Justice Is Coming for Myanmar’s Rohingya at the World Court

Justice Is Coming for Myanmar’s Rohingya at the World Court

[Wai Wai Nu is a human rights and democracy activist, a former political prisoner, and the founder and executive director of the Women’s Peace Network in Myanmar. She is currently a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Human Rights Center, UC Berkeley School of Law.]

On February 28, hearings concluded at The Hague in the genocide case against Myanmar after four days of arguments on whether the International Court of Justice has jurisdiction to move forward with the proceedings.

The hearings were a reminder of the ongoing atrocities being committed against my community, the Rohingya, as well as the urgency of justice for dismantling military impunity in Myanmar. For me, it was also a reminder that the world has not forgotten us.

“The Tatmadaw [Myanmar armed forces] have shown, both historically and since they have assumed direct power in Myanmar, that Rohingya lives have no value to them,” a lawyer for the Gambia testified at the hearing. The Gambia brought the case in November 2019 alleging that Myanmar violated the Genocide Convention in its atrocities against the Rohingya.

Myanmar’s denial of our existence was born out in its arguments, with its legal team avoiding even the term ‘Rohingya.’

In January 2020, the court unanimously ordered Myanmar to protect the Rohingya from genocide. But despite those binding measures, 600,000 Rohingya remain confined to camps and villages in Rakhine State under the military’s system of apartheid and persecution. “The statelessness, internment and movement restrictions maintained by the junta deny the Rohingya access to the basic necessities of life, and leave them especially vulnerable to destruction by the State,” Gambia’s legal team said.

Meanwhile, nearly a million Rohingya refugees remain in sprawling, overcrowded camps in Bangladesh, most of whom fled Myanmar during the military’s 2017 scorched earth operations which drive the Gambia’s case. 

Seeing an international court acknowledge and respond to Rohingya’s stories – both the atrocities we’ve suffered and the justice we strive for – counters Myanmar’s efforts to dehumanize us. In the World Court, our lives have value.

Much has of course changed since the case’s opening hearings in December 2019. In February 2021, the same generals who orchestrated the genocide against us in 2017 launched a coup against the elected civilian government. Over the past year, junta forces under Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing have carried out a brutal crackdown in cities and villages across the country, killing over 1,500 and arresting at least 12,000.

At the December 2019 hearings, Aung San Suu Kyi represented Myanmar to defend and deny the military’s mass killings, rape, and arson. Tens of thousands of people rallied across the country in support of her standing by our abusers.

Today, Suu Kyi is being held by the generals she backed, sentenced to six years and facing over 150 more on various charges. Since the coup, more and more people across Myanmar from other ethnic groups and the Bamar majority have reckoned with their support for how the military treated us. They have apologized for believing the military propaganda, for being silent. They have told us, what happened to you, is happening to us now too, and together we will fight the injustices of this brutal regime. It’s a hopeful message. With our shared enemy clear, we can pursue a new vision of Myanmar, one that draws strength from solidarity across our ethnicities and religions.

But this Myanmar, inclusive and democratic, can only take root through a pursuit of justice that will confront the country’s brutality, past and present.

Junta officials represented Myanmar at The Hague in the new hearings. The National Unity Government (NUG), formed by elected civilian leaders and civil society activists, had also advised the court of its intention to represent Myanmar.

Rather than a show of legitimacy, the presence of junta representatives, some of whom have been sanctioned for their role in atrocities, has no bearing beyond these hearings. Coupmakers who slaughter their own people have no claim to authority, moral or otherwise.

Meanwhile, avenues for justice remain rare and hard won. These proceedings are still a landmark chance to make the military answer for its crimes and build accountability, for Rohingya and all of Myanmar’s people.

Gambia’s legal team underscored how the International Court of Justice is right now the only stage for justice where the military has been willing to engage: “There is presently no national or international body or institution of any kind to which Myanmar’s current leaders have acknowledged accountability in any way, except, as they continue to demonstrate, for this Court.… If they can escape the Court’s jurisdiction, they will be accountable to no one, and there will be no constraints on their persecution and ultimate destruction of the Rohingya.”

One of the objections Myanmar argued during the hearings was that the Gambia had no standing to bring the case because it holds no ties to Myanmar or the Rohingya. But as the Gambia contested, and the court itself asserted in January 2020, that claim flies in the face of the Genocide Convention’s purpose, both in its founding and today. It’s in the interest of all states to prevent genocide and hold accountable any of its authors, as the court once observed, “to confirm and endorse the most elementary principles of morality.”

Our abuses are rooted in the statelessness Myanmar has enforced on us for generations. If the Gambia hadn’t spoken for us, who would?

The court now moves to deliberate on Myanmar’s objections, with a decision likely in the next few months. Hearings on the merits of the case may not open until 2024.

“Justice delayed is indeed justice denied,” Gambia’s representative noted at The Hague, urging the court to move as quickly as possible. “The Rohingya deserve no less.”

For decades, we have been dehumanized, our existence denied. We have been forced to flee our country again and again when soldiers appear to burn our homes, kill us, for no reason other than that we are Rohingya. We have been awaiting justice for too long already. We don’t want to wait any longer.

The court itself has expressed a desire to resolve the case quickly, “taking into account the exceptional circumstances of the case and its gravity.”

Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in Myanmar have grown up surrounded by stories of violence, deprivation, and fear. We want the chance to craft a new story, about our abusers being held to account, about ending impunity in Myanmar, and about creating a truly peaceful, democratic, and just country for our children. These hearings are part of that story.

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Asia-Pacific, Featured, General, International Human Rights Law, Public International Law
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