Peace Prize Winner Defends Myanmar Against Genocide Claims

Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses judges of the International Court of Justice on Wednesday, the second day of hearings in The Hague, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) – Myanmar leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi returned to the United Nations’ highest court Wednesday to deny that her country is committing genocide against Rohingya Muslims.

Wearing her hair with flowers, Suu Kyi described the situation Myanmar – which was accused of “genocidal intent on the part of the state” in a 2017 UN report on the conflict – before the International Court of Justice, or ICJ.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner is appearing on behalf of her southeast Asian homeland in a case brought by the west African nation of The Gambia, which alleged in its opening statements Tuesday that Myanmar has violated the 1948 Genocide Convention.

In her half-hour presentation, Suu Kyi detailed incidents of violence in October 2017, when members of the Rohingya, a Muslim-majority group described by the UN as “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities,” attacked police stations.

The subsequent crackdown by Myanmar’s Buddhist-majority government left an estimated 10,000 Rohingya dead and 700,000 displaced into neighboring Bangladesh.

“It cannot be ruled out that disproportionate force was used by some members of the defense forces,” Suu Kyi told the 17-judge ICJ panel in The Hague. But she claimed there was a sufficient judicial system in the former British colony to prosecute those crimes.

Myanmar disputes the 10,000 figure, but one of the country’s lawyers, William Schabas, an international law professor at the University of Leiden, argued later in Wednesday’s hearing that even if the 10,000 number was accurate, “it doesn’t constitute genocide.”

However, not everyone agrees with Schabas’ argument.

“The killing of 8,000 men and boys was sufficient to establish the Srebrenica genocide. Genocide is not a numbers game only,” said Joe Powderly, assistant professor of public international law, also at the University of Leiden.

Powderly was referring to the 1995 massacre of Muslim men and boys during the Bosnian War. The ICJ heard a case in 1993 about atrocities during the conflict between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia and Montenegro. It ultimately sided with Bosnia in 2006 and confirmed that genocide had been committed.

The three-day hearings in the Myanmar case are focused on whether the court should require provisional measures, as requested by The Gambia, which wants the ICJ to order Myanmar to cease any activities against the Rohingya and preserve any evidence that would be used in a future trial.

The Gambia argues that any country that is a party to the 1948 Genocide Convention, which created a legal definition of genocide and requires participating countries to prevent and punish the crimes, can bring a complaint before the ICJ.

The west African nation is also supported by the 57 member states of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation.

Another of Myanmar’s lawyers, Christopher Staker of 39 Essex Chambers, told the full courtroom that The Gambia did not have standing to bring the case. He also called attention to a typo in The Gambia’s filings, where it referred to the ICJ as the International Criminal Court, or ICC, the world’s court for atrocity crimes.

That court, also based in The Hague, has also opened an investigation into the situation, but since Myanmar is not a party to the 2002 Rome Statute that created that court, the ICC can investigate only the displacement of Rohingya into neighboring member state Bangladesh.

Both supporters and protesters of Suu Kyi – who is Myanmar’s state counsellor, the equivalent of a prime minister – lined up in the early morning to express their views. The trial, which is live-streamed, is also being shown in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.

It is unusual for a head of state to appear directly before the court. Suu Kyi’s appearance has attracted a tremendous amount of media attention. For the former democracy activist, who was kept under house arrest for years by the military junta in Myanmar, the attention in her homeland has been largely positive. The New Light of Myanmar, the government-run newspaper, wrote that she was defending “the national interest.”

Hearings will finish Thursday when both The Gambia and Myanmar will have an opportunity to give a rebuttal to the previous arguments.

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