The UN’s highest court ordered Myanmar on Thursday to do everything in its power to prevent the alleged genocide of Rohingya Muslims, as international justice stepped into the crisis for the first time.
The International Court of Justice rejected arguments made by Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in The Hague in December and set out urgent steps for the majority Buddhist nation to end the violence.
The mainly Muslim African state of Gambia had asked the court to impose emergency measures following a 2017 military crackdown by Myanmar that sent around 740,000 Rohingya fleeing into neighbouring Bangladesh.
Presiding judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf said that “the court was of the opinion that the Rohingya in Myanmar remain extremely vulnerable” and needed to be protected from further bloodshed.
Thousands are suspected to have been killed in the crackdown and refugees brought widespread reports of rape and arson by Myanmar’s military and local Buddhist militias.
The court ordered Myanmar to “take all measures within its power to prevent the commission of all acts” described by the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, under which Gambia brought the case.
These acts included “killing members of the group” and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”
The court ordered Myanmar to report back within four months, and then every six months after that. It also told Myanmar to prevent the destruction of any evidence of crimes against the Rohingya.
“Today’s decision sends a message to Myanmar’s senior officials: the world will not tolerate their atrocities,” Amnesty International’s Regional Director Nicholas Bequelin said.
The ICJ’s orders are binding but it has no power to enforce them.
However the “significance… shouldn’t be written off,” said Cecily Rose, assistant professor in international law at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
“The court’s orders and judgments tend to carry relatively great authority or legitimacy. Even though the situation in Myanmar is highly political and fragile, international law still plays a role by informing decision-making among international actors,” she told AFP.