The Gender Security Project
The Gambian case against Myanmar: Feminist Foreign Policy in Action
In this piece, Kirthi takes a deep dive into The Gambia’s case against Myanmar before the International Court of Justice, calling for an end to acts amounting and contributing to genocide against the Rohingya.
When Abubacarr Tambadou, the Justice Minister of The Gambia visited a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, he heard things that seemed much like the things that had happened in Rwanda, a good 26 years ago. His conversations with the refugees and survivors at the camp showed him how the military in Myanmar was in the midst of executing a carefully planned, systematic series of attacks amounting to genocide against the Rohingya. He learned that this involved burning down houses, killing infants by snatching them out of their mothers’ arms and throwing them into burning fires, rounding up and executing men, and rape and sexual violence of all kinds.
In his words to the BBC, he said:
“It sounded very much like the kind of acts that were perpetrated against the Tutsi in Rwanda. It was the same modus operandi – the process of dehumanisation, calling them names – it bore all the hallmarks of genocide. I concluded in my own mind, it was an attempt by Myanmar authorities to completely destroy the Rohingya ethnic group.”
It didn’t seem right to hear about these things and do nothing about it: and Tambadou’s choice to act seemed a non-negotiable decision. The Gambian Justice Minister took Aung San Suu Kyi before the International Court of Justice, asking for orders to prevent mass killings in Myanmar.
Over 7,00,000 Rohingya people fled to Bangladesh in 2017, following a clearance operation launched by government security forces in Rakhine State in response to attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on police outposts in the area. At the time, UN investigators had indicated that the operations had a genocidal intent, although the Myanmar government vehemently denied these accusations.
In November 2019, The Gambia, backed by the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, a group of 57 mainly Muslim countries, filed a case against Myanmar, averring that it had been pursuing a campaign of genocide against the Rohingya, and called for justice and an end to genocide and other human rights violations. Bearing in mind that the case itself could continue for a while, The Gambia also sought preliminary measures until then.
The Gambia’s prayer before the International Court of Justice called for Myanmar to take all steps in its power to prevent acts amounting or contributing to genocide; to ensure that no military, paramilitary or irregular armed units commit any act of genocide; and not to destroy or render evidence inaccessible. It also called for a joint effort to not take any action that may aggravate or extend the extant dispute, and to each provide a report to the court on all measures taken to give effect to this order for provisional measures, no later than four months from its issuance.
The case before the International Court of Justice put the spotlight on the genocide of Rohingya community in Myanmar – although for its part, Myanmar vehemently denied committing a genocide. Myanmar’s agent in the ICJ case was Aung San Suu Kyi herself. During the arguments, she argued that there had been no genocide although some war crimes may have occurred against the Rohingya, and that the military had begun court martial proceedings against some of its members for alleged human rights violations and an independent commission of enquiry was finalizing its report.
This report, which Myanmar called an “executive summary,” presented findings from its own investigation, claiming that the mass killings were merely “haphazard responses” by the military to attacks by “Muslim militants.” In the course of arguments before the court, Aung San Suu Kyi argued that it was a domestic investigation and did not require international intervention.
Myanmar’s response to The Gambia’s prayer before the court centered on asking for the court to remove the case from its list and reject the call for provisional measures. It sought for any action or statement that could undermine the integrity of the ongoing criminal justice process in Myanmar to be avoided. Asking whether there can be genocidal intent on the part of a state that actively investigates, prosecutes and punishes soldiers and officers who are accused of wrongdoing, Myanmar claimed that accountability through domestic criminal justice is the norm – and that only if domestic accountability fails, may international justice come into play.
The International Court of Justice ordered measures calling for the prevention of genocide.
Feminist Foreign Policy and the Pursuit of Justice
A feminist foreign policy is associated with “being ethical, principled and visionary.” As the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy explains, “It takes a step outside the black box approach of traditional foreign policy thinking and its focus on military force, violence, and domination by offering an alternate and intersectional rethinking of security from the viewpoint of the most marginalised. It is a multidimensional policy framework that aims to elevate women’s and marginalised groups’ experiences and agency to scrutinise the destructive forces of patriarchy, capitalism, racism, and militarism.”
In taking on crime, The Gambia had established a powerful rights-based engagement that did not allow room for violence and military force. In questioning leadership for its complicity, The Gambia had also offered an alternate and intersectional rethinking of security from the perspective of the marginalized. Above all, in Tambadou’s own words, “The case at ICJ is Gambia showing the world you don’t have to have military power or economic power to denounce oppressions. Legal obligation and moral responsibility exist for all states, big or small.”
The decision to appeal to the global collective conscience to call for an end to genocide was epoch-making in itself: for a small nation like The Gambia to take on Myanmar also meant that it was taking on a global silence around the issue. In doing so, admittedly one must acknowledge that The Gambia has had a history of taking structural violence on, in some way or another, while also upholding structural violence at the same time. For instance, its highly commendable role in brokering peace during the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone through the ECOWAS, its engagement in mediating disputes in nearby Guinea-Bissau and the neighbouring Casamance region of Senegal, and even its move to quit the Commonwealth in 2013, when it had “decided that The Gambia will never be a member of any neo-colonial institution and will never be a party to any institution that represents an extension of colonialism,” are all praiseworthy attempts at sustainable peace. Under its new president, though, The Gambia returned to its status as a Commonwealth republic in 2018. On the other hand, The Gambia continues to uphold discriminatory laws against women and girls and LGBTQIA+ communities. One hopes, then, as Mr Tambadou said, if The Gambia wants “to lead by example,” it would also look inwards.