Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi faced calls for Myanmar to “stop the genocide” of Rohingya Muslims as she personally led her country’s defence at the UN’s top court on Tuesday.
Suu Kyi, whose silence about the plight of the Rohingya has tarnished her reputation as a rights icon, sat through graphic accounts of murder and rape in the wood-panelled courtroom in The Hague.
Rights groups have criticised her decision to represent Myanmar at the International Court of Justice against accusations by the west African state of The Gambia that it has breached the 1948 Genocide Convention.
Around 740,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh after a bloody crackdown by the Myanmar military in 2017 that UN investigators have already 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.
“All that The Gambia asks is that you tell Myanmar to stop these senseless killings, to stop these acts of barbarity that continue to shock our collective conscience, to stop this genocide of its own people.” Tambadou, a former prosecutor at the tribunal into the Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, said Myanmar’s military operation involved “mass murder, mass rape and mass torture, children being burned alive in their homes and places of worship.” The Gambia is seeking emergency measures to prevent further harm to the Rohingya, pending a wider case at the ICJ which could take years.
Suu Kyi listened to accounts by The Gambia’s lawyers of Rohingya victims, including a mother whose one-year-old son was beaten to death and an eight-month-pregnant woman who was stamped on and then 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 travelled from London for the hearings. “It’s international justice day for Rohingya,” he told AFP.
A small group of Suu Kyi supporters also 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 AFP.
“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 also 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 set to speak in Myanmar’s defence 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.
The 74-year-old was once 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 defence of the same generals who once kept her locked up has since caused international condemnation.
The case is also being watched in Bangladesh where the Rohingya remain in sprawling 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.
ICJ judges have only once before ruled that genocide was committed, in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia.
Myanmar, however, faces a number of legal challenges over the fate of the Rohingya, including a probe by the International Criminal Court — a separate war crimes tribunal in The Hague — and a lawsuit in Argentina.