As the world marks the 5th Rohingya Genocide Remembrance Day on the 25th of August, it is Rohingya women who are playing a leading role in the fight for international justice. They are ‘Champions of Justice’ – a remarkable group of women who are tearing up the gender norms of Rohingya patriarchal society. Most of them are survivors of brutal violence perpetrated during the 2016 and 2017 “clearance operations”. They are joined by a growing list of countries voicing support for the Rohingya cause and desire for accountability for crimes committed against the community. The latest being the United States which in March 2022, determined that the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, committed the crime of genocide and crimes against humanity against ethnic Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.
During the ‘clearance operations’ the Tatmadaw exploited the Rohingya gender dynamics to maximise the damage to the Rohingya community as a whole. Young women and girls were particularly targeted and disproportionally affected by brutal acts of sexual and gender-based violence including gang rape and mass gang rape; mutilation of genitals and ‘branding’ through biting victims of sexual violence. Survivors, as well as the families of the victims, including male members of the family and children, will carry reminders of these horrific crimes for decades to come.
Despite the clear efforts to destroy the Rohingya community, women are fighting back – this time they are taking their battles to the courts. Multiple international justice proceedings are currently underway which seek accountability for crimes perpetrated against the Rohingya community in Myanmar. These proceedings have taken on even greater symbolic importance since the February 2021 military coup d’état – and are critical in ending military impunity in Myanmar for serious violations of human rights and international crimes.
In May 2018, Shanti Mohila (‘Peace Women’ – a Rohingya women’s survivor group founded in December 2017) gathered 400 thumbprints from Rohingya women and girls and submitted a first victims’ submission to the Pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The submission supported the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC’s request for jurisdiction on the continuing crime of forced deportation (recognising that an element of the crime took place in a Rome Statute state party) and argued that a broader range of crimes should be considered, including gendered persecution.
In September 2018, the Pre-Trial Chamber decided by a majority that the ICC may exercise jurisdiction over the alleged deportation of the Rohingya people from Myanmar to Bangladesh. The submission by Shanti Mohila was acknowledged in the Pre-Trial Chamber decision.
This landmark decision has inspired other victims and survivors of grave sexual violence who fled their homes across borders, such as Syrian survivors of sexual violence in Jordan who filed a victims’ submission to the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC. A similar submission was made by a group of South Sudanese female survivors of sexual violence who had fled to Uganda and in Tajikistan, which has been accused of complicity in Chinese persecution of the Uyghur group.
Meanwhile, Shanti Mohila has not rested in their pursuit of justice and continues to engage with the ICC process. In August 2020 they called for proceedings to take place in Bangladesh, and in September 2021 they filed a communication with the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC to accept a declaration by the National Unity Government (NUG), Myanmar’s civilian government. This was to support the declaration by the NUG in July 2021 recognising the jurisdiction of the ICC under Article 12(3) of the Rome Statute.
At the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the inter-state case between The Gambia and Myanmar on the application of the Genocide Convention will now move forward to the merits stage after the preliminary objections by Myanmar were rejected on 22 July 2022. Previously in December 2019, three Rohingya survivors -including two members of Shanti Mohila- travelled from the camps in Cox’s Bazar to The Hague for the hearings on provisional measures. After years of persecution and violence in Myanmar, they had their first day in court. In January 2020, the ICJ imposed provisional measures directing Myanmar to prevent all genocidal acts against the Rohingya, to ensure that the military and other security forces do not commit acts of genocide, and to take steps to preserve evidence related to the case.
In December 2020, Setara, a Rohingya woman and member of Shanti Mohila, whose husband was killed in a massacre in Myanmar, filed a complaint to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission. She requested US $2 million in compensation from the Government of Myanmar for its gross failure to meaningfully address the ‘Inn Din massacre’ in which her husband was killed by the Tatmadaw. Myanmar has consistently argued that national mechanisms (domestic remedies) are sufficient to address human rights violations and conduct amounting to international crimes experienced by the Rohingya – this formal complaint puts the assertion to the test. So far, the complete lack of response to Setara’s complaint confirms that justice for the Rohingya is not possible.
In other parts of the world, initiatives utilising universal and extraterritorial jurisdiction are also underway, in which Rohingya women and in particular, survivors of sexual violence play a critical role. In November 2021, a court in Argentina decided to open investigations into crimes committed in Myanmar, under the principle of universal jurisdiction. Prior to the court’s decision, six Rohingya women -including five members of Shanti Mohila- in Bangladesh, and one gave remote testimony of her experience of genocide and sexual violence. And more cases are underway around the world, in which Rohingya women will be playing a crucial role.
Shanti Mohila and the many other Rohingya women who are smashing the gender norms within their own society are an example for us all. We only need to look at the field of international law and in particular international criminal law, which is still dominated by male voices to know that we need to do more to break the gender norms. For example, at the ICC more than 75% of senior positions are still held by men. The lived experiences of these women are a torch in the darkness of massive violations and abuses taking place within Myanmar. Shanti Mohila’s fight for accountability is critical in ensuring an end to the atrocities perpetrated by the Tatmadaw, as well as meaningful change and lasting peace in Myanmar. Although they were victims in the darkest chapter of the Rohingya story, they are now, truly, Champions for Justice.