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The Gambian who took "The Lady" to The Hague

Daniel Farber Huang

Gambian Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou presents his nation’s case against Myanmar in the International Court of Justice on December 10, 2019. Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is seated. (Photo credit: ICJ)
Gambian Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou presents his nation’s case against Myanmar in the International Court of Justice on December 10, 2019. Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is seated. (Photo credit: ICJ)

Working as a lawyer at the UN tribunal focused on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Abubacarr Tambadou said he understood what crimes against humanity – to the survivors, to the perpetrators, and to the nearly million dead in that African conflict.

As Justice Minister for the Africa’s smallest nation of just over 2 million predominantly Muslim people living in an area larger than Delaware but smaller than Connecticut, Tambadou – tall, with a smoothly shaved head and graying goatee – said in a December 12, 2019 article posted on the public radio The World’s website. He was aware of the Rohingya headlines but a chance opportunity in 2018, a schedule conflict actually, set Tambadou on an unexpected course that may one day bring some portion of justice for the Rohingya.

Tambadou’s government colleague, the Gambia foreign minister, was scheduled to participate in the annual conference of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Bangladesh but a last-minute conflict prevented him from attending. Tambadou had time available so went in his place. The delegation went to the Kutapalong-Balukhali Expansion Site refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar, where Tambadou met with refugees and heard story after story of murder, rape and violence from Rohingya in the overcrowded camps.

After returning to Rwanda, Tambadou initiated proceedings against the Republic for the Union of Myanmar, the country’s full name, in the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. The ICJ’s settles legal disputes submitted to it by states, in accordance with international law, and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorized United Nations organs and specialized agencies.

On November 11, 2019, The Gambia formally filed its petition against Myanmar and hearings began in December. The Gambia is pressing for Myanmar to allow the safe and dignified return of forcibly displaced Rohingya; respect for their full citizenship and human rights; protection against discrimination, persecution, and other related acts; and provide assurances and guarantees of non-repetition of violations of the Genocide Convention.

“As I listened to the horrific stories — of killings, of rape, of torture, of burning people alive in their homes — it brought back memories of the Rwandan genocide,” Tambadou said in a Washington Post November 12, 2019 interview. “The world failed to help in 1994, and the world is failing to protect vulnerable people 25 years later.”

The Lady and her Generals

Aung San Suu Kyi holds the position of State Counsellor in Myanmar, a role comparable to Prime Minister, and is the most visible face of Myanmar’s genocidal reign. However, the driving forces in Myanmar government are more complex.

Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar at the International Court of Justice on December 10, 2019. (Photo credit: ICJ)
Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar at the International Court of Justice on December 10, 2019. (Photo credit: ICJ)

Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar at the International Court of Justice on December 10, 2019. (Photo credit: ICJ)

“The Lady”, as Suu Kyi is commonly known, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 "for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights." while under house arrest by the Burmese military junta. Her legacy until recent years was that of a freedom fighter who had been confined under house by the Burmese military for 15 of the 21 years from 1989 to her release in 2010.

The complicated power-sharing arrangement between Suu Kyi and the military, known as the Tatmadaw, implies Suu Kyi is unable to halt the military’s unbridled violence against the Rohingya if she wanted to stop it, but through her own words and actions Suu Kyi has supported the genocide.

The 2008 Constitution, crafted in large part by the military, prohibits Suu Kyi from ever assuming the role of President, which was at the time Myanmar’s highest position. Suu Kyi became a member of Parliament in 2012. When Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won the 2015 elections in a landslide, Suu Kyi was given the new role of State Counsellor, a position above the President. Myanmar’s military still controls significant parts of the government including the Ministries of Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs.

In 2011, at a Nobel Women’s Initiative conference called “Women Forging a New Security: Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict” Suu Kyi said, “Rape is used in my country as a weapon against those who only want to live in peace, who only want to assert their basic human rights. It is used as a weapon by armed forces to intimidate the ethnic nationalities and to divide our country.”

Suu Kyi has spoken negatively about the Rohingya and rationalized - sometimes poorly, sometimes callously - that Rohingya are not suffering or persecuted in sharp contrast to the widely-recognized atrocities occurring.

In a national speech on September 19, 2017 Suu Kyi addressed the conflict and suggested the refugees were partly responsible, as reported by the news outlet

“More than 50 percent of the villages of Muslims are intact,” she said. “That are as they were before the attacks took place.”

Phil Robertson, Deputy Director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said in the report, “When she says that 50 percent of the Muslim villages are still present in Rakhine state. Well, I mean, what are we talking about? Fifty percent are gone. 50 percent are burnt out. In any school I went to, 50 percent is a failing grade.”

