Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi will lead the country’s defense against allegations of genocide against the Rohingya people at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague next month, the government said Wednesday.
On Nov. 11, the West African nation of Gambia filed a lawsuit against Myanmar at the ICJ, accusing the Southeast Asia nation of state-sponsored genocide for a brutal, military-led crackdown against Rohingya Muslims in 2017 that left thousands dead and drove more than 740,000 across the border to Bangladesh. Gambia, which is predominantly Muslim, filed the suit on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a group of 57 Islamic-majority nations.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s State Counsellor’s Office referred to the Rohingya as “the displaced persons from the Rakhine State” in the statement announcing her plan “to defend the national interest of Myanmar at the ICJ.”
Proceedings filed by Gambia claim Myanmar is responsible for genocidal acts intended to bring about the destruction of the Rohingya Muslim minority group through “mass murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as the systematic destruction by fire of their villages, often with inhabitants locked inside burning houses.”
Gambia’s application calls the acts against the Rohingya, violations of the 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention. Gambia claims that hundreds of thousands of Rohingya sought shelter in Bangladesh as a result of the Myanmar military’s “clearance operations” in Rakhine state after several police outposts were attacked by militants.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s leader, was once heralded as a champion of democracy prior to assuming power, but her reputation has taken a hit from her previous responses to what U.N. investigators have called crimes against humanity.
The decision to defend Myanmar’s actions next month at the ICJ could further weaken her profile internationally, where she has been stripped of a number of awards and honors.
Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, spokesman for the military, told Reuters that the army was in full support of the State Counsellor.
“We, the military, will fully cooperate with the government and we will follow the instruction of the government,” he said.
Meanwhile, Min Lwin Oo of the Asian Human Rights Commission told the Myanmar Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA) that Aung San Suu Kyi was leading the defense team because she was “already familiar with international laws,” having previously worked at the U.N. BenarNews is affiliated with RFA.
“This is like a civil lawsuit. The other side will submit the accusation and (the Myanmar) side will rebut. These activities will be done on paper. It will not become a real trial yet,” he said.
“I think Daw Aung San Su Kyi must have assumed that she could talk her way with international parties and resolve the issue at that stage," he added.
But Min Lwin Oo also said that even if the ICJ accepted the lawsuit, there was not much that the court could do to enforce any decision.
“Their role is limited to facilitating two parties under international law. They don’t have the authority to summon or to arrest individual persons,” he said, adding, “In a dispute between two countries, the country who violated international laws will lose. That’s it. They cannot give punishment to individual persons."
The International Court of Justice, founded in 1945 by the U.N. Charter, can be used to settle disputes between states. As a member of the United Nations, Myanmar is an automatic party to the court, but the court itself has no way to enforce its decisions.