Lawyers for The Gambia yesterday urged the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to dismiss military-ruled Myanmar’s attempt to throw out a case accusing it of genocide against the country’s Rohingya minority group.
The ICJ is currently holding hearings into the list of preliminary objections filed by Myanmar’s civilian government just prior to last February’s coup d’état, which challenged the court’s jurisdiction to hear the case. Gambia’s Attorney General and Justice Minister Dawda Jallow said that the court “must reject Myanmar’s meritless preliminary objections and proceed to adjudicate the merits of this dispute,” according to the Associated Press.
Jallow went on to reject Myanmar’s attempt to have the case rejected on the technical grounds that that it was brought by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and that the court can only hear cases between nations. “We are no one’s proxy,” Jallow told the court. “This is very much a dispute between the Gambia and Myanmar.”
Lawyer Paul S. Reichler, also representing The Gambia, said the military’s seizure of power in Myanmar had elevated to power those alleged to be behind the ethnic cleansing and possible attempted genocide of the Rohingya, making the need for accountability all the more pressing. “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,” he said, the AP reported. Reichler added that the Rohingya “remain at grave risk of mass atrocity crimes.”
The Gambia filed its complaint following the Myanmar military’s fierce assaults on the Rohingya communities of Rakhine State in late 2017, which drove more than 700,000 terrified civilians across the border into Bangladesh. United Nations researchers later claimed that the military’s assaults, which included the killing of civilians and the torching of their villages, were potentially “genocidal” in nature.
“The crimes in Rakhine State, and the manner in which they were perpetrated, are similar in nature, gravity, and scope to those that have allowed genocidal intent to be established in other contexts,” the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar reported in August 2018.
To a large extent, the appeals from The Gambia’s legal team to the ICJ, and the broader debate over the merits of Myanmar’s objections to the genocide case, have been clouded by the struggle within the country, particularly, the question of who has the right to represent Myanmar at the hearings.
While the military junta’s legal team, led by Minister for International Cooperation Ko Ko Hlaing, has been present in court this week, the opposition National Unity Government (NUG) earlier this month made a bid to be formally recognized as Myanmar’s representative. In a statement, it pledged to withdraw all of the preliminary objections, announced that it recognized the ICJ’s jurisdiction, and promised to cooperate fully with the inquiry.
So far, the court has attempted to remain aloof of the question of recognition, defaulting to the party that controls the bulk of Myanmar’s territory and air space. But the question hints at the primacy of the political struggle against which the ICJ case is unfolding. As in other cases, whether anyone is ever brought to justice for the atrocities committed against the Rohingya will likely have much more to do with how this struggle unfolds in the months ahead.