Gambia’s support for Rohingya is a beacon of hope amid moral tragedy

Gambia’s support for Rohingya is a beacon of hope amid moral tragedy

(UN Photo/ICJ-CIJ/Frank van Beek)
(UN Photo/ICJ-CIJ/Frank van Beek)
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Look around these days and it is hard to find much cause to have faith in the future. It has been more than two years since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the planet and many parts of the world are still experiencing virus surges.
The world’s biggest country, China, is once again in lockdown. On the other side of Eurasia, some of the planet’s wealthiest and most powerful countries have been drawn into the conflict in Ukraine. Quite loosely, and rather irresponsibly, there has been talk of another world war, perhaps even a nuclear conflict.
But I am writing to tell you about a cause for hope — hope that there are still responsible people in this world who are willing to do the right thing by standing up for justice and against evil. It is a story that is all the more wonderful for its unexpectedness.
It involves the tiny West African nation of Gambia, which is standing up to an Islamophobic regime in faraway Myanmar. Standing behind Gambia, and backing it, is the great force and greater potential of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Above all, though, it is a story about the beleaguered Rohingya, the indigenous Muslims of northwest Myanmar, who have been subjected to sustained discrimination, gross violations of their human rights, and even outright ethnic cleansing.
The story is all the more inspiring because we would not necessarily have expected Gambia, a country with a total population approximately equal to the number of Rohingya in the world, to be championing this cause against a country that is many times larger. Yet it was Gambian lawyers who charged the government of Myanmar with direct culpability for the persecution and genocide of the Rohingya.
Gambia has rightly noted that authorities in Myanmar are guilty of the intentional massacre of tens of thousands of Rohingya and the immediate expulsion of several hundred thousand more. Many of these refugees are sheltering in precarious conditions in neighboring Bangladesh. Others are in Southeast Asia. Belatedly, the government of Myanmar has tried to have the case thrown out, rather than acknowledging what has been done.
Indeed, in February 2021, Myanmar’s military toppled the elected government of President Aung San Suu Kyi, in part because she had failed to halt the proceedings at the International Court of Justice. This should not be misinterpreted, however; Suu Kyi was hardly in favor of transparency or accountability. Once an international celebrity for her brave stand in support of human rights, she condoned and even defended the violence against the Rohingya.
She even traveled in person to the Netherlands to argue against the accusation of genocide — albeit, fortunately, to no avail. However, the representatives of that deposed government might now hold the key to successful litigation: Representatives of Suu Kyi’s administration have petitioned the International Court of Justice to be recognized in place of the military junta now governing the country. If that were to happen, they have pledged to withdraw Myanmar’s opposition to the case.

It was Gambian lawyers who charged the government of Myanmar with direct culpability for the persecution and genocide of the Rohingya. 

Muddassar Ahmed

That might be a cynical bid to find a path back to power. It might also be an acknowledgment of how the tide is turning.
Gambia’s chances for success in the case have been improved by the international assistance it has received so far. Some of this has been factual and analytic. Some has been diplomatic and multilateral.
Examples of the former include the UN’s 2018 International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, which has proven vital in bringing to light the plight of Rohingya and describing the events of recent years as “genocide.”
Examples of the latter include sustained backing from the OIC, the second-largest intergovernmental body in the world. Perhaps the government of Myanmar did not expect such a massive institution to weigh in on the issue. Perhaps it assumed, as many others long have, that the remit of the OIC is solely Palestine and the plight of Palestinians. But this is a dangerous misunderstanding, born from a severely incomplete reading of the origins of the organization.
Founded in 1969, the OIC has sometimes been understood to be a vehicle through which the Muslim world might express solidarity with Palestinians. In 1969 a man who identified with radical Christianity launched an attack on Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem with the aim of destroying it. The shock of that incident mobilized the entire Muslim world in response and the OIC was established with the support of many governments around the world.
But that is not the whole picture. While the OIC was founded with the intent of standing with the Palestinians, its mandate was always global. It included, as part of its core mission and identity, the protection of all vulnerable or persecuted Muslims. This includes the Palestinians, for example, and, especially during the 1990s, Muslims in Eastern European nations such as Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo.
That solidarity extends to the Rohingya. This might explain why Myanmar’s military junta has belatedly awoken to the threat of prosecution it faces and the larger circumstances behind it.
While the road ahead for the Rohingya is undoubtedly difficult and dangerous, the support of the OIC, alongside vital engagement from Western powers such as Canada and the Netherlands, holds out the promise of hope. That hope is distant, perhaps, and unclear at times — but the Rohingya are not alone.
And while it might not seem like it in the present moment, the investment of the OIC in this conflict, and the important initiative implemented by Gambia, also heralds something else, something to cheer for: That the international order has champions of sustainability and principle in quarters where we do not stereotypically expect to find them.
Tragedies such as that which has befallen the Rohingya are reminders of how far the world has to go to guarantee rights and dignity to the most vulnerable. But there are also moments when peoples of different faiths, cultures and geographies find common ground. In doing so, they not only build the trust and affection that are so vital to sustaining international peace and prosperity, they also renew the core values upon which the world order stands.
We have in recent years allowed ourselves to forget the value of that order, to overlook violations of our shared moral commitments, and to blind ourselves to the dangers of emboldening aggressors.
But while we might have hoped the Muslim world would have stepped forward earlier and more decisively, that does not mean it is not stepping forward now, that it is not turning to international institutions to secure rights and freedoms for its co-religionists, or that it is not invested in the global order, too.

  • Muddassar Ahmed is an advisory council member at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
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