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The Gambia takes Myanmar to the top UN court

By Samia Majid, MA History

Why is the small West African country known as The Gambia filing a lawsuit against Myanmar at the United Nations top court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ)? The predominantly Muslim country filed for emerency measures against Mynamar’s military, known officially as the Tatmadaw for violating the Genocide Convention of 1948 by engaging in acts of human rights violations in August 2017. This included the military’s ‘clearance’ operations against its Rohingya Muslim minority. This involved razing entire villages, widespread rape, murder, and torture. The case is expected to refocus attention on the plight of the 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled their homes in the face of escalating atrocities. Many of them reside in neighbouring Bangladesh, in temporary shelters faced with no prospect of returning to Myanmar, where ethnic Rohingya are denied citizenship and left de jure stateless. Gambia’s own violent past has not prevented it from seeking justice and reconciliation for the Rohingya people.  Abubacarr M Tambadou, Gambia’s Attorney-General and Justice Minister, cited the international community’s inaction against the former Gambian dictator, Yahya Jammeh, as a motivating factor to pursuing legal measures against Myanmar.

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s de facto leader and Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi (a SOAS alum), has defended her nation and rejected the claim that genocide was perpretated by the Burmese armed forces. However, the UN has labelled the Rohingya persecution as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” They released a report which states the military indeed engaged with “genocidal intent.” The UN Independent fact-finding mission of August 2018 posited a conservative estimate of 10,000 as the death toll of the Rohingya population. The UN report was the harshest UN assessment of the Myanmar government, but the latter refuses to accept it’s findings and dismisses the legitimacy of the UN. The entrenched Tatmadaw which had once persecuted Aung San Suu Kyi, is now being defended by her. Ironically, international condemnation has not propelled her to sympathise with the Rohingya minority, but aligning herself with the chauvinist Buddhist forces of the nation.  A decision will be issued from The Hague responding to the emergency measures filed by Gambia in the genocide case on January 23rd.

Gambia’s own violent past has not prevented it from seeking justice and reconciliation for the Rohingya people.

How is Gambia funding a legal case which is expected to last many years? The African nation is funded by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). This is a group of 57 member states which represent the collective voice of the Muslim world. It is also funded by the U.S. law firm, Foley Hoag. Some may argue, too little, too late. Already, entire Rohingya villages have been pillaged and destroyed, replaced by government buildings. Thousands have died and many Rohingya have suffered from the effects of mass rape and displacement. The failure of Muslim-majority countries, bar the Maldives, to cut ties with the Myanmar government is indicative of the fact that economic interests take precedence over human rights. Although the government of Turkey and Malaysia have pledged monetary aid for the Rohingya refugees, Muslim-majority governments purporting to represent the wider Muslim Ummah (community) have failed to meaningfully challenge Myanmar. Even worse, Saudi Arabia’s deportation of the Rohingya to Bangladesh, a country which the Rohingya do not identify with, shows a neglect of the Rohingya minority. Evidently, the OIC expressed regret over inaction and renewed their pledge to bring justice to the displaced refugees. A former UN Ambassador described the UN presence in Myanmar as “impotent” and ineffectual in its response to Tatmadaw brutality rampant in the Rakhine state. There has been criticism of UN staff and officials for deliberately de-dramatising events to maintain access to the Myanmar government. Ultimately, the responsibility lies in the government of Myanmar, but to what extent did international complacency facilitate the persecution and extermination of the Rohingya population? 

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