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Myanmar's Suu Kyi leads genocide defense at court

  • Shoon Lei Win Naing and Toby Sterling

    Reuters

The Hague   /   Wed, December 11, 2019   /   04:23 pm
Myanmar's Suu Kyi leads genocide defense at court Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for the second day of hearings in a case filed by Gambia against Myanmar alleging genocide against the minority Muslim Rohingya population, in The Hague, Netherlands December 11, 2019. (Reuters/Yves Herman)

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace prize laureate, arrived at the World Court on Wednesday, to lead her country's defense against accusations of genocide against its Rohingya Muslim minority.

Gambia, a small West African country, has launched a case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN's highest court, alleging it has violated the 1948 Genocide Convention.

Suu Kyi, Myanmar's top political leader, shocked critics and galvanized supporters at home by traveling to The Hague to head her country's delegation. Her office said she was going to "defend the national interest".

Suu Kyi listened impassively on Tuesday as lawyers for Gambia detailed graphic testimony of suffering of Rohingya at the hands of the Myanmar military.

A photograph of Suu Kyi with three smiling generals who are also Myanmar government ministers -- Lieutenant General Ye Aung, Lieutenant General Sein Win and Lieutenant General Kyaw Swe -- was shown in the courtroom by Gambia's legal team as evidence of what they said were her close ties to the military. It sparked widespread reactions by her supporters who denounced it on social media as an attempt to mock her.

In three days of hearings this week, judges are hearing the first phase of the case: Gambia's request for "provisional measures" -- the equivalent of a restraining order against Myanmar to protect the Rohingya population until the case is heard in full.

Although Suu Kyi has not revealed details of her government's defense, she and her legal team are expected to argue that the court lacks jurisdiction, and that no genocide has taken place in Myanmar.

Gambia has argued it is every country's duty under the convention to prevent a genocide from taking place. Gambia has political support from the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Canada and the Netherlands.

More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar after the military launched a crackdown in western Rakhine state in August 2017. Most now live in crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Myanmar argues the military "clearance operations" in Rakhine were a justifiable response to acts of terrorism, and that its soldiers have acted appropriately.

On Tuesday, the United States unveiled sanctions against four of Myanmar's top military leaders, including top military chief Min Aung Hlaing deputy his deputy Soe Win, and two subordinates, citing alleged human rights abuses against the Rohingya and other minorities.

Military spokesman Zaw Min Tun told the BBC's Burmese language service on Wednesday the sanctions would have no effect as those named did not have assets in the United States. "Still, there is damage to our dignity," he said.

The legal threshold for a finding of genocide is high. Just three cases have been recognized under international law since World War Two: In Cambodia in the late 1970s; In Rwanda in 1994; and at Srebrenica, Bosnia, in 1995.

Although a United Nations fact-finding mission found that "the gravest crimes under international law" had been committed in Myanmar and called for genocide trials, no court has weighed evidence and established a genocide in Myanmar.