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Updated Jan 26, 2020

The Gambia’s justice minister, Abubacarr Tambadou, has taken legal action against Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar for the alleged genocide of the Rohingya people. The Gambia brought the initiative to the United Nations with the backing of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a group of fifty-seven largely Muslim countries. This is not Tambadou’s first involvement in the issue of genocide, as he had served as a prosecutor before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

When he visited a Bangladeshi refugee camp for Rohingya, a minority Muslim community in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, Tambadou listened to stories told to him by survivors, which reminded him of what he’d heard about the Rwanda genocide. Speaking with the BBC, Tambadou said, “It sounded very much like the kind of acts that were perpetrated against the Tutsi in Rwanda. It was the same modus operandi—the process of dehumanization, calling them names—it bore all the hallmarks of genocide. I concluded in my own mind, it was an attempt by Myanmar authorities to completely destroy the Rohingya ethnic group.”

Myanmar denies committing a genocide and released a government report a few days ahead of the International Court of Justice’s ruling in which it characterized the mass killings of Rohingya Muslims as a “haphazard” response to attacks by Islamist terrorists. This characterization of the killings is an attempt by Myanmar to deny there was any intentional action against the Rohingya, as intent is a key component in the international legal definition of genocide.

Tambadou grew up in The Gambia’s capital Banjul, the middle child of eighteen siblings. He demonstrated top skills in football but chose an academic path so as not to disappoint his father. After graduating with a law degree from Warwick University, Tambadou and his friends became politically active, speaking out against human rights abuses. During the summer of 2000, security forces of former president Yahya Jammeh opened fire on peaceful protesters, killing more than a dozen students, a journalist, and a Red Cross volunteer. Tambadou watched as his friends were persecuted for their political activism, which ultimately led to him fleeing on the insistence of his family and beginning his career in international justice.

He headed to the United Nations to set up the court that would try the people responsible for the Rwandan genocide, and he prosecuted the former Rwandan army chief of staff Major General Augustin Bizimungu. Tambadou’s actions then and now are part of what he sees as an African-led struggle for justice and accountability. He hopes that The Gambia will become a global leader by example in defense of human rights.

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