On 23 January, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued what amounted to a “cease and desist” order against Myanmar, ordering authorities there to end genocidal practices against the Rohingya. The ruling of the so-called “World Court” has brought hope that international justice will prevail after the horrors inflicted on women, men and children in Rakhine State by Myanmar’s security forces.
But while the court’s ruling was a landmark moment, there are still many lingering questions. What happens next? What effects will the ruling have on Myanmar’s domestic scene, where an election looms later this year? Will Myanmar comply with the order — and what happens if it does not?
The ICJ’s ruling meant that a global legal body for the first time officially recognized the real threat of abuse against the Rohingya, and ordered Myanmar to do what it can to protect them. The ICJ also called on Myanmar to prevent further breaches of the Genocide Convention, rein in abuses by its security forces and preserve evidence of past abuses.
It is important to note, however, that the ICJ’s provisional order is in no way a final ruling on whether genocide has taken place. Genocide is defined as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” The convention against genocide imposes a duty on states that are signatories to “prevent and to punish” genocide, thus the ability of the Gambia to bring the case to the ICJ.
The legal threshold for proving “genocidal intent” is notoriously high and a final decision will likely take years to reach, even if atrocity crimes against the Rohingya are already well-documented. One of the ICJ’s 15 judges, Xue Hanqin from China, has already issued an opinion questioning whether genocide took place as well as the Gambia’s right to even bring the case before the ICJ, an indication that this will be a drawn-out process with no easy answers.
While the decision is an important symbolic victory for the Rohingya, it remains to be seen how much effect the provisional measures will have in practice. The court has little power to actually enforce the order by itself. Like most international justice efforts, the ICJ’s effectiveness largely depends on the goodwill of states.