Rohingya refugees
Rohingya refugees. File Photo: Mizzima News

In a significant development, the United Nations highest Court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), on Thursday, pronounced its verdict on the suit file by the Gambia against Myanmar, alleging genocide against the Rohingyas, who are very much citizens of that country.

The Gambia alleged that the Asian country’s action was in violation of the 1948 Genocide Convention. The judgment held Myanmar guilty, and made the following observations:

  1. The Republic of the Union of Myanmar shall, in accordance with its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, in relation to the members of the Rohingya group in its territory, take all measures within its power to prevent the commission of all acts within the scope of Article II of this Convention, in particular:

(a) killing members of the group;

(b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to the members of the group;

(c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; and

(d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

  1. The Republic of the Union of Myanmar shall, in relation to the members of the Rohingya group in its territory, ensure that its military, as well as any irregular armed units which may be directed or supported by it and any organizations and persons which may be subject to its control, direction or influence, do not commit any acts described in point (1) above, or of conspiracy to commit genocide, of direct and public incitement to commit genocide, of attempt to commit genocide, or of complicity in genocide;
  2. The Republic of the Union of Myanmar shall take effective measures to prevent the destruction and ensure the preservation of evidence related to allegations of acts within the scope of Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide;
  3. The Republic of the Union of Myanmar shall submit a report to the Court on all measures taken to give effect to this Order within four months, as from the date of this Order, and thereafter every six months, until a final decision on the case is rendered by the Court.

The response from Myanmar to the verdict however, was on the expected lines. In a quick statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it denied that there was genocide committed in the Rakhine state, but stated that it has taken note of the decision by the International Court of Justice on “provisional measures” in the case brought by the Gambia against Myanmar.

This response was more of a routine diplomatic exercise wherein a country right away cannot concede that such genocide was committed on its soil against a particular ethnic or religious group. Fact of the matter is, though Myanmar all this while has been trying to defend the indefensible, the Court found it otherwise.

What is even more significant was the unanimity amongst the 17 Judges who had collectively heard the proceedings. There were no two opinions about the failure on the part of Myanmar to protect the basic rights of the Rohingyas, therefore the direction for an urgent end to killings, causing mental and bodily harm, attempt toward destruction, and imposition of controls to prevent births etc.

Secondly, the ICJ verdict was not just confined to proving commission of the crime as alleged, but came with clear directives for the defaulting country with measures to be taken within a given timeline.

It also made it mandatory for Myanmar to submit progress report to the ICJ every six months. This way, the Court left space for pronouncing the final decision depending on how the state in question adheres to its directive.

The verdict therefore, has been widely welcomed by Legal luminaries and Human rights activists around the world. On the other hand, Myanmar remains red-faced not only because crime against humanity taking place on her soil has been established, but proven that it took place when a Nobel laureate, who fought for human dignity, democratic rights and human rights for decades, was at the helm of State affairs.

For the Rohingyas, including the estimated 170000 who fled the country, January 23, 2020, would be marked as a day on which the world had finally and officially accepted that they have indeed been wronged by the majority community.

The international community would now be expecting that this verdict resonates positively to countries, whose tract records on safeguarding the rights of minority groups are not so impressive.

The million dollar question is, will the big powers such as China, India, and Russia to name few shall ever be dragged to an International Court like the Gambia did against Myanmar?

To place things in perspective why this question was relevant, it may be mentioned that much ahead of the Rohingya troubles snowballing into a major human crisis, ethnic Uighurs of the Uighur Autonomous Region in Xingjiang province of China were subjected to all kinds of religious discriminations by the Provincial administration.

Parents were discouraged from giving Muslims names such as Imran, Irfan, Yusuf etc to their children, while Muslim clergies were prohibited from growing beards beyond certain length. Islamic Scholars who left for studies to the famous Cairo University and other places of Islamic learning were confined to concentration camps on their return in the name of patriotic education.

Besides, Uighur families with relatives living out of China were profiled and were pressurized to ensure their return to China. Most importantly, close to 15000 places of worship were destroyed/removed during the last five years or so and offering of prayers allowed only in government approved mosques.

But strangely, no Islamic country or any organization spoke up for them, leave alone take the matter to an international court. The reasons are obvious.  No country wanted to risk their chances of reaping the economic dividends that country like China could offer.

Besides economics, there are also various other factors that blurs the visions of countries in pointing out forms of violations against human beings in their neighborhood. For the Gambia, taking Myanmar to the International Court had no political or economic consequences, hence the courage to do so.

But even big powers in the region like India and China preferred to keep convenient silence on the Rohingya issue because much were at stake for them, though not necessarily economic. Such have been the bitter reality all over. The verdict therefore assumes great significance.

One only hopes that verdict so striking as this, coming from the International Court of Justice would send a strong message and caution countries known to disrespect minority rights.

John S Shilshi is a retired IPS Officer. He can be reached at johnshilshi@gmail.com. Views expressed are personal.

John S Shilshi

The Author is a retried IPS officer. He can be reached at johnshilshi@gmail.com