DAKAR, Senegal — Gambia, the smallest country in continental Africa, took an unprecedented step this week in the realm of international justice: It filed a lawsuit at the United Nations’ top court accusing Myanmar of genocide against Rohingya Muslims.
But the story of why such a tiny player chose to tackle a distant conflict is personal.
Abubacarr M. Tambadou, Gambia’s attorney general and justice minister, read a U.N. report last year that detailed how an army crackdown in Buddhist-majority Myanmar had killed thousands of Rohingya in 2017 and driven more than 700,000 into neighboring Bangladesh.
Investigators described the violence as “crimes against humanity,” and the United States called it an ethnic-cleansing campaign. Myanmar has denied all the allegations, saying it was targeting terrorists.
Tambadou, who worked for years as a lawyer at the U.N. tribunal focused on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, visited a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh in May 2018.
Conversations with the refugees, and their pain, reminded him of Rwanda’s history of government-led atrocities, which wiped out about 800,000 lives over 100 days in the East African country. An estimated 250,000 women endured sexual assault.
“As I listened to the horrific stories — of killings, of rape, of torture, of burning people alive in their homes — it brought back memories of the Rwandan genocide,” Tambadou said in a phone interview. “The world failed to help in 1994, and the world is failing to protect vulnerable people 25 years later.”
What happened in Myanmar?
The U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar called the military’s tactics “grossly disproportionate” to any security threat, adding, “Military necessity would never justify killing indiscriminately, gang raping women, assaulting children, and burning entire villages.”
Myanmar rejected the findings, saying it took necessary measures to thwart insurgent attacks.
One September day in 2017, according to a particularly harrowing Reuters investigation, soldiers roped together 10 Rohingya men as Buddhist villagers dug a grave. Then the troops shot and hacked the prisoners to death before pushing them into the ground. (Myanmar jailed two of the article’s authors, sparking international outrage.)
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled the brutal crackdown remain in Bangladesh, where human rights groups say camps are overcrowded. Authorities are planning to move some to an island called Bhashan Char, despite the heightened flood risk that monsoon season brings there.
Though Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a repatriation deal two years ago, practically no refugees have returned to their old homeland, where they faced years of persecution before the bloodshed erupted.
A September U.N. report said Rohingya people in Rakhine still face a “serious risk” of genocide.
What’s going on with Gambia’s case?
Gambia lodged the lawsuit at The Hague on Monday, hoping to turn up legal pressure on Myanmar.
The African nation also asked the International Court of Justice to issue an injunction to stop Myanmar from committing “atrocities and genocide against its own Rohingya people,” according to the complaint.
Gambia is thrusting the Rohingya’s plight back into the spotlight a year after prosecutors at the International Criminal Court, which normally handles cases of war crimes, launched an inquiry.
That court, however, has no jurisdiction over proceedings in Myanmar, which is not a member country, so efforts stalled. (The United States, China and India, among others, also have not signed on to the ICC.)
But the 15 judges of the ICJ can rule on disputes stemming from the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which applies to the killing of, “in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
Gambia and Myanmar are signatories to the pact.
How is Gambia pulling this off?
Such legal endeavors tend to drag on for years and cost millions of dollars, which is a heavy lift for a country with a gross domestic product of about $1.48 billion.
Supporters with deep pockets, though, are helping Gambia.
The majority-Muslim nation of 2 million people is backed by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a group of 57 states that calls itself the “voice of the Muslim World,” and by the U.S. law firm Foley Hoag.
Gambia’s case, whatever the outcome, refocuses attention on the Rohingya crisis, said John Packer, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, who has followed the situation in Myanmar.
“Genocide is considered an injury against everybody — a general wrong — which allows any state to take this up,” he said. “Little Gambia is acting for the whole world.”
Other countries praised Gambia for taking action at a time when nations are often prioritizing business and trade relationships — as well as tending to their own issues first — over intervening in affairs abroad.
“This move will help advance accountability for the genocide, which includes acts of mass murder, systemic discrimination, hate speech and sexual and gender-based violence against the Rohingya,” Canada’s foreign affairs arm said in a Monday statement.
Gambia, meanwhile, is grappling with its own violent past.
Its Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission began hearings this year into alleged human rights abuses by Yahya Jammeh, the dictator who ruled the country for 22 years before fleeing to Equatorial Guinea in 2017.
Jammeh has been linked to the deaths of more than 70 people.
“Part of the reason we were motivated to be involved in this case was because of our own experiences,” Tambadou said. “Had the international community took up this responsibility at the time and condemned the former president, I don’t think we would have gone through two decades of terrible atrocities.”