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War crimes court approves probe into crimes against Myanmar's Rohingya

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
A file photo by Reuters shows the entrance of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has approved a long-awaited full investigation into crimes against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, which has systematically driven Muslims across the border to Bangladesh.

In a statement on Thursday, the Hague-based war crimes court said it "authorized the prosecutor to proceed with an investigation for the alleged crimes within the ICC's jurisdiction" relating to Myanmar.

The investigation will also look at allegations of "systematic acts of violence", deportation as a crime against humanity, and persecution on the grounds of ethnicity or religion against the Rohingya Muslims.

Citing estimates that between 600,000 and one million Rohingyas were forcibly displaced, "the chamber hereby authorizes the commencement of an investigation into the situation in Bangladesh/Myanmar," the ICC said.

"There exists a reasonable basis to believe widespread and/or systematic acts of violence may have been committed that could qualify as the crimes against humanity of deportation across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border."

ICC judges also gave chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda wider authority to look into crimes beyond the scope of her request and any future crimes within the court's jurisdiction.

She was allowed to open a preliminary investigation on Myanmar in September 2018, and formally applied to begin a full-scale formal probe in July this year.

A Myanmar policeman stands near a Rohingya Muslim family in a village during a government-organized visit for journalists in Buthidaung townships in the restive Rakhine state on January 25, 2019. (Photo by AFP)

Ahead of the announcement on Thursday, the ICC said it examined the requests made on behalf of thousands of alleged victims.

"Victims unanimously insist that they want an investigation by the Court and many of the consulted alleged victims 'believe that only justice and accountability can ensure that the perceived circle of violence and abuse comes to an end." 

Myanmar has not signed up to the ICC but the court ruled last year that it has jurisdiction over crimes against the Rohingya minority because Bangladesh, where they are now refugees, is a member.

Earlier this week, Myanmar’s government faced accusations of involvement in genocide regarding the persecuted Rohingya Muslims in a separate lawsuit filed by Gambia at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

During a press briefing on Monday, Gambia's Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou said his country was acting on behalf of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in bringing the case against Myanmar before the ICJ in The Hague.

In its 46-page filing to the ICJ, Gambia, a mainly Muslim West African country, says Myanmar’s actions were "genocidal in character" and caused serious bodily and mental harm. Myanmar also imposed measures to prevent births, it said.

Both Gambia and Myanmar are signatories to the 1948 Genocide Convention, which compels all signatory states to prevent and punish the crime of genocide. 

The number of refugees at overcrowded camps in Cox’s Bazar has swelled since August 2017, when a military-led crackdown in Myanmar, which UN investigators have said was conducted with “genocidal intent,” prompted some 740,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh, which was already hosting some 200,000 Rohingya when the exodus began.

Citizenship is at the heart of Rohingya demands for a return to Myanmar.

The Rohingya have inhabited Rakhine state for centuries, but the state denies them citizenship. Bangladesh refuses to grant them citizenship, too.

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