ICC and ICJ moves on Rohingyas may be illusory


Afsan Chowdhury,  November 20, 2019

There is a little more anxiety than before in general about the Rohingyas in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Government has made it clear that it wants them out, one way or the other. The International Criminal Court (ICC)’s declaration that it will initiate a probe into the Rohingya issue has stirred things up further.

Myanmar has strongly protested, as expected. But not much may happen as such moves work only when a strong international power is involved. Neither Myanmar nor Bangladesh qualify to be considered as such and no powerful country is really backing them or opposing them in meaningful terms.

Since the human deluge of 2017, China has got closer to Bangladesh. Therefore, it won’t take an anti or pro-Myanmar stance. It is going to be more of the same but probably with a sharper focus.

Bangladesh is wrestling with the issue but not getting the best of it. Bangladesh announced that it has several plans to relocate and resettle the refugees in a coastal island. This has met with resistance from most international quarters, not to mention the Rohingyas.

Meanwhile, people smuggling has become common and media reports of Rohingyas being caught at the airport and other gateways trying to flee using Bangladeshi passports is fairly regular.

It is at this point that the ICC development took place.

ICC and ICJ moves 

Myanmar has always defended the crackdown as necessary on security grounds to counter ARSA, a Rohingya insurgency group. It doesn’t recognize the authority of the ICC. This was restated in response to the ICC’s statement about exploring an investigation.

But the ICC ruled last year that it has jurisdiction over crimes against the Rohingyas because Bangladesh is a member.

This process was triggered by Gambia which had recently filed a case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN’s top court, on the issue. It was acting on behalf of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Gambia has accused Myanmar of genocide. Hearings could begin as early as December.

Myanmar may not be happy with all this attention but Bangladesh will be hoping that the world will pay heed a little more and is praying that it can get out of the mess.

Zaw Htay, the Myanmar spokesperson, reiterated that Myanmar’s own committees would investigate any abuses and ensure accountability if needed.

Myanmar, which has signed the Genocide Convention, would respond “in accordance with international legal means”, said Zaw Htay.

These are unhappy days for Aung San Suu Kyi, who was named in a case along with other Myanmar officials, filed in Argentina for genocidal crimes. Army chief Min Aung Hlaing and civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi — face justice over the “existential threat” faced by the Rohingya.

ICC position

In Dhaka, the Deputy Prosecutor of the ICC, James Stewart, said that he is following up the request of the ICC Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, to investigate alleged crimes against humanity committed against the Rohingyas in Myanmar.

“The ICC was established to deal with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed after July 1, 2002. We are a court of last resort, however, and can only act, where these crimes are not being investigated and prosecuted by the national authorities,” Stewart said.

Prosecutor Bensouda’s request to the ICC Judges came after she felt that there are sufficient reasons to believe that crimes of humanity and aggravation were committed against the Rohingya people.

Myanmar-Bangladesh-China position

Even if the ICC ends up convicting Myanmar, the matter would not make much of a difference as it is not an international crisis worth much pursuing by the powers that matter. It is a humanitarian issue and recent events show that unless tagged to global or extremist politics, the world will prefer to wait and see.

International courts are also selectively effective and in that case, the push won’t become a shove for Myanmar.

A beneficiary of greater Myanmar isolation could well be China in case sanctions are imposed on Myanmar. China will step in and be welcomed warmly by Myanmar.

For a while observers had remarked that Yangon had got China in its grip. But the reverse is true. China has become the main investor in Bangladesh as well. India may have more visibility in Bangladesh but in Bangladesh where money matters, it is China which can call more shots than others. Bangladesh will be hoping that China will recognize the limited value of supporting Myanmar.

China may also look at its Hong Kong policies and consider projecting a softer image. But does it really need to in a world where images matter for smaller countries not for big ones?

Meanwhile the Rohingyas can expect a long stay in a land they don’t call their own, and away from a country which doesn’t call them their own.