Gambia will open its case against Myanmar before the UN’s top court in December accusing the mainly Buddhist state of genocide against its Rohingya Muslims, the tribunal said Monday.
The small, majority-Muslim African country will ask the International Court of Justice to make an emergency injunction to protect the Rohingya, pending a decision on whether to deal with the wider case.
Gambia’s case at the ICJ accuses Myanmar of breaching the 1948 UN Genocide Convention through a brutal military campaign targeting the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state.
The ICJ said in a statement that it “will hold public hearings in the case” from December 10 to 12. “The hearings will be devoted to the request for the indication of provisional measures submitted by the Republic of The Gambia,” it added.
Gambia says it is filing the case on behalf of the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
Some 740,000 Rohingya were forced to flee into sprawling camps in Bangladesh after a brutal 2017 military crackdown, in violence that United Nations investigators say amounts to genocide.
Gambia’s lawyers said it wants the ICJ to announce urgent emergency measures “to protect the Rohingya against further harm.”
The case will be the first international legal attempt to bring Myanmar to justice over allegations of crimes against the Rohingya, and is a rare example of a country suing another over an issue to which it is not directly a party.
The ICJ was set up in 1946 after World War II to adjudicate in disputes between UN member states.
Separately the International Criminal Court — another Hague-based court which was set up in 2002 to probe war crimes — on Thursday authorised its chief prosecutor to launch a full investigation into the persecution of the Rohingya.
Rights groups meanwhile filed a separate lawsuit over the Rohingya in Argentina in which Myanmar’s former democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was personally named.
Myanmar has repeatedly defended the crackdown on the Rohingya as necessary to stamp out militants.
It has not reacted to the ICJ case, but said last week that the ICC investigation was “not in accordance with international law”.
Myanmar is not a member of the ICC, but the court says it can be held responsible for crimes that affect neighbouring Bangladesh.
The UN chief on Sunday urged Myanmar to ensure the “safe” return of Rohingya refugees driven out by army operations, a plea made in front of Aung San Suu Kyi more than two years since her country cracked down on the Muslim minority.
Speaking at a summit of Southeast Asian leaders in Bangkok — with Myanmar’s de facto head Suu Kyi in the room — Antonio Guterres said he remains “deeply concerned” about the plight of the Rohingya.
Violence in Rakhine state in 2017 forced more than 740,000 Rohingya to flee, most seeking refuge in overcrowded camps in neighbouring Bangladesh, in what UN investigators say amounted to genocide.
Myanmar does not recognise the Rohingya as citizens.
Some 3,500 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have been cleared to return home to Myanmar beginning this week, a top official said Monday, nearly two years after a military crackdown sparked their exodus.
Some 740,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in August 2017 from a military offensive in Myanmar – joining 200,000 already there – but virtually none have volunteered to return despite the countries signing a repatriation deal.
Bangladesh refugee commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam, however, said he was “optimistic” about a new repatriation process scheduled to start on Thursday.
A previous attempt in November 2018 to return 2,260 Rohingya failed after they refused to leave the camp without guarantees for their safety.
“Everything is ready… the land transit point has been prepared,” Kalam told reporters after a meeting with Myanmar officials in Cox’s Bazar, southeast Bangladesh, where the refugees live in vast camps.
“Nobody will be forced to return unless they volunteer,” he said.
Bangladesh and Myanmar officials plan to repatriate 300 Rohingya each day, with some 3,500 refugees cleared to make the journey home, Kalam said.
The new push follows a visit last month to the camps by high-ranking officials from Myanmar led by Permanent Foreign Secretary Myint Thu.
Sunday will mark the second anniversary of the crackdown that sparked the mass exodus to the Bangladesh camps.
Kalam said Myanmar and United Nations officials were meeting with selected refugees on Tuesday to encourage them to return to Rakhine State.
The Rohingya, who are mostly Muslim, are not recognised as an official minority by the Myanmar government which considers them Bengali interlopers despite many families having lived in Rakhine for generations.
