The top United Nations court on Friday dismissed Myanmar's preliminary objections to a case alleging that the Southeast Asian nation is responsible for genocide against the Rohingya ethnic minority.
The decision establishing the International Court of Justice's jurisdiction sets the stage for hearings airing evidence of atrocities against the Rohingya that human rights groups and a U.N. probe say breach the 1948 Genocide Convention.
In March, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the violent repression of the Rohingya population in Myanmar, which formerly was known as Burma, amounts to genocide.
Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organization U.K., welcomed the decision, saying 600,000 Rohingya "are still facing genocide," while "1 million people in Bangladesh camps, they are waiting for a hope for justice."
The African nation of Gambia filed the case in 2019 amid international outrage at the treatment of the Rohingya, hundreds of thousands of whom fled to neighboring Bangladesh amid a brutal crackdown by Myanmar forces in 2017.
It argued that both Gambia and Myanmar were parties to the 1948 convention and that all signatories have a duty to ensure it was enforced.
Judges at the court agreed.
Reading a summary of the decision, the court's president, U.S. Judge Joan E. Donoghue, said: "Any state party to the Genocide Convention may invoke the responsibility of another state party including through the institution of proceedings before the court."
A small group of pro-Rohingya protesters gathered outside the court's headquarters, the Peace Palace, ahead of the decision with a banner reading: "Speed up delivering justice to Rohingya. The genocide survivors can't wait for generations."
One protester stamped on a large photograph of Myanmar's military government leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.
The court rejected arguments raised at hearings in February by lawyers representing Myanmar that the case should be tossed out because the world court only rules in disputes between states and the Rohingya complaint was brought by Gambia on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
The judges also dismissed Myanmar's claim that the Gambia could not file the case as it was not directly linked to the events in Myanmar and that a legal dispute did not exist between the two countries before the case was filed.
Myanmar's representative, Ko Ko Hlaing, the military government's minister for international cooperation, said his nation "will try our utmost to defend our country and to protect our national interest."
Gambia’s attorney general and justice minister, Dawda Jallow, said: "We are very pleased that justice has been done."
The Netherlands and Canada have backed the Gambia, saying in 2020 that the country "took a laudable step towards ending impunity for those committing atrocities in Myanmar and upholding this pledge. Canada and the Netherlands consider it our obligation to support these efforts which are of concern to all of humanity."
However, the court ruled Friday that it "would not be appropriate" to send the two countries copies of documents and legal arguments filed in the case.
Myanmar’s military launched what it called a clearance campaign in Rakhine state in 2017 in the aftermath of an attack by a Rohingya insurgent group.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled into neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar security forces have been accused of mass rapes, killings and torching thousands of Rohingya homes.
In 2019, lawyers representing Gambia at the ICJ outlined their allegations of genocide by showing judges maps, satellite images and graphic photos of the military campaign. That led the court to order Myanmar to do all it can to prevent genocide against the Rohingya. The interim ruling was intended to protect the minority while the case is decided in The Hague, a process likely to take years.
The International Court of Justice rules on disputes between states. It is not linked to the International Criminal Court, also based in The Hague, which holds individuals accountable for atrocities. Prosecutors at the ICC are investigating crimes committed against the Rohingya who were forced to flee to Bangladesh.