The genocide case brought against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – the first initiated since the 1990s – may not have happened at all but for a scheduling conflict.
In May last year, Gambia’s foreign minister pulled out of the annual conference of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) in Bangladesh, sending Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou instead.
For Tambadou, who spent more than a decade prosecuting cases from Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, what he saw and heard in Bangladesh jogged painful memories.
He joined an OIC delegation visiting overcrowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar, where some of the thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar recounted how, security forces allegedly burnt Rohingya children alive, raped women and killed men.
“I saw genocide written all over these stories,” Tambadou said in Banjul.
Authorities in Myanmar, including de facto leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, denied allegations by refugees against its troops, who it says were engaged in legitimate counter-terrorism operations.
Tambadou introduced a resolution to create an OIC committee to examine alleged abuses against the Rohingya and this year convinced the 57-member organisation to back a formal case against Myanmar – thrusting his tiny West African homeland into one of the most high profile international legal cases in a generation.
When arguments are presented in The Hague next week, Gambia’s legal team will face off against a Myanmar delegation led by Suu Kyi.
Tambadou will ask the judges to immediately order Myanmar to cease violence against Rohingya civilians and preserve evidence that could eventually form the basis of a finding that Myanmar committed genocide. Myanmar vowed to contest the case.
‘USE OUR VOICE’
Gambia’s role in the case would have been unthinkable until three years ago.
For 22 years, former President Yahya Jammeh’s security forces killed and tortured real or perceived political opponents, according to evidence presented to an ongoing truth commission.
A 2016 election unexpectedly ended in defeat for Jammeh, who fled into exile. Opposition leader Adama Barrow took power promising to restore human rights and stem corruption.
“Twenty-two years of a brutal dictatorship taught us how to use our voice,” said Tambadou, behind a desk stacked with legal texts, shirtsleeves up as he sweated through a power cut.
“We know too well how it feels to be unable to tell your story, to be unable to share your pain in the hope someone will hear and help.”
The son of a businessman from Banjul, the 46-year-old Tambadou studied law in Britain before returning to Gambia in the late 1990s to practice.
In April 2000, security forces killed 14 student protesters, an event Tambadou credits with pushing him to human rights work.
Friends tried to steer him away from work that could have landed him in one of Jammeh’s notorious jails or worse, but Tambadou was committed, said Emmanuel Joof, who co-founded a coalition of human rights defenders with him in 2000.
In 2003, he left Gambia to join the United Nations’ Tanzania-based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Here he successfully prosecuted some of the genocide’s most notorious figures, including former army chief Augustin Bizimungu, sentenced to 30 years in prison.
As justice minister since 2017, his decisions put him at odds with former colleagues, such as when he ordered members of a Jammeh-era hit squad released on technical grounds.
“Sometimes we don’t agree with him,” said Joof, now chairman of the independent National Human Rights Commission. “It’s a person who is passionate about these issues gives someone like me great comfort.”
Tambadou acknowledged Islamic solidarity was a factor behind Gambia and the OIC’s actions but said “this is about our humanity ultimately”.
Authorities in Myanmar reacted swiftly to Gambia’s submissions, which cite UN investigators’ findings that Myanmar’s military acted with “genocidal intent”.
Suu Kyi’s office said she would attend the hearings to “defend the national interest of Myanmar” and supporters rallied behind her in street demonstrations and on social media.
Tambadou said after several years in which Myanmar refused to engage with international organisations over the Rohingya crisis, he was pleased his initiative elicited such a strong response.
“I am glad senior members of government will be at court,” he said. “It shows the seriousness with which they are taking this case.”