A historic legal battle is on cards this week in the UN’s highest court when the Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi will defend there in person genocide allegations against Myanmar.
Once the darling of the West as a great defender of human rights, the state counsellor of Myanmar is leading her country’s delegation to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague.
The charges of mass murder, rape and destruction of Rohingya Muslims have been levelled against Myanmar’s army by Gambia, a west African nation that is member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
And Suu Kyi, daughter of Myanmar’s greatest independence war hero Marshal Aung San , is having to defend the genocide charges against the army which denied her power in 1990 after a sweeping poll victory and then put her under house arrest for 15 years.
The 1991 Nobel peace prize winner has been stripped of her many awards, the last been in 2018, when the US Holocaust Memorial Museum revoked her Elie Wiesel award.
Security around the court will be tight and there are speculations over possible undisclosed arrest warrants that may have been issued in relation to other legal proceedings against Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi, as effective head of government, is likely to be able to claim immunity from arrest.
Aung San Suu Kyi left Yangon airport on Sunday bound for the Netherlands, where Rohingya supporters said they were planning protests outside court.
The US-based Abdul Malik Mujahid, chair of the Burma Task Force, said there would be demonstrations near the Peace Palace on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“This is the last chance for her to restore her international stature,” Mujahid told the Guardian.
“The best thing she could say would be to admit that crimes have been committed and [that she will] cooperate. Evidence of genocide should be preserved, the Rohingya should have their citizenship restored and be allowed to return.”
Under the rules of the ICJ, member states can bring actions against fellow member states over disputes alleging breaches of international law – in this case, the 1948 convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide.
It is not the first time the tribunal, also known as the world court, has considered genocide cases, but it is the first case involving countries that are not neighbours.
The three-day hearing in the neo-Renaissance-style Peace Palace is what is known as a provisional measures procedure.
Gambia will urge the court to make an emergency declaration that Myanmar must halt a continuing genocide, and the court will consider whether it has jurisdiction and whether there is a plausible case to answer.
This preliminary phase of the claim will not involve personal testimony from any of the estimated 700,000 Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh after the start of what are alleged to have been military clearance operations.
“The genocidal acts committed during these operations were intended to destroy the Rohingya as a group, in whole or in part, by the use of 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,” said Gambia’s submission at the ICJ.
Its arguments rely on the findings of UN investigations that described “genocidal intent” in the crimes.
The UN special rapporteur Yanghee Lee related first-hand accounts of “attacks in which homes were set ablaze by security forces, in many cases with people trapped inside, and entire villages razed to the ground”.
The Gambia’s case will be opened on Tuesday by Abubacarr Marie Tambadou, the country’s attorney general and justice minister, who studied law in England and later served as a special assistant to the prosecutor at the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda.
Myanmar’s plan of legal defence is not clear but Suu Kyi is likely to get advice from British lawyers, some of whom were friends of her late husband Oxford professor Michael Aris.
Suu Kyi’s predicament is ironic because she is having to defend the very army which is trying to block efforts by her party to amend the Constitution that denies her the right to contest for Presidency and gives the military one-fourth of the parliament seats besides three key ministries of Home, Defence and Border Affairs.
The one time democracy icon recently told an Indian TV channel that “icons sit on walls and I am not one because I am a politician”.