Monsoon-triggered landslides in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh have killed one person and left more than 4,500 homeless, aid officials said Sunday.
About 35 centimetres (14 inches) of rain fell in 72 hours before the landslides started Saturday in camps around Cox’s Bazar that house more than 900,000 of the Muslim minority who fled Myanmar, the UN said.
Twenty-six landslides were reported in makeshift camps built on hills near the border with Myanmar. Trees there have been torn up to build huts and for firewood, leaving the terrain unstable.
UN refugee agency official Areez Rahman said about 30 shanty camps have been affected by the storms. One woman in her 50s died after being hit by a wall that collapsed, he told AFP.
Nur Mohammad, a 40-year-old Rohingya in the main Kutupalong camp, said 12 relatives had fled their tarpaulin-clad huts on the hills to take shelter with him.
“My home is already overcrowded. I’m worried how I will feed all these people,” he said.
Officials said some 5,000 Rohingya on a strip of no man’s land between Bangladesh and Myanmar had also been badly hit by the storms.
“Children are suffering from diarrhoea and we don’t have enough drinking water,” camp leader Dil Mohammad told AFP by phone.
He said most of the camp was knee deep in water as Myanmar authorities had put a dam on a nearby river.
Bangladesh’s refugee commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam said on Sunday emergency preparations were being made.
Monsoon storms killed 170 people in the refugee camp in 2017.
Last year the UN refugee agency moved 30,000 Rohingya out of areas considered at high risk of landslides and floods.
Some 740,000 Rohingya fled a military crackdown in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar’s Rakhine state in August 2017, joining about 200,000 already living in camps across the border.
Bangladesh wants to relocate up to 100,000 of the refugees to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal but this is opposed by the refugees and international rights groups.
Bangladeshi police have arrested 10 Rohingya refugees as they were about to board a boat to travel to Malaysia, an officer said Friday.
Southeast Bangladesh is home to around a million Rohingya, most of whom fled Myanmar last year following a military crackdown and are now in vast camps.
There are fears that with the current calmer weather, many may try to reach other more prosperous countries by boat by paying often unscrupulous traffickers.
The elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) said it stopped the six young women and four men at Shah Porir Dwip, a coastal station, on Thursday night before they could board a boat on the Naf river estuary dividing Bangladesh and Myanmar.
“They were about to head to Malaysia through the Bay of Bengal. The girls won’t be aged more than 22 years. They were tempted that they can get married with well-off persons in Malaysia,” RAB Cox’s Bazar chief Mahedi Hasan told AFP.
People smugglers in recent years have taken tens of thousands of Rohingya to Malaysia before Bangladesh launched a crackdown in 2015 after Thai authorities discovered mass graves and overcrowded boats drifting at sea.
Hasan said the women paid $100 each to traffickers and the men paid nearly $250. “Each of them was supposed to pay another 200,000 takas (nearly $2,500) once the boat crosses Thai waters,” he said.
A Bangladeshi trafficker was also arrested, he added.
RAB said two of those who were arrested came to Bangladesh from Myanmar in 2000-2001. The rest were part of an exodus of around 720,000 last year.
Early this month the Bangladeshi coastguard intercepted a boat in the Bay of Bengal carrying 33 Rohingya to Malaysia.
The sea tends to stay calm between November and March. During this time of year, even small boats can travel long distances via the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.
A boatload of more than 100 Rohingya Muslims who fled a camp in Myanmar were found off the country’s south coast on Friday after spending 15 days at sea in a failed attempt to reach Malaysia.
The group of 106 people were discovered floating in a wooden boat on the Andaman Sea just off the shore of Kyauktan township an hour south of Myanmar’s commercial capital of Yangon, police told AFP.
The Rohingya said their group included 23 children and that a girl had died “about nine days ago”.
“One girl died at sea… she had not eaten and had drank seawater,” said Eilia, 35, who added the boat had run out of petrol.
