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UN court orders Myanmar to protect Rohingya from atrocities

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Thursday ordered Myanmar to take urgent measures to protect its Muslim Rohingya population from persecution and atrocities, and preserve evidence of alleged crimes against them.

More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar after a military-led crackdown in 2017

Rohingya refugees watch ICJ proceedings at a restaurant in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. The UN's International Court of Justice heard a case filed by Gambia against Myanmar over its treatment of the Rohingya. (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Thursday ordered Myanmar to take urgent measures to protect its Muslim Rohingya population from persecution and atrocities, and preserve evidence of alleged crimes against them.

Mostly Muslim Gambia launched a lawsuit in November at the United Nations' highest body for disputes between states, accusing Myanmar of genocide against Rohingya.

Thursday's ruling dealt only with Gambia's request for so-called preliminary measures, the equivalent of a restraining order for states. While the court's final decision could take years to reach, the 17-judge panel made clear in a unanimous ruling that the court believes the Rohingya are in danger now, and steps must be taken to protect them.

The Rohingya remain "at serious risk of genocide," presiding Judge Abdulqawi Yusuf said, reading a summary the decision. Myanmar shall "take all measures within its power to prevent all acts" prohibited under the 1948 Genocide Convention, the ruling said. Myanmar must report back within four months.

It ordered the government of Myanmar to exercise influence over its military and other armed groups to prevent "killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to the members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life intended to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part."

Rohingya Muslims walk on a beach after being transported by arrested by Myanmar authorities in December. The Rohingya remain 'at serious risk of genocide,' says International Court of Justice president Judge Abdulqawi Yusuf. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar after a military-led crackdown in 2017, and were forced into squalid camps across the border in Bangladesh. UN investigators concluded that the military campaign had been executed with "genocidal intent."

Moments before the court in The Hague began reading its ruling, the Financial Times published an article by Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in which she said war crimes may have been committed against Rohingya Muslims but that refugees had exaggerated the abuses against them.

During a week of hearings last month, Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, had asked the judges to drop the case.

The court's rulings are final and without appeal, although it has no real way of enforcing them.

However, Rohingya activists, who had come from all over the world to the Hague, reacted with joy to the unanimous ruling which also explicitly recognized their ethnic minority as a protected group under the Genocide Convention.

WATCH | UN court orders Myanmar to prevent genocide against Rohingya Muslims

The International Court of Justice has ordered Myanmar to protect its Muslim Rohingya population from persecution and atrocities. 1:14

"That is something we have been fighting for a long time: to be recognized as humans the same as everyone else," said Yasmin Ullah, a Canada-based Rohingya activist.

Myanmar's ministry of foreign affairs said in a statement late on Thursday it "takes note" of the decision.

"The unsubstantiated condemnation of Myanmar by some human rights actors has presented a distorted picture of the situation in Rakhine and affected Myanmar's bilateral relations with several countries," it added.

Rohingya 'extremely vulnerable'

"The court is of the opinion that the Rohingya in Myanmar remain extremely vulnerable," said Yusuf, the presiding judge.

"Moreover, the court is of the opinion that the steps which claimed to have taken to facilitate the return of Rohingya refugees present in Bangladesh, to promote ethnic reconciliation, peace and stability in Rakhine State, and to make its military accountable for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, do not appear sufficient."

More than 100 Myanmar civil society groups published a statement saying they hoped international justice efforts would "bring forth the truth" and end impunity.

"Political and military policies have always been imposed with violent force and intimidation upon the people of Myanmar, systematically and institutionally, on the basis of their political and religious beliefs and ethnic identities and continue until the present," the statement said.

"We understand very clearly that the ICJ case against Myanmar is directed toward those responsible for using political power and military might, and not to the people of Myanmar."

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