The International Court of Justice has ordered measures to prevent the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
The panel of 17 judges at the ICJ on Thursday voted unanimously to order Myanmar to take “all measures within its power” to prevent genocide, which they said the Rohingya remained at serious risk of.
These include the prevention of killing, and “causing serious bodily or mental harm” to members of the group, as well as preserving evidence of possible genocide that has already occurred.
Presiding judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf said Myanmar should report back within four months on how it was implementing the ruling. The measures are binding and not subject to appeal, but the court has no means of enforcing them.
Thousands of Rohingya died and more than 700,000 fled to Bangladesh during an army crackdown in 2017. UN investigators have warned that genocidal actions could recur.
Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist state, has always insisted that its military campaign was waged to tackle an “extremist threat” in Rakhine state.
In her defence statement at the court in The Hague, Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi described the violence as an “internal armed conflict” triggered by Rohingya militant attacks on government security posts.
During hearings at the court in December, Ms Suu Kyi asked the ICJ to drop the case, describing it as “incomplete and incorrect”.
But Rohingya groups have welcomed the decision. “Today’s ruling by the ICJ is a crucial moment for Rohingya justice, and vindication for those of us who have lived through this genocide for decades,” tweeted Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK.
“The court’s decision clearly shows that it takes the allegations of genocide seriously, and that Myanmar’s hollow attempts to deny these have fallen on deaf ears.”
Gambian Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou, who led the prosecution, said he was “very, very pleased”.
“I think this represents a triumph of international law and international justice. And it is the international community – as represented by the ICJ – saying in the strongest of terms that genocide will not be accepted under any circumstances by any perpetrators,” he told the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme.
Meanwhile, the Islamic Human Rights Commission said it “cautiously welcomes” the ruling.
“We are pleased that the decision in the United Nations’ highest court at long last acknowledges that there is prima facie evidence of breaches of the 1948 Genocide Convention by the Myanmar authorities in 2016 and 2017,” the IHRC said.
“The international community must now exert its best efforts to ensure that Myanmar complies with today’s emergency ‘provisional measures’ imposed on the country to respect the requirements of the Genocide Convention.
“Myanmar is a signatory to the convention whose signatories accept that genocide is an international crime. Under its terms Myanmar is bound to prevent and punish the crime.
“We are mindful of the preventive measures imposed by the ICJ in 1993 against the then Serb-dominated Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to prevent genocidal acts being carried out in that territory. However the decision failed to deter what would later become the rump Serbian state from carrying out a massacre of 7000 Bosnians in Srebrenica in 2005.
“Viewed against the background of continuing denials by Myanmar of the crimes it is alleged to have committed against the Rohingya, today’s ruling is only as effective as the international will there exists to ensure its enforcement.”
The Rohingya, who numbered around one million in Myanmar at the start of 2017, are one of the many ethnic minorities in the country. Rohingya Muslims are the largest community of Muslims in Myanmar, with the majority living in Rakhine state.
But Myanmar’s government denies them citizenship, refusing to recognise them as a people and seeing them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Waves of Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh over the decades but their latest exodus began on 25 August 2017 after militants from a Rohingya insurgent group called Arsa launched deadly attacks on more than 30 police posts.