Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has defended her country from charges of genocide, saying there is ”no tolerance” for human rights violations against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
The Nobel Peace laureate appeared before the UN’s highest court for a hearing into allegations that a 2017 military campaign against the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state amounted to genocide.
She said the case brought against her country was ”incomplete and misleading”.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh during the campaign, which has been described as ethnic cleansing involving mass rapes, killings and the torching of homes.
Most of the Rohingya now live in crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh.
The case before the UN’s International Court of Justice was launched by Gambia, which has a predominantly Muslim population, in November.
Gambia has accused Buddhist-majority Myanmar of violating the 1948 Genocide Convention.
On Tuesday, lawyers for the country detailed graphic testimony of the suffering of Rohingya at the hands of the Myanmar military, as Ms Suu Kyi listened on impassively.
As evidence of her close ties to the military, a photograph of Ms Suu Kyi with three smiling generals, who are also Myanmar government ministers, was shown to the courtroom by Gambia’s legal team.
”Gambia has placed an incomplete and misleading picture of the factual situation in Rakhine state in Myanmar,” she told the court on Wednesday.
She said the troubles in Rakhine state ”go back centuries”.
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Ms Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for championing human rights under Myanmar’s then-ruling junta, is defending those who once held her under house arrest.
It marks an extraordinary fall from grace from a woman once held as a pro-democracy symbol.
Myanmar has previously said the campaign in Rakhine was a legitimate counter-terrorism operation following attacks on the security forces by Rohingya militants.
It is only the third genocide case filed at the International Court of Justice since the Second World War.
The other two relate to crimes in the former Yugoslavia – the Srebrenica massacre of Bosnia’s Muslim population in 1995 and the accusations of genocide between Croatia and Serbia during the Croatian war of secession.
The tribunal, also known as the World Court, has no enforcement powers, but its rulings are final and have significant legal weight.
Judges are hearing the first phase of the case in three days of hearings this week.
Gambia has requested ”provisional measures” – the equivalent of a restraining order against Myanmar to protect the Rohingya population until the case is heard in full.
Gambia argues that every country has a duty to prevent a genocide from taking place, and has political support from the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Canada and the Netherlands.
No court has so far weighed evidence and established a genocide in Myanmar, despite a United Nations fact-finding mission finding that ”the gravest crimes under international law” were committed in the country.
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Analysis: An extraordinary fall from grace for Aung San Suu KyiBy Michelle Clifford, Europe correspondent at The Hague
The Nobel Peace Price laureate is used to public appearances and showed no sign of nerves of she faced the judges of the UN’s highest court.
Calmly, confidentially and methodically she set out why the claims of ”genocidal intent” against the Myanmar military were unfounded.
The denial had been expected but Aung San Suu Kyi must have felt the eyes of Rohingya sitting in the court just yards away from her as she spoke. A man who says he was beaten and stabbed by the Myanmar military. A woman who told us she suffered sexual violence.
They believe the action was part of a systematic persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority – and yet here was the country’s de facto leader saying not so.
The Rohingya had hoped for an apology, some hint of regret from the woman so long revered internationally for her human rights works.
”What of our human rights?” they asked after her appearance. They did not get they contrition they had sought.
Ms Suu Kyi placed the military action in 2017, which led to 700,000 Rohingya fleeing Myanmar, as part of counter-terrorism offensive after attacks on the military, and said those who seek to punish Myanmar misunderstand much of what has been happening there.
”Clearance operation”, she insisted, is a reference not to ethnic cleansing but simply a military term referring to the clearing of an insurgency.
And if there was wrong doing, war crimes, if disproportionate force was used by the army – which she said couldn’t be ruled out – Myanmar’s courts should bring people to justice.
No stone, she said, should be left unturned to bring accountability.
But many – not just Rohingya, but others around the world who accuse Ms Suu Kyi of failing to stop the violence – will ask whether her assurances can be trusted.
Whether this once internationally feted woman can be believed.