A Historic Week for Justice for the Rohingya

Sending a signal of global commitment to end impunity for atrocities, this week two international courts moved forward with cases to hold the Myanmar government accountable for its violent attacks against the Rohingya. 

On Monday, The Gambia instituted historic proceedings against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for committing genocide against the Rohingya people. Underscoring the universal condemnation of genocide, the ICJ case marks the first time a country that was not directly affected by the genocide has filed a case under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (“Genocide Convention”). With Rohingya in Myanmar still facing risks of future harm, The Gambia also asked the ICJ to order provisional measures, which would require Myanmar to prevent such attacks and preserve evidence of past attacks. The case is even more remarkable, given The Gambia was ruled by an autocratic leader for two decades until 2017. 

In the second major development for accountability for Myanmar, the International Criminal Court (ICC) approved Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s request to open an investigation into allegations that Myanmar officials committed the crimes against humanity of deportation from Myanmar to Bangladesh, persecution on ethnic or religious grounds, and possibly other crimes against the Rohingya. While Myanmar is not a State Party to the Rome Statute, the Court ruled it has jurisdiction over crimes against humanity when a part of the crime occurs on the territory of a State Party - in this case, Bangladesh. With this approval from the Pre-Trial Chamber to open an investigation, the Prosecutor can move forward with collecting evidence, questioning persons under investigation and victims, and other steps necessary to building a case against Myanmar officials.

In 2018, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights conducted a high-level delegation to Myanmar and Bangladesh and met with Rohingya survivors of the genocide living in refugee camps in Bangladesh, who shared with us their stories of what happened to them and their families. Beginning in 2016, the Myanmar military and other state security forces engaged in widespread and systematic attacks on the Rohingya people in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan States. These attacks included mass murder of adults and children, rape and sexual violence, torture, burning of villages, and forced displacement. For the Rohingya people, these cases before the ICJ and the ICC offer hope that Myanmar will be held accountable for these crimes. 

These cases build on international efforts to document the genocide and to hold the Myanmar government accountable. Last year, the U.N.’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar released a 440-page report documenting widespread attacks by the Myanmar military and security forces against the Rohingya in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan States, following a 15-month examination that included interviews with 875 victims and eyewitnesses. With these findings, the U.N. Human Rights Council established the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar in September 2018 to gather evidence of international crimes and prepare files for criminal prosecution. 

As these investigations and cases move forward, the Rohingya people remain at risk of serious human rights violations. Since fleeing the genocide in Myanmar, more than one million Rohingya have been living in refugee camps in Bangladesh. The emergency shelter and support provided by the Bangladesh government has been critical to their survival. Yet in recent months, the Bangladesh government announced plans to relocate more than 100,000 refugees from the camps in Cox’s Bazar to the remote and flood-prone island of Bhasan Char. Refugees listed for relocation reported that they did not know about these plans and that they did not want to be moved. In September, the government restricted mobile and internet communications in the camps and prevented the refugees from obtaining SIM cards, further isolating them. 

Earlier this week, we joined 38 other human rights organizations in writing an open letter to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, urging her to protect refugees’ rights to give their free and informed consent to any relocations. We also called on the Bangladesh government to publish the findings of an upcoming U.N. assessment of Bhasan Char to determine whether it can be a safe home for refugees. Finally, we pressed the government to immediately lift internet and telecommunications restrictions that threaten refugees’ lives and well-being. 

The cases now before the ICJ and the ICC send a powerful message to leaders in Myanmar and perpetrators of atrocities elsewhere that the world takes seriously its commitment to hold them accountable for their crimes. They send a message of hope to victims and survivors that justice is on their side. And together, we are sending an unwavering message of support that the Rohingya people are not forgotten, and that finding a solution to their current challenges that respects their rights remains our priority.