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On 23rd January of this year, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Myanmar must “take all measures within its power to protect Rohingya Muslims from Genocide”.[1] Revealingly, one of the presiding judges, Judge Cançado Trindade, noted the grave nature of the situation reported by UN agencies on the ground: there was “great suffering on the part of the numerous victims of the tragedy in Myanmar; further to those who were killed or died, the surviving ones remain a situation of extreme vulnerability”. [2]

The ‘extreme vulnerability’ facing a much denigrated Burmese minority is indeed a tragic story: it is one in which a Nobel Peace laureate formerly persecuted by a military regime is transformed into its most staunch defender. It is also – more hearteningly – one in which a former prosecutor at the UN tribunal, working on cases in the Rwanda genocide of 1994, decided to take a stand to stop history repeating itself.

Gambia’s Justice Minister, Abubacarr Tambdou, was driven to act by the highly distressing stories he had heard within the principal refugee camps in Bangladesh holding Rohingya Muslims, including the Cox’s Bazar. It is estimated that 730,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar as its security and military forces perpetuate what Human Rights Watch have called the “worst mass atrocity of our time”, intensifying its operations from the Rakhine state crackdown of August 2017 onwards.

The waves of repression experienced by the Rohingya are the outcome of longstanding populist prejudices against Muslims minorities in Myanmar, with military forces at the forefront of acting with impunity to strip these communities of their human rights and successfully instituting measures to marginalise them. Many of these measures have effectively rendered the Rohingya stateless.

The leader of the country’s civilian government, Aung San Suu Kyi, has actively supported these actions. In the recently concluded two year ICJ case against Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi argued against the accusations of Genocide, siding with the military that had once placed her under house arrest for her pro-democracy stance.[3] As one journalist aptly pointed out: ‘she is now the permanent face of the legal defence of some of the worse abuses imaginable.’[4]

Leading the case on behalf of the Rohingya at the ICJ was Tambdou. His initiative had pushed the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) into both examining the allegations against Myanmar and then pursuing the case through the ICJ. Consequently, the ICJ judges made their final decision to order Myanmar to safeguard the Rohingya Muslims from Genocidal violence. The judges also formally recognised the Rohingya as an ethic group – something strenuously denied by Mynamar.

In making their judgement, the ICJ bore in mind the 600,000 exposed Rohingya remaining in Myanmar. The judges imposed reporting requirements on Myanmar’s government, obliging it to keep the ICJ informed on measures and actions taken to cease the persecution of the Rohingya and to uphold their security. While this was a significant moment for the Rohingya, the enforcement of any tougher binding actions by the ICJ is precluded by China’s veto in the Security Council and, furthermore, it was China’s support for Myanmar that blocked the more natural progression of the case to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Nonetheless, it is worth considering the considerable courage of Tambdou. In a cause that is increasingly gaining less and less coverage in the Western media, he is ensuring that this is not a forgotten genocide.

When questioned by Russia Today about his motivations, Tambdou cited Islamic solidarity as one consideration, but the prevailing one was clear to him: “This is about our humanity, ultimately.”[5]

[1] Human Right Watch, International Court of Justice Orders Burmese Authorities to Protect Rohingya Muslims from Genocide: Interview with Reed Brody, Reed Brody, 27 January 2020
[2] The International Court of Justice, Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (The Gambia v Myanmar): Request for the indication of provisional measures, Annex to Summary, 23 January 2020, p.4
[3] Amnesty International, Press Release: Amnesty strips Aung San Suu Kyi of ‘Ambassador of Conscience’ award,
[4] BBC News, Myanmar Rohingya: Aung San Suu Kyi cuts a haunted figure in court, Nick Beake, 14 December 2019
[5] TRT World, Abubacarr Tambadou: the man taking on Myanmar’s Aung Saan Suu Kyi, Macahid Durmaz, 11 December 2019

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