THE HAGUE (CN) — Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was told to “stop the genocide” of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims as she personally led her country’s defense at the UN’s top court on Tuesday.
“This is not a conventional one that this court is used to,” Abubacarr Tambadou, the Gambia Minister of Justice told the International Court of Justice, where Suu Kyi is defending her nation from charges of genocide.
Suu Kyi, whose silence about the plight of the Rohingya has tarnished her reputation as a human rights icon, sat through graphic accounts of murder and rape in the wood-paneled courtroom in The Hague.
Rights groups have criticized her decision to represent Myanmar at the International Court of Justice against accusations by the west African state of The Gambia that her nation has breached the 1948 Genocide Convention.
Around 740,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh after a bloody crackdown by the Myanmar military in 2017 that UN investigators already have described as genocide.
“This is very much a dispute between Gambia and Myanmar,” Gambian Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou told the judges of the court, which was set up in 1946 to resolve disputes between UN member states.
Protesters and supporters of Suy Kyi braved the cold on Tuesday to stand before the former place that houses the International Court of Justice. The groups were separated by a row of police officers to prevent conflicts.
Myanmar is in the third year of a bloody, scorched-earth campaign against the Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group. Myanmar claims, tendentiously, that the Rohingya are not citizens, but illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, to which they have fled.
Myanmar denies that it is committing genocide, though a 2017 UN report found “widespread human rights violations against the Rohingya population.” Some 25,000 people are estimated to have died and more than half a million have been displaced.
The Gambia brought the complaint to The Hague-based court though The Gambia and Myanmar have little historical or political connection.
When asked after the hearing why The Gambia brought the complaint, Tambadou replied: “Why not The Gambia?”
Both countries are parties to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. It provided a legal definition of genocide and requires participating countries to prevent and punish the crime against humanity.
“State parties to the convention could invoke the responsibility of another party,” Gambian attorney Pierre d’Argent told the court, in the only non-English presentation of the day. The French-speaking attorney is special counsel at Foley Hoag, the Boston-based law firm representing The Gambia.
Fifty-seven member states of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation are supporting the case.
Tambadou is a driving force behind the proceeding. He is a former prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the UN special court that prosecuted crimes committed during the 1994 genocide in the central African country.
“This is not right and the world cannot just stand by and watch this happen again,” he told reporters at a news conference in November.
The three-day hearing will address The Gambia’s request for provisional measures. Gambia says that before the ICJ has the opportunity to hear the case on the merits, it should order Myanmar to cease its actions against the Rohingya and ensure that evidence of genocide is preserved.
Another Hague-based court, the International Criminal Court, is also opened investigating Myanmar and the Rohingya. As Myanmar is not a party to the 2002 Rome Statute, which created the global court for atrocity crimes, the International Criminal Court can investigate only the displacement of the Rohingya into the neighboring country of Bangladesh, which is a member.
Last week an Argentinean court accepted a case about the Rohingya as well, under the concept of universal jurisdiction.
Phillipe Sands, of University College London, addressing the International Court of Justice on Tuesday, said: “This court is the ultimate guardian of the Genocide Convention,” and should accept jurisdiction.
The International Court of Justice last heard a case about genocide in 1993, in a dispute between Bosnia/Herzegovina versus Serbia and Montenegro regarding atrocities committed during the Yugoslav Wars. The ICJ sided with Bosnia, ordering Serbia and Montenegro (then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) “to do everything in its power to prevent the crimes of genocide.”
The court ultimately sided with Bosnia in 2006.
Suu Kyi said nothing to reporters on Tuesday, but the court will hear from her Wednesday, when she is expected to give the opening statement on behalf of Myanmar.
Suu Kyi listened to accounts by The Gambia’s lawyers of Rohingya victims, including a mother whose 1-year-old son was beaten to death and an 8-month-pregnant woman who was stomped on and repeatedly raped.
Wearing traditional Burmese dress, the 74-year-old did not speak to waiting media after arriving at the court’s turreted Peace Palace headquarters in a motorcade with a police escort.
A group of some 50 pro-Rohingya protesters gathered outside the gates of the ICJ for the hearing, carrying banners saying: “Say yes to Rohingya, justice delayed is justice denied” and “Stop Burma military attack Rohingya.”
“Today is the start for our right to justice,” said Mohammed Harun, 49, who traveled from London for the hearings. “It’s international justice day for Rohingya,” he said.
A small group of Suu Kyi supporters unfurled a banner outside the court with the Myanmar leader’s face on it saying: “We love you, we stand with you!”
“Suu Kyi is the only person who can solve this problem,” supporter Swe Swe Aye, 47, told Agence France-Presse.
“We are not denying that the Rohingya people suffered, but we are denying, like Suu Kyi, that there was a genocide in Myanmar.”
Thousands of people have turned out in Suu Kyi’s support in Myanmar in recent weeks since she announced that she would personally lead the southeast Asian nation’s case at the court.
Suu Kyi is to speak in Myanmar’s defense on Wednesday. She is expected to argue that Myanmar was conducting legitimate operations against Rohingya militants and that the ICJ has no jurisdiction in the case.
Once she was mentioned in the same breath as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, having won the Nobel in 1991 for her resistance to Myanmar’s brutal junta.
After 15 years under house arrest she was freed in 2010 and led her party to victory in elections in 2015, but her defense of the same generals who had kept her locked up has caused international condemnation.
The case is also being watched in Bangladesh where the Rohingya remain in sprawling, squalid camps.
“I demand justice from the world,” said Nur Karima, a Rohingya refugee whose brothers and grandparents were killed in a massacre in the village of Tula Toli in August 2017.
Suu Kyi is the daughter of Gen. Aung San, who founded the modern Burmese army and negotiated the country’s independence from Great Britain in 1947, when the country was known as Burma. He was assassinated by military rivals that year.
Agence France Presse contributed to this report.