Others in the mostly male group said they were from various Rohingya camps in Sittwe, Rakhine state’s capital.
“We left 15 days ago and are going to Malaysia,” said a young Rohingya man, who was immediately barred from speaking to reporters by police.
The group was escorted by local Red Cross members and immigration officers to Kyauktan township in eight vans, with four armed police officers in each vehicle. Once in Kyauktan they were given shelter in a community hall.
The stateless minority face widespread persecution in Myanmar, and more than 120,000 are forced to live in camps in Rakhine state after intercommunal violence erupted between them and ethnic Rakhine in 2012.
Housed under grim conditions, the Rohingya — who have been denied citizenship in Myanmar — have no freedom of movement and a lack of access to education and healthcare.
Eilia said they had left their camps because of the lack of food.
“The food rations they give us are not enough,” he said. “We were told we would get jobs and be able to eat if we went (to Malaysia).”
A camp leader from Sittwe confirmed that the group had departed two weeks earlier.
“They left 15 days ago trying to get to Malaysia,” Kyaw Tin told AFP. “They left secretly… We only found out when they had a problem, about three days ago.”
More than 720,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine state for Bangladesh after a brutal crackdown by the Myanmar military in August 2017.
Those who fled to overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh brought with them accounts of rape, extrajudicial murders and arson perpetrated by the military.
The two governments signed a repatriation pact last year, which was due to begin on Thursday. Myanmar said they were ready to receive more than 2,200 Rohingya back to resettlement camps.
But none have taken up the offer, with many citing fears without guarantees of safety and citizenship.
UNHCR spokesperson Aoife McDonnell said “concrete progress” was needed for the stateless community to enjoy basic rights in Rakhine state.
“With the prospect of boat movements increasing following the end of the monsoon season, it is increasingly urgent for the authorities to take measures to address the root causes of displacement,” McDonnell said.
UN investigators have urged the International Criminal Court to open a case against Myanmar’s military for “genocide” against the Rohingya — a damning charge the army and government denies, insisting that the security clearances were justified to tamp down Rohingya terrorists.
Amnesty International on Monday stripped Aung San Suu Kyi of its highest honour over the de facto Myanmar leader’s “indifference” to the atrocities committed by the military against Rohingya Muslims.
It was the latest in a string of awards the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner lost since Myanmar’s military drove 720,000 Rohingya out of the Buddhist majority country in what the United Nations has called an act of genocide.
The London-based global human rights organisation said it was revoking the Ambassador of Conscience Award it gave Suu Kyi in 2009 while she was still under house arrest.
“Today, we are profoundly dismayed that you no longer represent a symbol of hope, courage, and the undying defence of human rights,” Amnesty International chief Kumi Naidoo said in a letter to Suu Kyi released by the group.
“Amnesty International cannot justify your continued status as a recipient of the Ambassador of Conscience award and so with great sadness, we are hereby withdrawing it from you.”
Amnesty said it informed the 73-year-old of the decision on Sunday. She has so far issued no public response.
Suu Kyi was globally hailed as a freedom fighter who stood up to her country’s feared military junta while spending 15 years under house arrest.
Her plight received added attention when she was visited by Hillary Clinton when the two-time US presidential candidate was still Secretary of State in 2011.
Suu Kyi then reaffirmed her commitment to working with the United States to bring democracy to her country of around 50 million people.
Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party swept to power in a 2015 landslide that brought hope of Myanmar correcting injustices inflicted over 50 years of brutal military rule.
But her tenure has been marred by a failure to speak up for Rohingya Muslims. Her government is also fighting an uphill struggle against corruption and local conflicts.
Amnesty said it believes thousands of Rohingyas were killed in Myanmar’s western Rakhine province since the campaign began August 2017.
Many more are thought to have been either tortured and raped.
Myanmar has justified the military’s actions as necessary to combat terrorism.
Amnesty conceded that the civilian government Suu Kyi informally heads does not directly control the powerful security services.
But it accused her of standing up for the crimes and “obstructing international investigations into abuses”.
