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A Voice for Justice for Rohingyas, Rwandans and Gambians


FILE - Gambia's Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou speaks outside the International Court of Justice, at The Hague, Netherlands, Jan. 23, 2020.
FILE - Gambia's Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou speaks outside the International Court of Justice, at The Hague, Netherlands, Jan. 23, 2020.

Protecting vulnerable people “is a question of our humanity, over and above anything else,” Abubacarr Tambadou says.

That belief motivated Tambadou, as attorney general and justice minister of the Gambia since early 2017, to set up an ongoing commission to investigate crimes allegedly linked to former president Yahya Jammeh. It has also led him to spend more than a decade prosecuting atrocities in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

And last November, it prompted him – on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – to file a case with the International Court of Justice accusing Buddhist-majority Myanmar of attempting to commit genocide against its ethnic Rohingya Muslim population. The Asian country Friday filed its first court-mandated report on its government’s and military’s efforts to comply with emergency provisional measures to protect Rohingyas, preserve evidence of any crimes against them, and to facilitate their repatriation.

The 47-year-old Tambadou, speaking to VOA Sunday from his residence in Gambia’s capital, Banjul, called the filing “a positive development that Myanmar continues to engage with the court on this matter.” He said it demonstrates that the government “is acting as a responsible member of the international community.”

FILE - Bangladesh's coast guard rescued 382 starving Rohingya refugees and delivered them for processing in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, April 16, 2020.
FILE - Bangladesh's coast guard rescued 382 starving Rohingya refugees and delivered them for processing in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, April 16, 2020.

History of persecution

Excluded from citizenship in 1982, Rohingya Muslims have faced persecution and spasms of violence for decades. But in August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled from Rakhine state across the border to Bangladesh, bringing with them accounts of massacres, extrajudicial killings, gang rapes and villages set on fire by Burmese military and civilian militants. Myanmar characterized its crackdown as a response to insurgent attacks on security posts.

The Gambia’s legal team had sought the emergency measures to protect the estimated 600,000 Rohingya Muslims still in Myanmar, goaded by a September 2019 U.N. report that found “a serious risk that genocidal actions may occur or recur.”

In January, the ICJ – the United Nations’ top court – granted the request, requiring Myanmar to file periodic reports on its efforts to comply. The court’s final decision in the case could take years.

Tambadou said he and his legal team – led by the Washington firm Foley Hoag – have received a copy of the filing. Myanmar and the ICJ could determine whether to reveal the report’s contents before the genocide case goes to trial, he said.

Myanmar’s foreign ministry said the report is confidential, VOA’s Burmese Service reported Sunday.

The country has at least overtly suggested new safeguards. In April, the Myanmar government issued presidential directives ordering “all ministries and all regions and state governments” to ensure against acts of genocide and to preserve evidence.

Friday, Myanmar Army spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said at a news conference that the military was cooperating with the government-formed Independent Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations to share information on investigations and to set up transparent courts martial of security forces alleged to have committed crimes. The commission had found no evidence of genocide.

A chance visit

Tambadou’s involvement in the Rohingya case was a matter of happenstance. A committee of the OIC, which represents 57 countries with significant Muslim populations, had been contemplating action against Myanmar since 2018. It chose Tambadou as its chair after he had filled in at the last minute for the Gambia’s foreign minister on an OIC delegation visit to Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district in southeastern Bangladesh.

“When I visited the refugee camps in Bangladesh, in talking with witnesses, I was convinced that what I was hearing was genocide,” Tambadou said of his May 2018 trip.

Following the U.N. fact-finding report in September 2019, the committee decided the Gambia should file the case.

Like Tambadou, Simon Adams, the executive director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, told VOA he also saw Myanmar’s filing as “a very positive thing. But we've still got a long way to go. Those discriminatory laws and policies are still in place. There's still 1 million Rohingya refugees sheltering in nearby Bangladesh who want to come home.”

Adams praised Tambadou and his country for supporting the Rohingyas.

