The U.N.’s top court said Thursday it has the authority to rule in an urgent case in which Myanmar is accused of genocide against Rohingya Muslims and ordered emergency measures to prevent further violence.
“The court concludes that it has prima facie jurisdiction to rule in the case,” International Court of Justice presiding judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf said in The Hague.
The court ordered Myanmar to take “all measures within its power” to prevent genocide against Rohingya.
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.
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.
The January 23 ruling comes days after a Myanmar commission concluded that some soldiers likely committed war crimes against the minority group but that the military was not guilty of genocide.
Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to The Hague in December to personally defend her Buddhist-majority country against the allegations over the bloody 2017 crackdown against the Rohingya.
The mainly Muslim African nation of The Gambia brought the case against Myanmar after 740,000 Rohingya fled over the border into Bangladesh, carrying accounts of widespread rape, arson and mass killings.
The military dodged questions in the capital Naypyidaw on Thursday morning, with a spokesperson telling reporters it would simply “follow the instructions of the government.”
The ruling on Thursday is just the first step in a legal battle that is likely to take years at the ICJ, which was set up after World War II to rule on disputes between nations.
The Gambia brought the case with the backing of the 57-nation Organisation for Islamic Cooperation. Canada and the Netherlands have since also lent their support.
At the December hearing, The Gambia alleged Myanmar had breached the 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention, asking for special steps to prevent the “serious and imminent risk of genocide recurring” and to stop Myanmar destroying any evidence.
While the U.N.’s top judicial organ has no power to enforce orders for provisional measures, the “significance … shouldn’t be written off”, said Cecily Rose, assistant professor in international law at Leiden University.
“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.
Myanmar might for example be asked to report back regularly to the court on its compliance with the order, Rose added.
‘Killing of innocent villagers’
Suu Kyi did not attend Wednesday’s ruling.
In The Hague in December, she argued her country was capable of investigating any allegations of abuse and warned that the case could reignite the crisis.
On Monday a Myanmar-appointed “Independent Commission Of Enquiry” went the furthest that any investigation by the country has gone so far in accepting atrocities occurred.
The panel said some security personnel had used disproportionate force and committed war crimes and serious human rights violations, including the “killing of innocent villagers and destruction of their homes.”
But it ruled out genocide, saying: “There is insufficient evidence to argue, much less conclude, that the crimes committed were undertaken with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical [sic], racial or religious group.”
Myanmar has always maintained the crackdown by the armed forces, or Tatmadaw, was justified to root out Rohingya insurgents after a series of attacks left a dozen security personnel dead.
With reporting from AFP