It added that human rights campaigners and journalists continued to be detained and intimidated by the government since her party’s victory.
Suu Kyi was stripped of her honorary Canadian citizenship over her failure to speak up for the Rohingyas last month.
She has also lost numerous smaller awards from individual universities and local and regional governments.
Six people were killed early Friday after a blaze tore through an overcrowded Rohingya camp for the persecuted minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the local fire service said.
Global attention has focused on the 720,000 Rohingya Muslims forced from the state’s north into Bangladesh last year by a brutal military crackdown.
The UN Human Rights Council has accused top Myanmar generals of genocide over the bloody campaign, allegations the country strongly denies.
But less visible are the 129,000 Rohingya confined to squalid camps further south near the capital Sittwe following an earlier bout of violence in 2012.
Hundreds were killed that year in riots between Rakhine Buddhists and the stateless minority, who were corralled into destitute camps away from their former neighbours.
The conflagration in Ohndaw Chay camp, which houses some 4,000 Rohingya and lies 15 miles (24 kilometres) from Sittwe, started just before midnight and lasted several hours, fire department official Han Soe told AFP.
“Six people, one man and five women were killed,” he said, adding that 15 communal longhouses were also destroyed in the blaze thought to have been started in a kitchen accident.
“We were able to bring the fire under control about 1:10 am this morning and had put it out completely by around 3 am,” he said.
A total of 822 people were left without shelter, local media reported.
Conditions in the camps are dire and Rohingya trapped there have virtually no access to healthcare, education and work, relying on food handouts from aid agencies to survive.
Access into the camps is also tightly controlled, effectively cutting their inhabitants off from the outside world and leaving their plight largely forgotten.
Fires in the camps are common because of “severe” overcrowding, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
“Many camp residents have built makeshift extensions to their shelters to create more space for their families. So when a fire breaks out, it is more likely to spread quickly,” said OCHA spokesman Pierre Peron.
Hla Win, a Rohingya man from a nearby camp, told AFP that fire trucks were slow to arrive along the dilapidated roads from Sittwe and the lack of water also hampered efforts to extinguish the blaze.
“We have no ponds near the camps,” he said. “That’s why the fire destroyed so much.”
Myanmar has vowed to close nearly 20 of the camps around Sittwe in the coming months.
Rights groups say the move will achieve little without ending movement restrictions or granting Rohingya a pathway to citizenship.
Rohingya leaders in Bangladesh on Tuesday challenged the United Nations to ensure Myanmar’s generals stand trial after investigators called for top military commanders to be prosecuted for genocide against the minority.
A UN fact-finding mission into violations in Myanmar said the country’s army chief and five other senior brass should be investigated over a brutal crackdown last year that drove 700,000 Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh.
The report commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council detailed a horrifying list of atrocities against the Rohingya, including murder, enforced disappearance, torture, and sexual violence “perpetrated on a massive scale.”
Estimates that 10,000 were killed in the 2017 crackdown were “conservative”, investigators said.
Myanmar has vehemently denied the allegations, insisting it was responding to attacks by Rohingya rebels.
Community leaders for the roughly one million displaced Rohingya in southern Bangladesh welcomed calls for prosecution but said they would judge the UN on its ability to deliver justice.
“The UN has to ensure that justice sees the light,” Rohingya community leader Abdul Gowffer told AFP by phone.
“The commanders must face an ICC trial,” he added, referring to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The investigators have called on the UN Security Council to refer the Myanmar situation to the ICC or for the creation of an ad hoc international criminal tribunal.
The Security Council has repeatedly urged Myanmar to halt military operations and to allow the Rohingya to safely return home.
But its initiatives have been limited by council member and top Myanmar ally China, who could also thwart efforts to refer the case to the ICC.
Dil Mohammad, another Rohingya leader, urged the UN to take further steps to ensure their safe return to Rakhine state, a process that has stalled with Bangladesh and Myanmar blaming each other for the delay.
