We, the Rohingya, can’t wait for justice from faraway courts

Expectations about international justice are unrealistically high among Rohingya in the camps in Bangladesh, and the case before the ICJ is likely to end in disappointment.


On May 23, Myanmar had to submit its first report to the International Court of Justice in The Hague about the measures it has taken to prevent the genocide of the Rohingya people. The report was not made public so we can only guess what Myanmar is telling the court about the situation in Rakhine State.

There have been many times during the past three years when discussions about the Rohingya have taken place in other countries without our involvement. If we had an opportunity to respond to Myanmar’s report, the following is what we would say.

In the four months since the ICJ issued the provisional measures ruling, our lives in Bangladesh and Myanmar have become worse. There is no justice for us in the camps, where we have no education, no livelihoods, no movement, no internet and no hope for the future.

There is no justice for the Rohingya who are forced to flee on boats and are abused and extorted by people smugglers.

There is no justice for the hundreds of young men who are forced to join criminal gangs in the camps, or the women and girls who are harassed and abused by gang leaders.

There is no justice for our brothers and sisters in Rakhine who are caught in the middle of a war that is not their own.

Rohingya civil society groups that help refugees have been documenting abuses in Rakhine since the ICJ handed down its ruling in January. Between January and May they have recorded 54 cases of human rights abuses against Rohingya, including deaths and injuries by landmines and shelling. Because the internet has been blocked on both sides of the border, we think the number of cases is likely much higher.

But we cannot tell the ICJ about this, because we have not been given a chance to speak to it.

When the ICJ ruled in favour of The Gambia’s provisional measures application at The Hague four months ago, Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar in southern Bangladesh celebrated. This was the first taste of justice for our people. We had been demanding justice for a long time. It tasted very sweet.

Since then we together with other Rohingya youth volunteers and researchers have sought the opinions of hundreds of refugees about the ICJ case. These conversations made us very worried. Expectations of international justice are high among Rohingya refugees, but knowledge about the ICJ is low.

Go to any mosque in our refugee camps and you will hear people praying for the ICJ to give citizenship to the Rohingya and help us return to our homes and livelihoods.

People believe that the ICJ can force Myanmar to take Rohingya back within a year. Some hope that the ICJ will deploy international peacekeepers in Rakhine to keep us safe.

Many people have confused the ICJ with the International Criminal Court, United Nations, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the 57-nation body of which The Gambia is a member. One man called the ICJ “the president of the world”; another said it was “like the world police”.

Only now is the community beginning to understand that the ICJ has none of the powers that many thought it did. It cannot force Myanmar to do anything. Lacking a world police, its orders and judgments cannot be enforced. It will also take a long time, maybe more than five years, for it to hear the genocide case against Myanmar. Regardless, the court can’t help us to go home by itself.

The international community should have been honest about this when they told us about the ICC and ICJ. They should have told us so we did not raise our hopes so high.

Since we arrived in Bangladesh, hundreds of international delegations have come to speak to us at the camps. They have promised us that, through these international courts, they will work towards justice for the Rohingya people.

Maybe they stopped listening when we explained what justice means to us.

For us, justice means going home as soon as possible. It means being given rights and citizenship in Myanmar. It means security, and the ability to call ourselves “Rohingya”.

We do not need an international court to tell us that what happened to us was a genocide. We know it was genocide. The world knows it was genocide. The world has already heard our story and knows our pain.

We don’t believe that punishing a few soldiers – as some courts martial are reportedly doing in Myanmar at the recommendation of the government appointed Independent Commission of Enquiry – will stop human rights abuses in Rakhine.

If the ICJ is going to take five or 10 years, then we ask the international community:

What are you going to do about the abuses and injustices that are happening today?

What action will you take to help us go home?

How can we be expected to wait for five or 10 years without education or livelihoods?

Perhaps the international community thinks that justice is something that happens in a court in Europe. The fact is that the Rohingya need justice in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

We want to go home, we want to go to school, we want to work, and we want to be safe. That is what justice means to us.

Zahidullah, Shohid, and Abdullah Zubair are Rohingya youth leaders who live in Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh, and work as volunteers, researchers and members of civil society. They have spent the last few months conducting focus group discussions with members of the refugee community on various topics.

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