Rohingya in a street market in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: AFP / Diego Cupolo / NurPhoto

On Monday, the government of The Gambia gave the 740,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh a hint of something unfamiliar to them: hope. The West African country accomplished that by filing an official complaint against Myanmar with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague for violations of the United Nations’ 1948 Genocide Convention linked to abuses against its Muslim Rohingya minority. The complaint consists of a 46-page document alleging crimes by Myanmar security forces against the Rohingya, including destruction of communities, rape, and murder

The complaint followed Gambian Attorney General and Justice Minister Abubacarr Marie Tambadou’s October 4 announcement that doing so was an official priority. The Gambia’s move is in line with its role as the head of the Organization of Islamic Conference’ ad hoc ministerial committee, which the OIC tasked in June with filing an ICJ complaint against Myanmar.

The Gambia’s ICJ complaint against Myanmar signifies an important first step in an international challenge to Myanmar for the crimes that its security forces committed against the Rohingya in late 2017 in northern Rakhine state. It should also be the catalyst for a much wider international impetus toward accountability for those crimes. What’s specifically required, and soon, is other UN member states joining The Gambia in filing similar complaints with the ICJ to create a critical mass of international opprobrium unequivocally targeting the Myanmar government for the impunity it has granted military perpetrators of widespread and systematic abuses against the Rohingya.

The scale and barbarity of those abuses are unquestionable. In September 2018, the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) published a 444-page report about human-rights abuses against the Rohingya. The mission’s report concluded that there was evidence of atrocities – including mass killings, gang rapes, and mutilations – warranting criminal prosecution for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. The report names top military officials as targets for investigation and prosecution and blames civilian authorities for “spreading false narratives, denying the wrongdoing of the (security forces), blocking independent investigations … and overseeing the destruction of evidence.”

The Washington-based Public International Law and Policy Group likewise released a comprehensive report in September 2018 on the atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingya and concluded that Myanmar security forces were implicated in “crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes.”

Investigations by Physicians for Human Rights over the past two years have put a tragic human face to the UN assessment, and provided scientific objectivity in refuting the government’s repeated denials. In 2018, PHR surveyed 604 leaders from Rohingya hamlets in Rakhine state encompassing more than 916,000 people. The findings, coupled with in-depth interviews and forensic medical examinations of Rohingya survivors, point to a widespread and systematic pattern of targeted violence – including rapes and killings of women, men, and children.

Despite that evidence, the Myanmar government has consistently stonewalled international efforts at accountability for those atrocities. The government rejected the UN FFM report’s findings as “false allegations.” The government has also blocked UN special rapporteur to Myanmar Yanghee Lee, who is tasked with assessing the human-rights situation in that country.

Efforts to initiate an International Criminal Court investigation of the bloodshed have been complicated by the fact that Myanmar is not a signatory to the Rome Statute that established the court. International efforts to trigger an ICC probe via a resolution of the UN Security Council have been stymied by the opposition of Russia and China. Although the UN has responded to that obstruction by creating an independent investigative mechanism to probe whether Myanmar has committed crimes against humanity against its ethnic minorities over the past eight years, its necessarily slow and opaque operations have helped bolster the Myanmar government’s denial narrative.

In June, the ICC announced that it would open a preliminary examination of alleged crimes related to forced deportation of Rohingya by Myanmar security forces to Bangladesh, an ICC member state. However, it’s not known if or when the ICC might approve a formal investigation of those alleged crimes.

The Gambia’s move to take Myanmar to the ICJ for state-backed slaughter of the Rohingya should be an inspiration for other African states to do likewise. By doing so, they can express solidarity for besieged minorities everywhere and provide a needed symbol of support for international justice mechanisms that are under attack in other parts of the continent.

Asian states and Western countries also have an important role to play in taking concrete steps toward accountability for the perpetrators of crimes against the Rohingya. In Asia, Malaysia is uniquely qualified to take this initiative. That’s because senior Malaysian government officials have already publicly declared that the Myanmar government is perpetrating genocide against the Rohingya.

Canada should also follow through on its rhetorical support for justice for the Rohingya. In October 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed a special envoy to Myanmar. After the September 2018 release of a damning UN report that implicated the Myanmar military in crimes against humanity and acts of “genocidal intent,” Canada’s Parliament became the world’s first to vote unanimously that the Rohingya were the victims of a genocide. Canada’s Senate promptly did likewise.

ICJ complaints are no panacea: ICJ judgments don’t name names of individual perpetrators and proceedings can take years. But they can add to the international pressure on Myanmar to end its policy of gross impunity and push it to take concrete action toward accountability and to creating conditions for the eventual safe, voluntary, and dignified return of the Rohingya.

States can bolster their ICJ complains by imposing or tightening financial sanctions on Myanmar and on military and government officials implicated in the bloodshed. Governments can and should encourage foreign investors to refuse to do business with Myanmar entities that have ties to government and military elements culpable in the violence of 2017.

The Gambia has taken the lead on the long-overdue process of accountability for the extreme violence perpetrated against the Rohingya. It’s time for other states to recognize that achievement and do likewise to ensure that the Rohingya’s fragile hopes for justice aren’t betrayed.

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