Today, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague is expected to rule on a case that could bring a small measure of justice within reach for my people, the Rohingya. The case, The Gambia v. Myanmar, alleges what we Rohingya know to be true: that military leaders committed acts of genocide in a systematic attempt to destroy us.
The Myanmar government has challenged the ICJ’s right to hear the case, saying it has no jurisdiction. If the Court finds that it has jurisdiction, my people will get the opportunity to hold accountable those who authorized and carried out unspeakable atrocities for decades. If, however, the Court agrees it has no jurisdiction, it will be another blow for the Rohingya people who have already suffered so much.
More than 900,000 Rohingya refugees are languishing in camps in Bangladesh including in Cox’s Bazar and on Bhasan Char, a remote island in Bengal Bay prone to extreme flooding and cyclones. Many fled Myanmar after the military junta escalated their violent campaign against us in August 2017. These refugees joined more than 300,000 others who have fled persecution since the 1990s.
The same Burmese military that killed Rohingya indiscriminately, burnt villages, and raped women without consequence is now using these same tactics against civilians throughout the country. After years of international outcry and advocacy, last March the U.S. government finally determined these atrocities amounted to genocide – a welcome, if long overdue, step in our fight for justice and accountability. That was followed by fresh sanctions by the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom against senior officials and entities connected to the military regime. However, little has been done in practical terms to help those suffering daily humiliations. It is past time for concrete actions. Just as the international community has rallied to help Ukraine, the United States and world leaders must take meaningful steps to help the Rohingya, targeted religious and ethnic communities, and all those suffering under the yoke of the military in Burma.
Bangladesh opened its borders to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people fleeing for their lives after the military crackdown in 2017. However, over time, conditions in the refugee camps there have deteriorated – and grow worse with each passing day. Overcrowding and underfunding has led to squalid conditions including inadequate food, water, and shelter. Fencing in the camps restricts movement, leaving refugees especially vulnerable to flooding, landslides, and fire. There is a lack of proper medical care and promises to educate children (around half of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh under age 18) have gone unfulfilled. I have visited these camps, heard their stories. A whole generation of Rohingya children are growing up in hopeless conditions. There is no security, no opportunity, and no dignity in these places.
The international community must respond to these hopeless conditions by immediately increasing funding for the refugee camps in Bangladesh. According to the United Nations (U.N.), humanitarian groups need more than $880 million to support refugees in Cox’s Bazar and Bhasan Char. As of May 2022 however, the Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis is only about 14 percent funded. Bangladesh should also allow the refugees to run schools, markets, and civil society organizations, as Rohingya are able to meet some of their own needs if given the opportunity to do so.
But providing resources for refugees in Bangladesh will not sustainably protect the Rohingya. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi noted while visiting these camps this past May, “[T]he Rohingya refugees I met reiterated their desire to return home when conditions allow. The world must work to address the root causes of their flight and to translate those dreams into reality.”
The United States and international community can help “address the root causes” by joining or supporting the three pending international investigations and cases against the military regime. They include the aforementioned case brought by The Gambia and an ongoing investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into crimes against humanity targeting the Rohingya people. That investigation however is limited to violations committed on Bangladesh territory, since Myanmar has not ratified the Rome Statute. The third is a petition filed in November 2021, after the Argentinian judiciary agreed to launch a universal jurisdiction case against senior Myanmar officials brought by my organization, Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK). It marked the first time that another country’s domestic courts have agreed to investigate these allegations. BROUK and our legal team are supporting six women who have accused the military of gross human rights violations. In the coming months, the court will hear directly from these women, another first on the long road to justice.
Beyond driving accountability for past wrongs, we Rohingya also want to have a voice in shaping the future of our country. The United States and other allies should make it clear that there can be no normalized relations with Burma without the full and equal participation of the nation’s many minorities, including the Rohingya. First, we need the restoration of our full citizenship rights, which were stripped away with the Burma Citizenship Law of 1982. This measure rendered us stateless and triggered policies that restricted access to health care, education, and jobs (I left my homeland in the 1990s for the United Kingdom after being blocked from going to university simply because I am Rohingya.) Encouragingly, Burma’s government in exile has made commitments to reverse these discriminatory practices should the war against the junta be successful.
I am hopeful for the day when the Rohingya can return home peacefully. Until it is safe to do so, we also need international support to increase resettlement opportunities. Sadly, many Rohingya who have fled Burma for other countries face tremendous difficulties beyond the poor conditions noted above. Just recently, India started deporting Rohingya genocide survivors back to Burma, where they face continued persecution and violence – a policy which may violate international refugee law. We will be forever grateful to Bangladesh for hosting us in our time of need, but we need lasting sustainable support to find homes in other nations – like what the international community did for the more than 100,000 Lhotshampas who fled Bhutan in the 1990s after the government moved to strip Nepali-speakers of their citizenship and civil rights. And we have all read about the many States that have committed to help Ukrainian refugees in recent months. Similar steps can and should be taken to resettle Rohingya refugees who have waited for decades to find a permanent home.
While the path forward for Rohingya refugees is complicated, it is not impossible. There has been meaningful progress along the way, including the genocide determination by the United States, sanctions against the military leadership, and the adoption this month of a resolution by the U.N. Human Rights Council that underscored the need for transparent investigations and called on Burma to allow us to return home safely. Indeed, the world has seen what can be achieved when the international community purposefully rallies to support a community in crisis. The Rohingya people need similar support from the United States and allied leaders, now more than ever.