The International Court of Justice ordered Myanmar's government on Thursday to do everything it can to prevent more atrocities and genocide against the nation's Rohingya Muslim minority of hundreds of thousands of people.
An opinion from ICJ, the United Nations' top court, instructs the Southeast Asian nation to "take all measures within its power to prevent the commission of all acts" that would violate the 1951 U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
The court described its instructions to Myanmar as "provisional measures" that will remain in effect at least until the court delivers its final decision in the case, a process that could go on for several years.
"The court is of the opinion that the Rohingya in Myanmar remain extremely vulnerable," ICJ's president, Judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, wrote in a 28-page opinion. Myanmar must ensure, he wrote, that its military and any armed militia or organizations supported by the government "do not commit acts of genocide, or of conspiracy to commit genocide," including by inciting others to do so.
Yusuf's opinion for the court also orders Myanmar to "take effective measures to prevent the destruction and ensure the preservation of evidence related to allegations of acts" within the scope of the genocide treaty and to report back to the court within four months on what it has done to comply. After that, Myanmar must report every six months on its actions while the case is before the court.
Human rights activists welcomed the U.N. court's ruling as a necessary first step. IJC rulings are legally binding, but rely on U.N. pressure for enforcement.
“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,” Param-Preet Singh, associate international justice director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Concerned governments and U.N. bodies should now weigh in to ensure that the order is enforced as the genocide case moves forward.”
Rejecting Suu Kyi's arguments
In December, the world watched as Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a former democracy and human rights icon worldwide, appeared before the court in The Hague, Netherlands, where she firmly denied that her nation’s military had committed genocide against the Rohingya people.
Her appearance was an attempt to rebut allegations in a lawsuit filed by Gambia on behalf of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, or OIC, on charges that Myanmar violated the 1951 genocide treaty. The U.N. General Assembly adopted the treaty in the wake of World War II to signify the international community would never allow another Holocaust to happen.
Suu Kyi, a 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner and former political prisoner, told a panel of 15 international judges that her nation has been fighting insurgents, rather than persecuting 600,000 Rohingya Muslims inside Buddhist-dominated Myanmar or forcing more than 740,000 others to flee under the threat of genocide to the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
ICJ's ruling came just three days after an independent commission established by Myanmar’s government said it concluded there were reasons to believe security forces committed "war crimes, serious human rights violations, and violations of domestic law" in 2017.
"The killing of innocent villagers and destruction of their homes were committed by some members of Myanmar’s security forces through disproportionate use of force during the internal armed conflict," the commission said in a January 20 statement.
The government commission pushed back, however, against allegations of genocide, saying it had "not found any evidence suggesting that these killings or acts of displacement were committed pursuant to an intent or plan to destroy the Muslim or any other community in northern Rakhine State."
By contrast, ICJ judges came down on the side of a U.N. fact-finding mission, which wrapped up two years of investigation in September by urging the world to hold Myanmar’s military responsible for “genocidal acts” against the Muslim Rohingya minority. The mission reported the Rohingya people suffered marginalization, discrimination and brutality from Myanmar's armed forces, the Tatmadaw.
The court opinion repeatedly noted the U.N. fact-finding mission's "detailed findings" as grounds for concern and action.
The fact-finding mission found 600,000 Rohingya inside Myanmar faced persecution and lived under threat of genocide, while Myanmar’s 2017 “clearance operations” — mass killings, rapes and burning of villages — cost thousands of lives and caused more than 740,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.