In a wood-panelled hall of the ornate Peace Palace at The Hague, lawyers pressing a case against Myanmar for alleged genocide against its Muslim Rohingya minority will next week ask judges to order immediate action to protect them from further violence.
Gambia, a tiny, mainly Muslim West African country, filed a lawsuit in November accusing Myanmar of genocide, the most serious international crime.
During three days of hearings starting Dec. 10, it will ask the 16-member panel of U.N. judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to impose “provisional measures” to protect the Rohingya before the case can be heard in full.
More than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh since a 2017 military crackdown, which U.N. investigators found in August to have been carried out with “genocidal intent”. Myanmar vehemently denies allegations of genocide.
The office of Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace prize laureate, has said she will lead her country’s defense personally. Myanmar’s legal team is expected to argue that genocide did not occur, that the top U.N. court lacks jurisdiction and that the case fails to meet a requirement that a dispute exists between Myanmar and Gambia.
Gambia’s request for a provisional injunction is the legal equivalent of seeking a restraining order against a country.
“If the court feels there is sufficient threat and it needs to step in, it can ... order Myanmar to cease and desist in terms of military operations and violence so that civilians are protected,” said Priya Pillai, an international lawyer with the Asia Justice Coalition, an NGO.
In an overcrowded refugee camp in Bangladesh, 22-year-old Mohammed Nowkhim said he and fellow Rohingya were “waiting and praying” for a good outcome in The Hague, although most will be unable to watch the hearings due to poor internet access.
Nowkhim said he escaped Buthidaung town, an urban center of northern Rakhine state, with his neighbors in August 2017.
“Our remaining villagers decided that we can’t stay any more. If we stay they will kill us. So we gathered in one place and started our journey to Bangladesh,” he told Reuters.
“Our Rohingya communities are waiting for the resolution of ICJ. We hope that something will change after ICJ,” he said.