The past few days brought one of the more moving examples of the interconnectedness of our world and the irreducible core of the eternal human quest for justice, Gambia’s case accusing Myanmar of genocide of the Rohingyas has begun at the International Court of Justice. Days later, it ended with the somewhat flat expectation that a ruling on the allegation of genocide could take years.
Even so, the case is significant. When Gambia filed its lawsuit, having received the formal backing of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), there was surprise. Why would a small country in West Africa be taking another, half a world away, to court?
The Rohingyas are mostly Muslim but is that enough to prompt such a profoundly empathetic gesture from another mainly Muslim but relatively poor and unregarded country 11,500km away? What would be gained and by whom?
More to the point, what credibility did Gambia have in pursuing this particular case? It is hardly a template for systemic justice and human rights. Struggling to get to grips with decades of violence under Yahya Jammeh, the dictator who ruled the country for 22 years before fleeing after surprise election defeat to Equatorial Guinea in 2017, Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission began hearings this year into alleged human rights abuses by Jammeh. It’s proving to be a painful and partial process. Reconciliation is a long and hard road; reparation is an aspiration.
In addition, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) typically addresses disputes between signatory states and has no jurisdiction over proceedings in Myanmar, which is not an ICJ member. Some have said that Gambia’s lawsuit at The Hague was an act of frivolous and ostentatious attention-seeking, to no particular end.
That last point was addressed by the fact the ICJ took up the case. Its 15 judges can rule on disputes stemming from the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which applies to the killing of “in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” Both Gambia and Myanmar are signatories to the pact.
What of the broader issue about the wisdom and purpose of bringing such a case? Gambia’s lawsuit is a stirring story that underlines our shared humanity, the enormous power of the lessons of history and that coincidences sometimes have huge consequences.
First to the coincidences. It was an unlikely coincidence that Gambia’s foreign minister pulled out of the OIC annual conference in Bangladesh last year and sent Justice Minister Aboubacar Tambadou instead. It was a further coincidence that the OIC conference included a tour of Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. The third coincidence was that Tambadou spent more than a decade prosecuting cases from Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. When he heard the Rohingya refugees’ stories in Cox’s Bazar, he said he “saw genocide written all over” them.
Another coincidence of a sort was that Tambadou was from a country that suffered from both the violence of the Jammeh years and international indifference to its misery. As Tambadou explained: “Part of the reason we were motivated to be involved in this case was because of our own experiences. Had the international community took up this responsibility at the time and condemned the former president, I don’t think we would have gone through two decades of terrible atrocities.”
Never mind the eventual outcome of Gambia’s lawsuit against Myanmar on behalf of the Rohingyas, a stateless minority that the Myanmar authorities routinely call “terrorists.”
Never mind the reality that no ICJ ruling can change the fact the Rohingyas were stripped of citizenship in 1982 by the country formerly known as Burma on grounds they are not one of its so-called national races. Consider the momentousness of what Gambia achieved in simply filing a lawsuit that stresses justice and a belief in the essential humanity of us all.
The case refocused attention on the plight of the Rohingyas, some 700,000 of whom have been forced by Myanmar's military to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh in the past few years. At the Hague hearing, Gambia asked the ICJ to approve temporary measures to protect the Rohingyas.
These may prove unenforceable but John Packer, Neuberger-Jesin professor of International Conflict Resolution at Ottawa University’s law faculty, said, “Genocide is considered an injury against everybody - a general wrong - which allows any state to take this up. Little Gambia is acting for the whole world.”
In a sense, Gambia’s attempt to hold Myanmar accountable for the Rohingyas’ suffering tells an exhilarating story about multilateralism and international rule of law. Perhaps what it really says is: When the richest, most powerful countries look away from injustice, it falls to small and seemingly inconsequential ones to remind us of the difficulty - and necessity - of being good.