The International Court of Justice on Thursday ordered Myanmar to take urgent measures to protect its Rohingya population from atrocities, a ruling hailed as a "triumph of international justice" by the tiny African country that brought the case.
A lawsuit, launched by Gambia in November at the United Nations' highest body for disputes between states, accuses Myanmar of genocide against Rohingya in violation of a 1948 convention. The court's final decision could take years, and Thursday's ruling dealt only with Gambia's request for preliminary measures. But in a unanimous ruling by the 17 judge panel, the court said the Rohingya face an ongoing threat and Myanmar must act to protect them.
Myanmar ordered to report back in four months
Myanmar must "take all measures within its power to prevent all acts" prohibited under the 1948 Genocide Convention, and report back within four months, presiding Judge Abdulqawi Yusuf said, reading out a summary of the judgment. Myanmar must use its influence over its military and other armed groups to prevent violence against the Rohingya "intended to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part", he said.
Gambia's justice minister, Abubacarr Tambadou, said: "The fact that judges have unanimously decided that genocide cannot be tolerated and that Rohingya need to be protected is a triumph for international justice."
The Case was brought to ICJ by Gambia
Mainly Muslim Gambia brought the case despite being located halfway around the world, on the argument that all nations have a universal legal duty to prevent genocide. The case was argued last month by some of the world's top human rights lawyers, with Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi personally attending hearings at The Hague to ask judges to dismiss it.
More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar after a military-led crackdown in 2017, and were forced into squalid camps across the border in Bangladesh. U.N. investigators concluded that the military campaign had been executed with "genocidal intent".
Moments before the court began reading its ruling, the Financial Times published an article by Suu Kyi, in which she said war crimes may have been committed against Rohingya Muslims but refugees had exaggerated abuses.
Although ICJ rulings are final and binding, countries have occasionally flouted them, and the court has no formal mechanism to enforce them. "The ICJ order to Myanmar to take concrete steps to prevent the genocide of the Rohingya is a landmark step to stop further atrocities against one of the world's most persecuted people," said Param-Preet Singh, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch.
"Concerned governments and UN bodies should now weigh-in to ensure that the order is enforced as the genocide case moves forward." Yusuf, the presiding judge, said the court was not satisfied with Myanmar's own efforts "to facilitate the return of Rohingya refugees present in Bangladesh, to promote ethnic reconciliation, peace, and stability in Rakhine State, and to make it's military accountable for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law".
More than 100 Myanmar civil society groups published a statement saying they hoped international justice efforts would "bring forth the truth" and end impunity. "Political and military policies have always been imposed with violent force and intimidation upon the people of Myanmar, systematically and institutionally, on the basis of their political and religious beliefs and ethnic identities and continue until the present," the statement said.