International Court of Justice (ICJ) hearings beginning February 21, 2022 underline the critical importance of bringing justice for the Myanmar military’s abuses against ethnic Rohingya, Human Rights Watch and the Global Justice Center said today. The groups released a question-and-answer document outlining recent developments in the case, including the impact of the February 1, 2021 military coup in Myanmar, on the ICJ proceedings.
The hearings at the court from February 21 to 28 are for the case brought by Gambia against Myanmar alleging that the military’s atrocities in Rakhine State against Rohingya Muslims violate the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention).
“The International Court of Justice hearings are the next step in the landmark case to break the cycle of violence and impunity in Myanmar,” said Nushin Sarkarati, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “The case could build a pathway to justice, not only for the Rohingya, but for everyone in the country.”
In November 2019, Gambia filed a case before the ICJ alleging that Myanmar’s atrocities against the Rohingya in Rakhine State violate various provisions of the Genocide Convention. The case before the ICJ is not a criminal case against individual alleged perpetrators, but a legal determination of state responsibility for genocide.
The ICJ held hearings in December 2019, on Gambia’s request, for provisional measures to protect the Rohingya remaining in Myanmar from genocide, which the court unanimously adopted in January 2020. The new hearings will cover Myanmar’s preliminary objections to the case, which challenge the court’s jurisdiction and Gambia’s legal standing to file the case.
The court’s provisional measures require Myanmar to prevent all genocidal acts against the Rohingya, to ensure that security forces do not commit acts of genocide, and to take steps to preserve evidence related to the case. Myanmar is legally bound to comply with this order. However, Human Rights Watch and others have documented ongoing grave abuses against the 600,000 Rohingya remaining in Myanmar, contravening the provisional measures ordered by the court.
Since the February 2001 coup, junta security forces have carried out mass killings, torture, sexual violence, arbitrary arrests, and other abuses that Human Rights Watch believes amount to crimes against humanity. Security forces have killed over 1,500 people since the coup, including at least 100 children, and arbitrarily detained over 11,000 activists, politicians, journalists, and others. Rohingya have also faced even greater movement restrictions and harsher punishments for attempting to leave Rakhine State, which amount to the crimes against humanity of persecution, apartheid, and severe deprivation of liberty.
In 2019, Myanmar’s government appointed State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to lead its delegation to the ICJ. During the 2021 coup, the military arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and a junta-controlled court sentenced her to six years in prison. She still faces over 150 years in prison combined on various additional fabricated charges. On June 24, 2021, the junta announced that it appointed a panel of eight senior junta officials to represent Myanmar’s delegation before the court.
During the February hearings, representatives of Myanmar and Gambia will present arguments as to whether the ICJ has jurisdiction to examine the genocide claims against Myanmar. The hearings will take place in a hybrid format, including both in-person and virtual participants. Live streaming of the hearings will be available in English and French on the court’s website and on UN Web TV.
While the ICJ case focuses exclusively on alleged crimes against the Rohingya, the military has committed brutal abuses across Myanmar. In the wake of the coup, ethnic groups have sought greater solidarity in the pursuit of justice, as the military’s atrocities against the Rohingya have been echoed in attacks on civilians around the country. The ICJ case could set the stage to scrutinize the Myanmar military’s longstanding international crimes more widely, Human Rights Watch and the Global Justice Center said.
“As the Myanmar military continues to commit atrocities against anti-coup protesters and ethnic minorities, it should be put on notice there will be consequences for these actions – past, present, and future,” said Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Center. “The ICJ’s proceedings are laying the groundwork for accountability in Myanmar – not only for the Rohingya, but for all others who have suffered at the hands of the military.”