Bangladesh should follow Gambia’s lead on the Rohingya genocide
Over two and a half years from the mass exodus of the Rohingya from north-western Myanmar prompted by the “clearing operations” against the minority group by the country’s army, the international community is finally stepping up to its responsibilities: Gambia has announced recently that it is referring Myanmar to the International Court of Justice on charges of genocide.
The effort, led by Gambia’s Attorney General Abubacarr Marie Tambadou and the Gambian Ministry of Justice, sets a new precedent in international relations, whereby a state is taking another state before the ICJ for a breach of the Genocide Convention.
And this is not mere politicking, or posturing by a random country trying to elevate its international profile. Tambadou is a serious international jurist on questions of genocide, and has previously served as a special assistant to the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. And Gambia, as a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), has, through this action, also bounced the rest of the OIC into finally speaking up in defense of their fellow Muslim Rohingya.
Bangladesh would do well to get involved with these developments from the beginning. So far, the government of Bangladesh has responded to the Rohingya crisis very well in some respects, and not so well in others. In allowing the Rohingya to come over the border and keeping them safe in Cox’s Bazar, Dhaka has acted as a global model of humanitarian mercy. The government has received a great deal of international praise for this, and that praise was well deserved.
On the other hand, Dhaka has all along -- and continues to this day -- treated the Rohingya situation as a temporary thing that will be “solved” in due time. By solved, they mean that the entire population of over 1 million Rohingya refugees will be repatriated to Myanmar. This would require coordination with the Myanmar government, which in turn has made Dhaka reluctant to speak up on the actions of Myanmar lest they sour relations in such a way that repatriation treaties become politically impossible to negotiate or implement.
But if that point of view was ever credible, it is certainly not credible now.
The Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar do not have anywhere to go back to. Their villages back in Myanmar have already been razed to the ground. Their lands and cattle reallocated to local Buddhists loyal to Naypyidaw. The authorities in Myanmar are continuing to ratchet up the pressure on the few remaining Rohingya in the hope that they too will leave, thus completing the genocide.
And the repatriation treaties agreed so far between the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar have already been proven to be nothing more than empty pieces of paper.
If Dhaka remains committed to the notion that the Rohingya should return to the lands of their birth -- and so long as there is no force or compulsion used -- this is a perfectly reasonable and decent thing to hope for. By now it should be obvious that this will not be achieved through kindly negotiations with the current genocidal government of Myanmar.
This can only be achieved through the efforts of the international community to hold the government of Myanmar to account for the genocide, and forcing Myanmar to make reparations to the Rohingya, including an arrangement to guarantee the safety and equal status of the Rohingya minority in their own lands in Myanmar.
The current process to achieve this is led by Tambadou and the Gambian representation to the ICJ, but Bangladesh can play a key role in these proceedings, not least in making available all the evidence they have kept on record on the events since 2017.
For example, one easily available avenue for the government is to work with groups such as the Rohingya Legal Forum, which I lead within the Centre for Policy Research think-tank in Washington DC. We had our first inaugural meeting in Washington DC last week with a formidable founding group which included the likes of Ambassador David Scheffer, first US Ambassador at Large for War Crimes and the individual credited as the key architect of the Yugoslav Tribunal; Sareta Ashraf, former Chief UN Legal Council for War Crimes in Syria; Djaiuoda Siaci, international lawyer and the Vice President of Rohingya Support Group; and many others.
The group is being convened by Professor John Packer, Director of Human Rights Research and Education, University of Ottowa, who brings extensive experience as a practitioner of international law to this forum. Our aim is to explore innovative mechanisms within international law to promote Rohingya legal recourses, exchange views, map alternative strategies, and offer advice and assistance on the policymakers around the globe.
Where necessary, we will coordinate and collaborate with the likes of the OIC, UN, ICC, ICJ, and relevant governments. The members of the forum not only have extensive experience in international humanitarian crises but most of us had been following the situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar for years before the “clearing operations” started in 2017.
We knew then that a genocide was in the making in Myanmar (I even published a book warning of the impending disaster just before it started), and we knew that, if the international community would not intervene to prevent it, we would need to be there to document what was happening to the legal standards required to bring before a court of international law.
We stand ready to provide legal analyses by our jurists and any advice to policy makers globally on this intractable problem. We believe that the international legal system is likely, on this occasion, to prove itself up to the task of preventing and punishing Myanmar for its genocidal policies. But more data and records on the events from the Bangladeshi government would be invaluable, and further proof of the great humanitarian spirit of Bangladesh.
Azeem Ibrahim is Chair of the Rohingya Legal Forum at the Center for Global Policy in Washington DC and author of Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide (Hurst: 2016).