Myanmar genocide hearings: what you need to know

Aung San Suu Kyi makes a sensational court appearance in the Hague

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar, ICJ
Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi is at the International Court of Justice to defend her country against charges of genocide against Rohingya Muslims
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has travelled to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Netherlands to defend Myanmar against charges of genocide committed against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority.

The controversial civilian leader of Myanmar will reportedly hear allegations that the Buddhist-majority country committed atrocities against the minority ethnic group in Rakhine state. The BBC reports that a military crackdown in 2017 led to thousands of Rohingya being killed and hundreds of thousands more displaced, with many fleeing into neighbouring Bangladesh.

The government of Myanmar insists it is tackling an extremist threat in the region, but to many the crackdown has all the hallmarks of an ethnic cleansing operation, and this week’s hearings are the result of a case brought against Myanmar by the small African nation of The Gambia. What will happen next?

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What is happening in Myanmar?

Prior to 2016 there were around one million Rohingya Muslims living in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country that has for decades considered the Rohingya people illegal immigrants and denied them citizenship.

But things have taken a far more sinister turn since 2016. CNN reports that more than 740,000 Rohingya have fled into neighbouring Bangladesh since Myanmar’s military “launched a campaign of violence” against the group, which the government claims is merely a counter-terrorism exercise.

Thousands are thought to have died amid reports of villages being burned to the ground as well as widespread incidents of rape and sexual assault.

Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi was once seen as a global icon of democracy, but since her 2010 release from 15 years of house arrest and subsequent election to the country’s highest office in 2016 she has been plagued by accusations that she has turned a blind eye to the killings, with The Guardian referring to her as the “chief denier” of the alleged genocide.

What’s happening at the ICJ?

In November, the tiny West African nation of The Gambia brought an official complaint against Myanmar at the ICJ in the Hague, Netherlands, on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC).

In the lawsuit, The Gambia’s attorney general Abubacarr Marie Tambadou alleges that Myanmar has committed “genocidal acts” that “were intended to destroy the Rohingya as a group” through mass murder, rape and destruction of communities.

The country is asking the ICJ to order Myanmar to cease all military action against the Rohingya and to arrest top generals within the Tatmadaw - Myanmar’s military.

In November, Suu Kyi confirmed she would lead her country’s defence at the hearings, which began this week with Tambadou launching into a tirade against the Burmese leader on the first day.

“Every day of inaction means that more people have been killed, more women have been ravaged, and more children have been burned alive,” Tambadou said in his opening statement, for which Suu Kyi was present. “Another genocide is unfolding right before our eyes yet we do nothing to stop it.”

“It’s not only the state of Myanmar that is on trial here; it’s our collective humanity that is being put on trial,” The Guardian reports.

The Globe and Mail reports that Suu Kyi will reply on Wednesday. She is “expected to say that accounts of genocide are exaggerated” and once again argue the actions of Myanmar’s army were a “justifiable response to an insurgent attack on police checkpoints in August 2017”.

What will happen?

In order to rule that Myanmar has committed genocide, the court will have to determine that the state acted “with intent to destroy in whole or in part” the Rohingya minority, the BBC adds, noting that “a final ruling may be years away”.

But more problematic for those hoping for robust action against Myanmar is the news that while the ICJ’s rulings are final and binding, the court doesn’t have the power to enforce its decisions.

Furthermore, CNN adds that the 15 judges of the ICJ are tasked in part with settling legal disputes between states, and do not have the authority to prosecute individuals, and so Suu Kyi cannot be indicted for any reason.

Instead, its resolutions are forwarded to the UN Security Council, which could decide to enact a resolution or take other concrete measures.

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