“It already took a year to reach this UN ruling,” said Mohammad, who lives in a strip of no man’s land near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border with 6,000 other refugees.
“Many things need to be done very quickly so we can return to our land in dignity and safety,” he told AFP.
The investigators were never granted access to Myanmar and based their findings on interviews with 875 victims and witnesses, as well as satellite imagery and authenticated documents, photographs and videos.
A Myanmar court postponed ruling on Monday on whether two Reuters journalists violated a state secrets law while reporting on the Rohingya crisis, with a new date set for next week.
“The verdict will be announced on September 3,” said district judge Khin Maung Maung in a swift hearing at a courthouse in Yangon, adding that the presiding judge was sick.
The decision delays the long-anticipated ruling for Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, who has been in Myanmar’s Insein prison for some eight months.
They were arrested in December after being invited to a dinner with police in Yangon and pounced on as they left the restaurant, accused of possessing classified material.
Authorities charged them with violating a colonial-era state secrets act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years.
But the claims were undercut by a police witness who said his superior had ordered a set-up and by arguments that the allegedly secret documents had been published in state media.
The case has sparked fears of eroding press freedoms under civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Reuters has robustly denied the charges and the newswire launched a global advocacy campaign that included diplomats, celebrities and the legal assistance of prominent rights lawyer Amal Clooney.
“Whatever they decide for us, we will not be afraid,” Wa Lone told reporters as he left the courthouse and was led back into a police van.
Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone were probing the September 2017 massacre of 10 Rohingya men and boys in Myanmar’s Rakhine state a week after the military launched a sweeping crackdown on members of the stateless Muslim minority.
The United Nations and Washington have called the campaign “ethnic cleansing”, after some 700,000 Rohingya fled Rakhine for Bangladesh, bringing with them testimonies of rape, arson, and killings in the northern part of the state.
Myanmar rejects the charges but has admitted the killings investigated by Reuters took place.
A spate of bloody killings is fuelling unease in the Rohingya camps on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, where overstretched police are struggling to protect nearly a million traumatised refugees from violent gangs.
Just 1,000 police officers guard the labyrinthine shanties that make up the giant camps and authorities want to more than double the force in the wake of the murders.
Three respected community leaders are among those slain in what police suspect is a power struggle between Rohingya gangs in the refugee slums in camps around Cox’s Bazar.
One, Arifullah, was stabbed 25 times on a busy road in June and left in a pool of blood. The other two were killed in their shacks just days apart by masked assailants.
Police in the crime-ridden Cox’s Bazar district are investigating 21 refugee murders, many in recent months, which they blame on score-settling and turf wars.
Many in Kutupalong, the world’s biggest refugee camp, and others nearby, say the unchecked violence leaves Rohingya families at the mercy of criminals.
Cashing in on misery
“When the gangs come into the camps, people call the police. But they only arrive after the criminals are gone,” said 16-year-old Runa Akter, whose father disappeared in July with a relative who was later found dead.
Police only filed a case after her uncle’s body was found, she said.
“We are scared. We are especially worried about my brother, because there have been threats to kidnap and kill him,” the anxious teenager told AFP. “I don’t want to lose anyone else in my family.”
A police investigator, SM Atiq Ullah, said no suspects had been identified so far.
Criminals have long preyed on the Rohingya camps, however.
Police say refugees with ties to Bangladeshi drug and human trafficking networks have sold Rohingya girls into sex and recruited mules to courier methamphetamine.
The scourge has intensified since an army crackdown in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar drove nearly 700,000 of the stateless Muslim minority into Bangladesh last year.
Hundreds of Rohingya refugees have been arrested since the August influx for rape, drug offences, human trafficking and weapons possession, among other crimes.
Afruzul Haque Tutul, a senior police officer who until mid-August was deputy chief of Cox’s Bazar, said gangs cashing in on the human misery were extorting “huge money” from new refugees desperate for land, shelter and food.
Internal feuds over territory quickly turn deadly.
