The International Court of Justice has ordered Myanmar to take urgent action to protect its Muslim Rohingya minority from genocidal acts, in a blow to Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s civilian leader, who has accused refugees of exaggerating atrocities.
Thursday’s ruling was an interim measure intended to protect the Rohingya during the course of a genocide case brought to the Hague court by the small African nation of Gambia.
Thousands of Rohingya died and more than 700,000 fled to refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh during a brutal Myanmar military campaign in 2017 in their home state of Rakhine.
An estimated 600,000 remain in Rakhine under strict curfews that deny them their most basic rights.
United Nations investigators have warned that genocidal actions could recur.
The Myanmar regime has routinely denied genocide accusations, although a government-led investigation this week acknowledged “war crimes” had taken place, and detailed the killing of civilians, disproportionate use of force and looting of property.
The government has pledged to investigate civilians for looting and prosecute offending army officers in military courts. However, the internal report was dismissed by Rohingya leaders as a “whitewash.”
Aung San Suu Kyi was widely praised by her supporters when she appeared in person in the Hague last month to defend her country from the allegations.
In a commentary in the Financial Times on Thursday, she argued that the ICJ case was built on evidence that may have been inaccurate or exaggerated by refugees.
“The international condemnation has had a negative effect on Myanmar’s endeavours to bring stability and progress to Rakhine… It has presented a distorted picture of Myanmar and affected our bilateral relations,” she said.
The court’s ruling was hailed by human rights groups as an important step towards achieving justice for the Rohingya.
The decision sent a message to Myanmar’s senior officials “that the world will not tolerate their atrocities, and will not blindly accept their empty rhetoric on the reality in Rakhine State today,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s regional director.
The ruling, which requires Myanmar to file progress reports every six months, is final and without appeal. Actions to protect the Rohingya could include a reversal of discriminatory policies or a lifting of restrictions on freedom of movement.
However, the court has no real way of enforcing them, and a final ruling on the genocide case may take years.