“Look, any state that is a signatory to the [1948] Genocide Convention could have brought this case forward, but they didn't. It took tiny Gambia, the smallest country in Africa,” he said. “… There's so few states who actually have the intestinal fortitude, the political vision and the determination to take a case like this forward.”

FILE - Fatou "Toufah" Jallow testifies before the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission in the Gambia, Oct. 31, 2019.
FILE - Fatou "Toufah" Jallow testifies before the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission in the Gambia, Oct. 31, 2019.

Measures at home

Tambadou, who studied law in Britain, also is engaged in a reckoning at home in the Gambia. Its independent Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission began publicly televised hearings last year into alleged crimes committed under Jammeh, president from late 1996 into January 2017. As Human Rights Watch notes, Jammeh is accused of ordering the torture and killing of political opponents, the murders of 56 West African migrants, and the detention of hundreds of women. He also is suspected of raping some women brought to him.

Tambadou spoke about the ICJ case on the Rohingyas, the recent arrest of a long-sought fugitive alleged to have financed the Rwandan genocide, the Gambia’s commission – and the human rights issues that tie them together.

His comments have been edited for length and clarity.

What are you looking for in Myanmar’s report to the ICJ?

Three key things. We are looking for a demonstration by Myanmar of action it has taken to prevent the commission of genocide; demonstration that it has refrained from committing genocide; and [an account] of what measures it has taken to preserve evidence.

Is the Gambia legal team also monitoring the ground situation in Myanmar?

We are doing so through a variety of sources. And hopefully we will have a basis to confirm what Myanmar has just submitted to the court.

To what extent is the COVID-19 pandemic an issue in the case? Does it add any urgency?

COVID-19 is a serious matter. It has not only impacted our ability to prepare fully for submission within the deadline given to us by the court. [The ICJ has granted three-month extensions to both Myanmar’s and the Gambia’s legal teams.] But we are thinking about the potential devastating consequences it could have on the Rohingyas both in Myanmar and in the refugee camps in Bangladesh.

How has your experience as a prosecutor with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda shaped your understanding of the signs of genocide?

I have spent a decade and a half as a prosecutor at the tribunal. I have been involved in the cases of accused persons, including the former chief of staff of the Rwandan Army General Augustin Bizimungu. I have met hundreds if not thousands of witnesses, including perpetrators and victims.

The fact that there was a historical dehumanization of the Rohingya, the fact that there was prejudice, there was suspicion, there was mistrust – all of those are signs of genocidal intent. And then when you match that rhetoric with action on the ground, the modus operandi, the collaboration between the military and civilians, the torching of houses, the burning of little children, the sexual violence against women, the execution of unarmed civilian men — all of these point strongly to the fact that the authorities in Myanmar did want to destroy in whole or in part the Rohingya.

What does the May 16 arrest of Rwandan fugitive Felicien Kabuga in France mean to you?

This is a triumph of international justice and accountability mechanisms that have been put in place by the United Nations. This is good news for both the international community and the victims of the Rwanda genocide. Kabuga will have his day in court.

The Gambia's Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission is in its second year of public hearings on alleged crimes during the military junta. What is your role?

The commission was established to first ensure that there is an accurate historical account of events … during former president Jammeh’s rule but also to identify for prosecution those who bear the greatest responsibility for these crimes. This is the first truth commission around the world with such a mandate.

The proceedings have also been interrupted by COVID-19. But we’re hoping that this is going to be the final year. … And I’m happy that the victims are finding answers and closure to several questions that they’ve had about the disappearance of their loved ones. I am the minister responsible for the truth commission process.

Why do you — and, by extension, the Gambia — care about what's happening to the Rohingya? Why should anyone else care?

This is about our humanity. What is happening to the Rohingya is horrendous. It's appalling. The international community failed in Rwanda back in 1994, leading to at least 800,000 deaths. We are again failing in today's world as we see what is going on in Myanmar against the Rohingya and we do nothing to stop it.

I think it's our moral obligation. It's our human obligation to do something about it. And there's no better way to condemn what is going on in Myanmar than to go to the world's highest court.

VOA’s Burmese Service and Jason Patinkin of VOA’s English to Africa Service contributed to this report.