Among the bodies was Arifullah, one of the “mahjis” or community leaders tasked with overseeing day-to-day camp affairs.
As an English speaker, he met with dignitaries and liaised closely with police — a position of power Tutul says could have irked rivals.
Arifullah’s wife blamed Rohingya militants for the death of her husband who was surrounded and stabbed by a group of men.
She told AFP that Arifullah was a “big critic” of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the shadowy group whose attacks in Myanmar sparked the military reprisals.
Bangladesh denies the militants have a foothold in the camps and the group distanced itself from crime in a rare January statement issued after two mahjis were murdered.
“It is very challenging, and sometimes threatening, being a mahji,” said Arifullah’s right-hand man, Abdur Rahim, who took over four days after his friend’s killing.
Just a day earlier, a mahji in a neighbouring camp was savagely beaten by a mob but there were not enough police to deter violence, he told AFP in his bamboo office in Balukhali camp.
Tutul said patrols had been increased but forces were spread thin. Some 1,500 additional officers had been requested from Dhaka, he added.
“Definitely it’s a huge task. We are trying our best to control the area,” he told AFP.
As the body count climbed, Bangladesh’s Daily Star newspaper in July printed an editorial declaring it “amateurish to hope that less than 3,000 police would be enough” to guard one million desperate people.
The murders and other unexplained crimes have eroded trust in law enforcement and underscored gaps in policing.
Scared to talk
On one recent visit, AFP reporters saw a police unit armed with shotguns and sticks patrol a camp near where two men were found dead in July.
But a community leader, who requested anonymity, said: “There are no police after midnight. Even during the day, during their shifts, they often stay in their posts.”
Few officers speak the Rohingya language, further hampering inquiries. Fear has kept mouths shut.
“That is why Rohingyas do not come forward. They are scared. In your town, if criminals or terrorists or robbers were there, definitely you will be scared,” Tutul said.
Aid groups are installing floodlights to improve safety, especially for women, and police checkposts are planned for vulnerable areas of the dense slums.
But Mohibullah, an influential Rohingya leader, said policing such ghetto-like conditions was difficult and crime was inevitable.
“It is very bad,” he told AFP. “But, we think the refugee life is like this.”
As Muslims around the world celebrated Eid with feasting and gift-giving, Rohingya refugees in squalid Bangladesh camps marked the festival Saturday with a peaceful demonstration demanding justice and dignified repatriation.
For the hundreds of thousands of the Muslim minority who have fled neighbouring Myanmar since an army crackdown last August, this is the first Eid-al-Fitr they have spent in the cramped tent cities.
Rahim Uddin, a 35-year-old refugee, told AFP that the holiday, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, was different this year.
“But God be praised, at least we have a peaceful place to stay and celebrate. We can go to the mosques without any interruption,” he said in the vast Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar district.
The camp’s mosques were full on Saturday morning as refugees prayed for safety from flash floods and sudden landslides that they fear could be triggered by monsoon rains. They then exchanged embraces.
Later, as children roamed around in new clothes and enjoyed merry-go-round rides and other entertainment, hundreds of refugees staged an hour-long protest, a common occurrence in the camps.
Holding banners and placards, the demonstrators shouted slogans demanding Rohingya citizenship, dignified repatriation to Myanmar and security from the United Nations.
Community leader Mohammad Mohibullah told AFP they want the UN to “include a Rohingya representative in the repatriation agreement” procedure. The UN could not be reached for comment immediately.
About 700,000 Rohingya have arrived in Bangladesh since the crackdown that the UN and the US say amounted to “ethnic cleansing”, joining those who had fled earlier violence in mainly Buddhist Myanmar.
“I sold some rations in the local market to buy my children new clothes. They are very happy,” refugee Manu Mia said on Saturday, as many households prepared traditional desserts for the children.
Eighty-year-old Gul Meher made vermicelli called ‘semai’ for her son and four grandchildren.
“I feel very happy, though we managed to cook a very little, only for my grandkids,” she told AFP.