Public hearings are currently underway at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where Myanmar stands accused of committing genocide against the Rohingya minority after violent crackdowns since 2012 left thousands dead and forced more than one million Rohingya to flee the country. This follows shortly after the Minister of Justice of The Gambia at the International Conclave on Justice and Accountability for Rohingya held at the ISS in October declared that what has transpired in Myanmar over the past years must be named genocide and that The Gambia would lead efforts to hold the Myanmar state accountable through international legal mechanisms. However, this is just the first of several steps to ensure justice for the Rohingya—the human side of what has become a ‘refugee crisis’ needs to be acknowledged, writes Lize Swartz.
The desire to hold perpetrators accountable for crimes committed against the Rohingya, to improve the living conditions and well-being of Rohingya refugees, and to ensure their eventual safe return to Myanmar was unanimously expressed at the recent International Conclave on Justice and Accountability for Rohingya. At the conclave, a number of high-level dignitaries and specialists working on justice for the Rohingya at both the international and local level came together at the ISS in October this year to discuss key short-, medium- and long-term objectives in ensuring the eventual safe return of the Rohingya to Myanmar and ways in which to reach them.
His Excellency Abubacarr Marie Tambedou, Minister of Justice of The Gambia, at the conclave declared to a sizeable audience that The Gambia would lead the process of holding the Myanmar state accountable—a declaration that was enthusiastically welcomed by attendees as an important first step in ensuring justice for the Rohingya. The Gambia accordingly instituted proceedings  against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice, the principal judiciary organ of the United Nations, in November this year. Laetitia van den Assum, an independent diplomatic expert who was previously part of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State and who also attended the conclave, told a Dutch news website that The Gambia had launched the application because the UN Security Council due to resistance from Russia and China had not undertaken any action in this regard over the past few years.
While the declaration of genocide and the filing of the recent application are steps in the right direction, the complexity of processes of ensuring justice and accountability have not been sufficiently recognized at the conclave, where discussions focused on holding perpetrators accountable and returning Rohingya refugees to Myanmar under safe conditions. Bangladesh, who has assumed a leadership role in housing Rohingya refugees, was praised at the conclave for its hospitality, while representatives of Bangladesh highlighted the difficulties of housing almost a million refugees.
The discussions made me wonder whether the humanity of the Rohingya is sufficiently recognized by those working on ensuring justice for them. In particular, the Rohingya genocide has become a ‘refugee crisis’, gaining increasing attention due to the sheer numbers of refugees residing in host countries. This is transpiring while the Rohingya in fact have been victims of policies of exclusion and direct violence within Myanmar for over forty years. It seems that it is only now that the issue is receiving attention—but perhaps for the wrong reasons.
At the conclave, it became clear that the Rohingya were seen as temporary residents hosted by benevolent neighbouring countries. However, it became evident during the conclave that repatriation is not straightforward, as changes in national policies, laws and leadership in Myanmar are crucial for the creation of conditions of safety and security as a sustainable solution to the long-term crisis. Conference attendees agreed that without such conditions, the cycle of violence and exclusion is likely to repeat itself as it has done before.
While the proceedings against Myanmar at the ICJ are a first step, host countries and the international community all have to come to terms with the fact that the process of ensuring justice could span several decades and that ongoing collaborative effort is required for the entire duration of the process. It is important to recognize the human side of the ‘refugee crisis’ and to ensure that besides holding perpetrators accountable through formal international legal mechanisms, the well-being of the Rohingya should be prioritized now—whether they are temporary or permanent residents of host countries. The following things should be kept in mind:
Bangladesh and other host countries are now the Rohingya’s home, and they may remain so for many years to come.
When humans settle somewhere, they grow new roots that anchor them to a place. The international community may not want to recognize that the Rohingya has already grown roots in host countries and that they will continue to do so until their return to Myanmar, if they choose to return. It is crucial for host countries to accept that the Rohingya might not be going anywhere anytime soon and that their integration into host communities is crucial, whether temporarily or permanently. Host countries have already been generous in providing resources and a safe space for the Rohingya, but they now needs to direct their gaze towards the social dimensions of well-being among the Rohingya, including the creation of a sense of belonging and the creation of education and employment opportunities by doing the opposite that the Myanmar state has done—by acknowledging the Rohingya minority as part of their society and accepting them despite their origin or citizenship status. At the conclave it became clear that the lack of access to education was one of the most pressing problems facing the Rohingya.
The Rohingya should acquire an understanding of the process of change, not only in repatriation, but also in holding the perpetrators responsible.
Importantly, the Rohingya also need to understand that their return to Myanmar, even though desired by some of them, may not take place in the coming year or years, which will help them make long-term decisions about where they could settle. CSOs and local grassroots actors working with Rohingya on the ground can play a crucial role in helping the Rohingya understand why the cogs are turning slowly and why their return to Myanmar is being delayed. In addition, information on the proceedings and outcome of pending ICJ or ICC cases will play an important role in the Rohingya’s gauging of the level of safety and security of Myanmar and, therefore, in their willingness to return to Myanmar when it is possible.
The process of justice and accountability does not end when the Rohingya return to Myanmar – it only begins then.
The long-term objective of helping the Rohingya deal with trauma should be highlighted; this shows dedication to the cause of the Rohingya and not just to addressing the immediate refugee crisis. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was discussed at the conclave, is effective not only in gathering evidence of crimes against humanity, but also in helping victims of crimes against humanity deal with trauma. The wounds that have been created over the last forty years will not heal instantly, but they can heal more effectively with the creation and efficient functioning of such mechanisms and institutions that facilitate dialogue and interaction among all ethnic groups in Myanmar.
 Following violent crackdowns on the Rohingya starting in 2012, more than one million Rohingya have fled Myanmar, many to neighbouring country Bangladesh.
 At present, Cox’s Bazar near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border houses more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees in what has become a massive slum.
 According to ICJ Press Release No. 2019/47, available at https://www.icj-cij.org/en/case/178, The Gambia alleged “violations of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the ‘Genocide Convention’) through ‘acts adopted, taken and condoned by the Government of Myanmar against members of the Rohingya group’ ”.
Image Credit: Zlatica Hoke on Wikimedia
About the author:
Lize Swartz is a PhD researcher at the ISS working on the intersection of sustainability and climate crises and the influence of power on understandings of and responses to such crises. She was a conference reporter at the International Conclave on Justice and Accountability for Rohingya.