What the ICJ Decision on Myanmar Means

Champa Patel on the implications of the International Court of Justice’s decision to order protection for the Rohingya.

Expert comment Published 24 January 2020 1 minute READ

Champa Patel

Executive Director, Governments and Policy Climate Group

Rohingya refugees watch ICJ proceedings at a restaurant in a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh in December. Photo: Getty Images.

Rohingya refugees watch ICJ proceedings at a restaurant in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh in December. Photo: Getty Images.

The decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that Myanmar should take all measures available to prevent acts of genocide against the persecuted Rohingya minority is truly ground-breaking. The case shows how small states can play an important role in upholding international law and holding other states accountable.

The Gambia, acting with the support of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, skilfully used Article IX of the Genocide Convention, which allows for a state party to the convention to pursue cases against another state party where it is felt there has been a dispute regarding the ‘interpretation, application or fulfilment’ of the convention.

Seventeen states have entered reservations against this specific provision but Myanmar is not one of them. It was on this basis that The Gambia was able to take its case to the ICJ. This exciting development expands the possibilities of international accountability at the state-to-state level.

But it should be noted that the current ruling is focused on provisional measures – the central case could still take years to conclude. There is still a long road ahead on the court determining whether the Myanmar authorities committed acts of genocide.

And, while the decision was unanimous and binding, the ICJ cannot enforce its ruling. Myanmar has shown itself resistant to international criticism and there is a real risk they will fail to comply.

One way forward, should Myanmar not respect the ruling, is that the UN Security Council could agree a resolution to compel action. However, it seems unlikely that China would ever vote for such a resolution, given its strong stance on non-intervention and its economic interests in the country.