Universal jurisdiction may open door to justice for Rohingya

Universal jurisdiction may open door to justice for Rohingya

Universal jurisdiction may open door to justice for Rohingya
President of Burmese Rohingya Organization UK Maung Tun Khin and lawyer Tomas Ojea Quintana, Buenos Aires, Dec. 16, 2021. (AFP)
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In an unprecedented move, an Argentine prosecutor last month petitioned the country’s courts to issue arrest warrants for those responsible for the genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. This audacious legal maneuver seeks to hold top Myanmar officials accountable, including Aung San Suu Kyi and former President Htin Kyaw. The action stems from a complaint initially filed by the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK in 2019, which led to the opening of the case in 2021. It marks the first time a national court has leveraged the principle of universal jurisdiction to address the atrocities committed against the Rohingya.
Universal jurisdiction allows national courts to prosecute individuals for serious international crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, regardless of where the crimes were committed or the nationality of the perpetrators. This principle is based on the understanding that certain crimes are so egregious that they threaten the international community or order itself, warranting intervention by any state willing to act. Although 163 of the 193 UN member states can exercise universal jurisdiction, Argentina’s bold move raises a critical question: Why are more countries not utilizing these legal mechanisms to pursue justice for the Rohingya?
This concept represents a vital tool in the global fight against impunity for the worst human rights abuses. Its significance lies in its potential to bypass the limitations of traditional jurisdictional bases. When the country where the crimes occurred is unwilling or unable to prosecute and the perpetrators are out of reach of other national jurisdictions, universal jurisdiction can provide a pathway to accountability.
Amnesty International has reported that a majority of UN member states have incorporated universal jurisdiction into their legal frameworks. However, the application of this principle has been inconsistent and often politically influenced. The Argentine prosecutor’s decision to pursue this case stands out as a beacon of hope for international justice, demonstrating the potential for universal jurisdiction to address crimes that transcend borders and violate our shared humanity.
The Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar, have faced decades of systematic persecution. The most recent and severe wave of violence began in August 2017, when Myanmar’s military launched a brutal crackdown in Rakhine State, resulting in mass killings, widespread sexual violence and the displacement of more than 700,000 Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh. The UN has described these acts as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and has called for senior military officials to be prosecuted for genocide.
Despite the overwhelming evidence and the clear imperative for international action, the response from the global community has been tepid. The International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into the deportation of Rohingya to Bangladesh, but jurisdictional challenges have limited the scope of this inquiry. Meanwhile, the case brought by Gambia against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice for breaching the Genocide Convention remains a significant, yet singular, effort to address these atrocities through international legal channels.
The question arises: Why has Argentina taken this step while more directly connected and arguably more influential countries have not? One possible explanation lies in Argentina’s own history with human rights abuses. The country endured a brutal military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, during which thousands of people were tortured and killed. This dark chapter has instilled a deep commitment to human rights within Argentine society and its legal system.
By invoking universal jurisdiction, Argentina is not only asserting its role in the global fight against impunity but also honoring its own painful history. This action reflects a moral and legal duty to prevent the recurrence of such atrocities, no matter where they occur. It serves as a powerful reminder that the pursuit of justice transcends national boundaries and that the fight against impunity requires collective, global effort.
This initiative should prompt other countries to reevaluate their stance on universal jurisdiction. The principle is enshrined in international law and endorsed by a significant majority of nations. Yet, its potential remains largely untapped. The global community must recognize that failure to act against egregious crimes not only undermines international law but also emboldens perpetrators.

The Argentine initiative should prompt other countries to reevaluate their stance on universal jurisdiction.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Countries with significant geopolitical influence and robust legal frameworks have a particular responsibility to lead by example. The Rohingya genocide is not an isolated incident; it is part of a broader pattern of impunity for mass atrocities that includes the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and South Sudan. By harnessing universal jurisdiction, the international community can send a clear message that those who commit crimes against humanity will be held accountable, regardless of their position or power.
Argentina’s bold legal action against the perpetrators of the Rohingya genocide represents a critical step toward justice. It underscores the importance of universal jurisdiction as a tool to combat impunity for the most serious international crimes. This case challenges other nations to fulfill their legal and moral obligations to protect human rights and uphold international law.
As we look to the future, it is imperative that the global community supports and expands the use of universal jurisdiction. By doing so, we can ensure that justice is not a distant ideal but a tangible reality for all victims of human rights abuses, no matter where they occur. The Rohingya deserve nothing less.

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the director of special initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, DC. X: @AzeemIbrahim
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