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Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi defended Myanmar’s government against accusations of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague during three days of hearings that went from December 10th to the 13th. Addressing 17 judges from around the world, the leader dismissed the claims of state violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority. Opening her defence with a 25-minute speech, she blamed the conflict on an uprising by sectarian insurgents. She also denied “genocidal intent” on the part of the military and called the allegations an “incomplete and misleading factual picture of the situation.”
The claim that Myanmar’s military carried out mass murder, rape and destruction of Rohingya Muslim communities was brought by the Gambia, a West African state that belongs to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The case outlined multiple incidents of genocidal acts, including ethnic cleansing campaigns that forced more than 740,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh, mass executions and rape, and the systematic burning of Rohingya villages. Suu Kyi failed to mention the Rohingya by name in her speech, which many have taken as a failure of the Myanmar government to acknowledge the existence of the Rohingya and their rights.
“It’s routine for Rohingya to be called Bengalis and even described as Kalars, a slur referring to their darker complexion, to deny that they’re native to Rakhine,” said journalist Kaamil Ahmed to Al Jazeera. “Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t use the terms but she has suggested that they’re not from Myanmar and she has refused to call them Rohingya, even claiming it’s a polarizing term. It’s all part of denying that they are native, that they have historical links to the land they live on.”
The Rohingya make up around one million of the total population of 50 million in Myanmar, yet are not regarded as one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups and are denied citizenship under Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law. Their rights to study, work, travel, marry, practice their religion, and access healthcare are restricted. In her speech, Suu Kyi referred to the Rohingya as Muslims, people, civilians and members of Rakhine communities. “After she came into office, she started refusing to call us Rohingya. She urged her government not to use either Rohingya or Bengali but to use ‘Muslims from Rakhine state.’ “Refusing to call us Rohingya is also a part of genocide. This was the same thing she did at court yesterday. She failed to recognize our identity,” said Ro Nya San Lwin, an exiled Rohingya activist and co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition, to Al Jazeera.
The Gambia’s opening statement, given by attorney general and justice minister Abubacarr Marie Tambadou, highlighted Myanmar’s systematic dehumanization, genocidal acts, and the inaction of the international community. Tambadou, an experienced war crimes prosecutor who served for more than a decade at the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda, urged the ICJ to impose protective provisional measures to prevent further death and destruction of the Rohingya people. “All that the Gambia asks is that you tell Myanmar to stop these senseless killings. To stop these acts of barbarity and brutality that have shocked and continue to shock our collective conscience.” He also called for immediate action, saying “Every day of inaction means more people are being killed, more women are being raped and more children are being burned alive. For what crime? Only that they were born different.”
The ICJ is expected to deliver its judgment within a few weeks. After the decision on provisional measures, the process may continue to a full case that could go on for years. Under article 94 of the U.N. Charter, all member countries must abide by ICJ decisions in cases to which they are a party, and in the event of non-compliance, the U.N. Security Council may “decide upon measures to be taken to give effect to the judgment.” Other members of the Genocide Convention should follow the lead of the Gambia and rally to hold Myanmar accountable for their crimes against the Rohingya people. However, while the ICJ’s decision may provide significant relief to the Rohingya, it is wholly dependent on whether or not the government of Myanmar adheres to the provisions.