The International Criminal Court (ICC) will investigate crimes against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar, the institution said in a statement on Thursday.
"There exists a reasonable basis to believe widespread and/or systematic acts of violence may have been committed that could qualify as the crimes against humanity of deportation across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border," a court decision said.
"The chamber hereby authorises the commencement of an investigation into the situation in Bangladesh/Myanmar."
Myanmar security forces are accused of killings, gang rape and arson during a crackdown that drove more than 730,000 people to flee western Rakhine state for neighbouring Bangladesh after attacks on police posts by Rohingya insurgents in August 2017.
Myanmar has rejected most of the accusations and dismissed a UN report last September which said military officers carried out the campaign against the Rohingya with “genocidal intent” and should stand trial.
Ahead of the announcement on Thursday, the ICC said it examined the requests made on behalf of hundreds of thousands of alleged victims.
"Victims unanimously insist that they want an investigation by the Court and many of the consulted alleged victims 'believe that only justice and accountability can ensure that the perceived circle of violence and abuse comes to an end,'" the statement said.
Human rights activists hailed ICC's announcement.
“This decision marks an important step in the fight for justice and accountability in Myanmar. It sends a strong message to the orchestrators of atrocities against Rohingya that their days of impunity are numbered, "Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southeast Asia said in a statement.
But the group also said that the international community could do more to protect human rights in the southeast Asian country.
“While we welcome today’s decision, it only allows the ICC to investigate some of the military’s many crimes against ethnic minorities in Myanmar. This is why it remains essential that the UN Security Council refers the situation in the whole of the country to the ICC. Its ongoing failure to do so is a stain on its credibility and an abdication of its responsibilities.”
ICC prosecutors will now "start collecting the necessary evidence from a variety of reliable sources, independently, impartially, and objectively," the court said.
If they manage to gather sufficient evidence, judges can issue either summons to appear or warrants of arrest.
"The responsibility to enforce warrants of arrest issued by an ICC Chamber remains with States," the court noted.
This might be an obstacle to enforce any court decisions in the future, as Myanmar is not a state party to the ICC.