Suu Kyi has received condemnation on the world stage. In 2017, 400,000 people signed a petition demanding the Nobel Committee take back the Peace Prize but the Nobel Committee has responded by stating revoking the prize is against the organization’s statutes and not practically possible. The Nobel Committee issues the Peace Prize based on what a person or organization has done at the time of award, and doesn’t have the ability to respond to future actions by the awardees. Source?

Suu Kyi is currently listed on The Nobel Prize website as “Burma's Modern Symbol of Freedom”.

Amnesty International has taken back their highest honor, the Ambassador of Conscience Award, bestowed to her in 2009. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the City of London Corporation, and the city of Oxford (are reported by The Guardian) where Suu Kyi studied and raised her children have also revoked their honors. BBC reports Oxford University removed her portraits from their walls.

While Suu Kyi is the face of Myanmar, many others are complicit in it. The UN Fact Finding Mission report charges that Suu Kyi has not used her influence as head of the government nor her moral authority to rein in or prevent the violence. The Mission recommends six senior generals of the Myanmar military be investigated and prosecuted in an international criminal tribunal for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The Tatmadaw top leader is Commander-in-Chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing. A June 28, 2018 Reuters article quoted Hlaing as saying, “Rohingya do not have any characteristics or culture in common with the ethnicities of Myanmar” and “the current conflict has been fueled because the Bengalis demanded citizenship.”

The other five military commanders identified by the UN Fact Finding Mission as being complicit in the atrocities include the Deputy Commander-in-Chief, Vice Senior-General Soe Win; the Commander, Bureau of Special Operations-3, Lieutenant-General Aung Kyaw Zaw; the Commander, Western Regional Military Command, Major-General Maung Maung Soe; the Commander, 33rd Light Infantry Division, Brigadier-General Aung Aung; the Commander, 99th Light Infantry Division, Brigadier-General Than Oo.

The UN Mission claims also to have a longer, confidential list of 100 individuals, including Myanmar officials, suspected of being involved in genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Those names are in the safekeeping of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and available to any competent and credible body pursuing accountability in line with international norms and standards.

“The widespread sexual violence and the manner in which it was perpetrated was an intended effort, at least in part, to weaken the social cohesion of the Rohingya community and contribute to the destruction of the Rohingya as a group and the breakdown of the Rohingya way of life,” the Mission concluded.

The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, the UNHCR, has called Myanmar “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Addressing the UN Security Council in October 2018, the chairperson of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, Marzuki Darusman, said, “Were anyone to seek to deliberately foment conflict and extremism, the events in Myanmar could serve as a step-by-step manual. Dehumanize a population. Call them all terrorists. Deprive them of all rights. Segregate and attack them. Rape and kill them. Crowd them in IDP camps or drive them out. And protect the killers from justice. These steps can, and almost certainly will, be learned and deployed in other countries against other populations.”

The World’s Highest Court of Justice

When Suu Kyi presented remarks to the International Court of Justice during the second day of deliberations on December 11, 2019, she said, “Myanmar is also committed to the voluntary, safe and dignified repatriation of displaced persons from Rakhine under the framework agreement reached between Bangladesh and Myanmar… Mr. President, how can there be an ongoing genocide or genocidal intent when these concrete steps are being taken in Rakhine?”

The legal process for the ICJ to determine the question of “genocidal intent” may take years to determine, but in a January 23, 2020 ruling, the court unanimously ordered that Myanmar must take immediate steps to protect to the Rohingya.

“The reason why I was particularly determined to get their voices heard [the Rohingya’s] was because in my home country in The Gambia we are lived through over two decades of dictatorship where mothers feared that midnight knock on their door that would take away their husbands and sons forever,” Tambadou said at a Washington DC event on March 7, 2020.

“Where women were raped and sexual violence was used as a weapon to subjugate them. Where schoolchildren were gunned down in broad daylight with impunity. For two decades we in the Gambia lived through this terror. And I believe strongly that had the world spoken out against what was going in the Gambia, had the world condemned it strongly we wouldn’t have gone through the two decades of terror we went through…”

“What is going on in Burma is far more serious, but that is why it is of such important to make sure their voices – the victims of this genocide in Myanmar – is heard in the loudest of the folds, and that is why we went to the top of the judicial mountain of the world, at the world’s highest court the International Court of Justice, and shout it on behalf of the Rohingya so the world would hear their pain…”

“This case filed by The Gambia is of course about justice, it is of course about Islamic solidarity,” Tambadou said during his speech. “But above all it is about humanity.”


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