Nobel prize winner and former democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has defended Myanmar's campaign against Rohingya — but a court ordered the minority to be protected.
Rights groups have welcomed an "inspirational and historic" order by United Nations' top court that Myanmar should take all measures to prevent genocide against the Rohingya people.
In a unanimous ruling, judges at the International Court of Justice dismissed claims by Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi that the Muslim minority group had suffered the "tragic consequences" of a legitimate military operation.
The court's president, Judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf said the 600,000 Rohingya inside Myanmar "remain extremely vulnerable.”
Issuing their ruling at The Hague, the judges also ordered Myanmar to report in four months on what measures the country has taken to comply with the order and then to report every six months as the genocide case moves slowly through the world court.
The New York-based Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect called Thursday's judgement "inspirational and historic."
'Great milestone' for Rohingya
Param-Preet Singh, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, called it a "landmark step to stop further atrocities against one of the world’s most persecuted people."
"Concerned governments and UN bodies should now weigh in to ensure that the order is enforced as the genocide case moves forward," she said. “The ICJ order brings increased scrutiny of Myanmar’s horrific brutality against the Rohingya and raises the political cost of the UN Security Council’s weak response to the crisis so far."
Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK and a genocide survivor, said the court decision was a "great milestone."
"Lives are still at risk because genocide is ongoing," he told Euronews before the announcement. "The international community has to step up and put stronger pressure on Myanmar and monitor what is going on against Rohingya people."
The court's order came in a case brought by the African nation of Gambia on behalf of an organisation of Muslim nations that accuses Myanmar of genocide.
At public hearings last month, lawyers for Myanmar's accusers used maps, satellite images and graphic photos to detail what they call a campaign of murder, rape and destruction amounting to genocide perpetrated by Myanmar's military.
Former democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi
The hearings drew intense scrutiny as Myanmar's former pro-democracy icon Suu Kyi defended the campaign by military forces that once held her under house arrest for 15 years. Suu Kyi, who as Myanmar's state counsellor heads the government, was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for championing democracy and human rights under Myanmar's then-ruling junta.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar has long considered the Rohingya to be "Bengalis" from Bangladesh even though their families have lived in the country for generations. Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless. They are also denied freedom of movement and other basic rights.
In August 2017, Myanmar's military launched what it called a clearance campaign in northern Rakhine state in response to an attack by a Rohingya insurgent group. The campaign forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh and led to accusations that security forces committed mass rapes, killings and burned thousands of homes.
Suu Kyi told world court judges in December that the exodus was a tragic consequence of the military's response to "coordinated and comprehensive armed attacks" by Rohingya insurgents.
The world court's orders are legally binding but it relies on the United Nations to add political pressure, if necessary, to enforce them.
The court is expected to take years to issue a final ruling on genocide in the case.