In a defiant closing address to the UN’s highest tribunal, Aung San Suu Kyi has pleaded with its 17 international judges to dismiss allegations that Myanmar has committed genocide and urged them instead to allow the country’s court martial system to deal with any human rights abuses.
The 74-year-old leader of the Asian country informed the international court of justice (ICJ) in The Hague that she expected a report by an internal inquiry to recommend more prosecutions of Myanmar soldiers soon.
“I can confirm there will be further court martials after the submission of the report ... in a few weeks,” she said. “It’s vital that our civil and military justice system functions in accordance with our constitution.”
The Nobel peace prize winner’s decision to attend the court in person has astounded human rights groups. Once an international icon representing peaceful defiance of military dictatorship, her reputation has plummeted as she has repeatedly defended her country’s army in the aftermath of the Rohingya exodus in 2017.
Thousands of people were killed and about 740,000 members of the Rohingya Muslim minority fled across the border into sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh after Myanmar launched a huge military crackdown in Rakhine state.
In an attempt to impose a final positive image of Myanmar’s progress towards reconciliation, Aung San Suu Kyi showed the court photographs of a recent football match in Maungdaw, in northern Rakhine province, which she said included spectators and players from different communities and demonstrated moves towards reconciliation.
Earlier, on the third and final day of the ICJ hearing into accusations of genocide, she was told told that her silence over allegations of sexual violence and rape carried out against the Rohingya “says far more than your words”.
Prof Philippe Sands QC told the court: “Not a word about the women and girls of Myanmar who have been subjected to these awful serial violations. Madame Agent [Aung San Suu Kyi], your silence says far more than your words.”
Myanmar has not disputed at the ICJ hearing reports that 392 villages were destroyed in military clearance operations, or commented on widespread allegations of organised sexual violence and rape, the court was told.
Sands was speaking for the Gambia, which has brought the charge that Myanmar’s military carried out mass murder, rape and destruction of Rohingya communities.
It alleged there have been “extrajudicial killings … sexual violence, burning of homes and destruction of livestock … calculated to bring about a destruction of the Rohingya group in whole or in part”.
Sands told the tribunal that one of the lawyers representing Myanmar – Prof William Schabas, of Middlesex University – said during an interview with Al Jazeera in 2013 that the situation in Myanmar was approaching genocide. Sands read from Schabas’s interview, in which he said: “We are moving into a zone where the word [genocide] can be used in the case of the Rohingya.”
Sands said genocide was “not a numbers game. The intent to destroy a group in part is sufficient [for the charge to be proved]. Entire Rohingya villages have been destroyed. Such destruction of an entire community in a limited area on the grounds of ethnicity or religion can properly be characterised as acts of genocide.”
The session has been convened to consider whether protective “provisional measures” should be imposed to prevent further killings and destruction in Myanmar.
Sands said evidence of the killings was being destroyed by the Myanmar authorities as Rohingya villages were bulldozed flat. He said the world would be shocked if the court declined to grant the provisional measures.
Earlier, the court heard Myanmar’s military courts system was incapable of investigating alleged human rights violations or delivering justice.
Paul Reichler, an American lawyer speaking for the Gambia, said six of Myanmar’s most senior army officers have been accused of genocide by a UN fact-finding mission and recommended for criminal prosecution.
A photograph of 10 Rohingya Muslim men with their hands tied behind their backs under the guard of Myanmar soldiers was shown to the judges, followed by a second photograph of the men’s bloodied bodies lying in a ditch.
Reichler pointed out that as recently as Tuesday the US had imposed fresh sanctions on senior Myanmar military generals based on evidence assembled by the UN mission that warned about genocide and recommended criminal charges.
Gambia’s attorney general and justice minister, Abubacarr Marie Tambadou, who is leading the application, dismissed Myanmar’s claim that the case was being directed by hidden Islamic forces rather than the west African state.
Speaking to the Guardian between hearings on Thursday, Tambadou said: “It’s a bit insulting for Myanmar to try to argue that we are being used. It’s below the belt. It’s insulting to our country and to our sovereignty. It’s a false narrative.”
In the ICJ on Wednesday, Myanmar’s lawyers suggested the decision to launch a genocide claim came from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a coalition of states of which the Gambia is a member.
But Tambadou, an experienced war crimes prosecutor who served for more than a decade at the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda, said: “This entire process was initiated by myself after I went to Cox’s Bazar [in Bangladesh] in May 2018 to talk to refugees.”
Throughout the three-day hearing Aung San Suu Kyi made no eye contact with the Gambia delegation, instead she invariably stared ahead as the list of alleged atrocities were stated.
The ICJ is expected to deliver its judgment within a few weeks.