the commission’s advice, but doubled down by allowing many of the atrocities referenced in Gambia’s present court case. Scandalised and declaring the entire process a “whitewash”, Bill Richardson, a former US diplomat, resigned from a follow-up commission a few months later.
The court case will go on for years. But as per Thursday’s provisional ruling, Myanmar has been ordered to take “all measures within its power” to prevent any further genocidal actions against the Rohingya and to preserve any evidence that might point to such acts.
The message was clear: the course of justice may be slow, but the risk of genocide to the Rohingya is urgent and real. The ICJ has put Myanmar on notice, but it will now be up to other countries – not just Gambia – to keep up the pressure, and to prevent further atrocity.