GP Insights

GP Insights # 233, 27 January 2020

Bangladesh's Burden and the ICJ verdict on the Rohingya
Sourina Bej

In the news 
The Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen on 23 January called the International Court of Justice (ICJ) order in the Rohingya case “a victory for humanity and a milestone for human rights activists across the world.” 

The International Court of Justice at Hague has ordered Myanmar to take “urgent measures to protect its Rohingya population from genocide.” Myanmar has been given four months to report to the court on steps taken to prevent the Rohingya genocide, post which the orders will have to be observed. The ICJ rejected Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s defence in December 2019 when she refuted genocide charges but admitted the country’s military may have used excessive force against the group. 

The ICJ case was filed by the Muslim-majority African nation - Gambia, which had asked the court to impose emergency measures following the Myanmar army’s 2017 crackdown that forced around 7,40,000 Rohingyas to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. This is the first time that a country without any direct connection to the alleged crimes has brought a case before the ICJ and the court has taken cognisance of it out of the sheer gravity of the issue. 

Unsurprisingly, on 25 January, the Myanmar government has responded to the ruling stating there has been “no genocide in Rakhine” maintaining its stand in not using the word Rohingya in any of its official statement or speech.  

Issues at large 
This is the first time an international legal body has identified the Rohingyas as “displaced Myanmar citizens.” It is a long-overdue recognition, coming through a process in which the Myanmar regime has fully participated. The stand of Bangladesh has also received an international footing. 

Second, 2017 witnessed a large number of Rohingyas reach Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh crossing the porous Naf river and fleeing from Myanmar. Bangladesh has borne the brunt of the influx economically, environmentally and socially for many years along with its continuous diplomacy for international help and repatriation plans with Myanmar.

Third, the number is huge and with no return of Rohingyas in sight, Bangladesh has been compelled to rehabilitate them in restricted lands in Cox’s Bazar. Before 2017, the previously present Rohingya, now in their second generation, have lived in deplorable makeshift huts with newborn adding to the demographic burden of Dhaka. After several debates, Bangladesh has identified an isolated island to shift the refugees but has been met with protests owing to the unliveable condition of the island (submerges with every storm).

Bangladesh is itself facing the cost of a population upsurge with around 163 million people living in a small country. The additional numbers of Rohingya are a burden that the government is managing. Besides, the local Bangladeshis in Cox's Bazar and Chittagong have viewed the influx of Rohingyas with discontent. The presence of refugee camps on cultivable lands and in a tourist destination (Chittagong) have affected the regular business of the people. This has made Bangladesh search for a more permanent and tangible solution to rehabilitate the Rohingya refugees. The calls for repatriation has failed to materialise between Bangladesh and Myanmar to an extent that relation between the two has further worsened and Bangladesh has taken steps to secure its only border with Myanmar by constructing barbed wires. 

In perspective
First, the burden and search for support have pushed Bangladesh to a situation where the ICJ verdict is going to boost its standing. It is unlikely that any concrete steps will be taken by Myanmar to repatriate. The Bangladesh government sees an opportunity in the ICJ ruling to launch a robust diplomatic effort to pursue the issue in the international forum, and not be “swayed by the countries that are failing to stand” by it. 

Second, the relation between Myanmar-Bangladesh will continue to remain worse. It still remains to be seen how the ruling could open a window for dialogue between the two countries. On the contrary, Myanmar will come to view Bangladesh in using the situation to defeat Myanmar’s case in the international forum.     

Third, for the Rohingyas, this was the first legal victory. However, the ruling is unlikely to change the practical situation of the Rohingyas. On the contrary, the tide of public antipathy is overwhelming, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s line echoes a popular view inside Myanmar on Rohingya. There is also no future cooperation for on-the-ground investigations as the UN fact-finding mission has been repeatedly denied visas in Myanmar and has banked on information from the Rohingyas in Bangladesh. In addition, mass demonstrations in support of Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent defence at the Hague, shows that the derision of Rohingya cuts across longstanding political divisions in Myanmar. 

The ruling requires Myanmar to produce periodic reports detailing the protective measures. This is subject to political will and with no jurisdiction over individuals, ICJ will be incapable to nab the architects of the genocide – chief among them Min Aung Hlaing, the head of Myanmar’s military.  

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