At the heart of Gambia’s brave attempt to seek justice for the Rohingya, lies a very personal story.
Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi impassively sat through graphic accounts of mass murder, forced displacement and rape at the International Court of Justice in the Hague yesterday.
Suu Kyi, who at one time was mentioned in the same breath as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 28 years ago yesterday on Human Rights Day.
Today, she is defending herself and her government against charges relating to genocide and ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims at the hands of the Myanmar army.
However, the case at the United Nations’ top body, which usually aims to solve disputes between states, has gained worldwide interest as many ask why Gambia, a tiny Western African nation which is roughly 7,000 miles from Myanmar, decided to tackle this distant, yet devastating, crisis.
At the centre of Gambia’s fight is the brave and widely lauded, Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambdou, who has a personal mission.
In May last year, Gambia’s foreign minister pulled out of the annual conference of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Bangladesh at the last minute, sending Tambadou instead.
He joined an OIC delegation visiting overcrowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, where some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims lived after fleeing Buddhist-majority Myanmar since August 2017. They recounted how security forces had burnt Rohingya children alive, raped women and killed men.
What he saw and heard in Bangladesh revived painful memories for Tambadou, who spent more than a decade working as a lawyer at the UN tribunal, prosecuting cases from Rwanda’s 1994 genocide which left nearly a million dead.
“I saw genocide written all over these stories,” the Gambian minister said, “Another genocide is unfolding right before our eyes yet we do nothing to stop it.”
After his visit to the refugee camps, Tambadou introduced a resolution to create an OIC committee to examine alleged abuses against the Rohingya, and this year convinced the 57-member organisation to back a formal case against Myanmar - thrusting his tiny West African homeland into one of the most high profile international legal cases in a generation.
Backed by the Islamic Organisation, Tambadou, a devout Muslim with a prominent prayer bump on his forehead, acknowledged that Islamic solidarity was a factor behind Gambia and the OIC’s actions but said: “This is about our humanity, ultimately.”
Tambadou, in his opening statement at the tribunal, made his country’s intentions very clear: “All that the Gambia asks is that you tell Myanmar to stop these senseless killings. To stop these acts of barbarity and brutality that have shocked and continue to shock our collective conscience.”
He called for immediate action: “Every day of inaction means more people are being killed, more women are being raped and more children are being burned alive. For what crime? Only that they were born different.”
More than 730,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since the military-led crackdown and were forced into squalid camps across the border in Bangladesh. The UN investigation concluded the military campaign was executed with "genocidal intent".
Myanmar has repeatedly denied almost all allegations against its troops, including accusations of mass rape, killings and arson to forcibly displace Rohingya Muslims. The Myanmarese army claims the soldiers are engaged in legitimate counterterrorism operations.
The UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar urged an investigation into the country’s top military generals and prosecution for genocide, as well as for crimes against humanity and war crimes.
‘Use our voice’
No one would have guessed that the Gambia would take legal action to stop a humanitarian crisis, until three years ago.
For 22 years, former president Yahya Jammeh’s security forces had killed and tortured anyone who dared to criticise his regime, according to the ongoing Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission.
But decades of his rule ended in 2016 after his electoral defeat and he subsequently fled into exile. Opposition leader Adama Barrow took power promising to restore human rights and stem corruption.
“Twenty-two years of a brutal dictatorship has taught us how to use our voice,” said Tambadou.
“We know too well how it feels like to be unable to tell your story to the world, to be unable to share your pain in the hope that someone out there will hear and help.”
Back at the tribunal, both sides know that the tribunal has no legally binding powers to enforce its verdict, but its rulings are final and have significant legal and symbolic weight.
While Suu Kyi, once a darling of the international community, defends the same generals who once kept her locked up, the refugee camps in Bangladesh chanted “Gambia! Gambia!”, pumping their fists and offered special prayers at the mosque for the country.