Myanmar Shrugs Off ICJ Genocide Measures, Sticking to Its Account of Attacks on Rohingya

myanmar-zaw-htay-briefing-naypyidaw-jan31-2020.jpg Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay addresses reporters during a press briefing in the country's capital Naypyidaw, Jan. 31, 2020.
RFA video screenshot

A Myanmar government spokesman on Friday shrugged off the Jan. 23 ruling by the U.N.’s top court ordering the Southeast Asian country to implement measures to protect Rohingya Muslims from genocide and to preserve evidence of atrocities allegedly committed against the minority group during a military-led crackdown.

The Muslim-majority West African nation Gambia filed a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in November on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, accusing Myanmar of violating the 1948 Genocide Convention during the alleged expulsion of Rohingya to Bangladesh amid the violence targeting the minority community in Rakhine state in 2017.

Thousands of Rohingya perished as a result of the 2017 violence, which included indiscriminate killings, mass rape, torture, and village burnings. More than 740,000 others fled to safety in neighboring Bangladesh where they live in massive displacement camps.

Gambia asked the court to issue provisional measures to ensure that atrocities against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority would not continue, and the ICJ ruling in The Hague supported the request.

In response to the order, Zaw Htay, spokesman for the Myanmar President’s Office, told reporters at a news briefing in Naypyidaw that no genocide had occurred in Rakhine state, citing the findings of the government-appointed Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE) that probed military operations during the crackdown. The commission found that war crimes and serious human rights violations had occurred but did not have “genocidal intent.”

“We have repeatedly said that there is no genocide in the country and never will be,” Zaw Htay said, echoing a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Jan. 23, the day of the ICJ’s decision.

“We have stated this in parliament ever since we signed the Genocide Convention,” he added. “We will stick to that.”

He cited Articles 1 and 2 of the Convention, which Myanmar signed in December 1949, saying that the country has already ratified them.

Article 1 states that parties to the Convention confirm that genocide committed in times of peace or war is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish, while Article 2 defines the acts that constitute genocide against a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.

“The ruling is based on these two articles, so we don’t need to take any special action based on the ruling,” Zaw Htay said.

Activist Nickey Diamond from Southeast Asia-based NGO Fortify Rights said Myanmar needs to determine if it has the laws to comply with the Genocide Convention.

“Some critics say we already have laws to protect the evidence of a crime, but we don’t find any confirmation that the existing laws comply with the Genocide Convention,” he told RFA.

‘Myanmar will definitely win’

Zaw Htay also said the government will take action against perpetrators of atrocities based on recommendations in the ICOE report.

Human rights groups have denounced the report as the latest in a series of efforts to whitewash atrocities against Rohingya in the wake of attacks on Myanmar border police by Rohingya militants.

Nevertheless, Zaw Htay expressed confidence that Myanmar will prevail in the genocide case which could likely take years before the ICJ issues a final ruling. The ICJ on Tuesday gave Gambia until July 23 to submit its initial plea, while Myanmar has until Jan. 25, 2021, to reply.

“When they issue the final ruling based on merit, Myanmar will definitely win,” he said.

In the meantime, the ICJ’s legally binding order requires that Myanmar prevent the killing or serious injury of the Rohingya, ensure that the military does not harm the Rohingya or conspire to commit genocide, preserve evidence related to the allegations, and report on its compliance with the measures until the court issues a final decision on the case.

The first report is due in four months, with follow-up reports due every six months.

“We have made a statement on submitting a report per the provisional measures order in four months, but we will not reveal anything about how we will respond to the issue,” Zaw Htay said, adding that Myanmar needs to consult its legal team, specifically international law professors William Schabas and Andreas Zimmerman, who are helping to defend the country against the genocide charges.

Genocide is ‘too extreme’

At the three-day hearing on the provisional measures, Gambia cited the findings of a report by a U.N.-mandated fact-finding mission that concluded the attacks on the Rohingya were carried out with “genocidal intent” and warned that the roughly 600,000 Rohingya still living in Myanmar face a “serious risk of genocide.”

Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de factor leader, led the defense team at the hearing in December, arguing that there was no genocidal intent behind the army’s behavior.

“When the state counselor clarified this at the ICJ hearing, she explicitly stated that labeling it as genocide was too extreme,” Zaw Htay said.

The spokesman also noted that Myanmar formed a Committee on Criminal Investigation and Prosecution on Jan. 24 to prosecute those responsible for war crimes.

Myanmar faces separate legal action at the International Criminal Court and in an Argentine court, cases for which the ICJ’s order to preserve evidence is crucial.

Reported by Thiha Tun, Thet Su Aung, and Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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