World Court Myanmar genocide case clouded by representation dispute

3 minute read

People take pictures as cars arrive at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the top United Nations court, during court hearings in a case filed by Gambia against Myanmar alleging genocide against the minority Muslim Rohingya population, in The Hague, Netherlands December 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eva Plevier

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THE HAGUE, Feb 21 (Reuters) - The World Court started to hear preliminary arguments on Monday in a case brought against Myanmar demanding that it halt alleged acts of genocide against its Rohingya Muslim minority, with representatives of the junta appearing for Myanmar.

Presiding Judge Joan Donoghue briefly addressed the debate over who has the right to represent the Southeast Asian country at the U.N. court after the military took power a year ago.

The junta, which detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a coup last February, has not been recognised by the United Nations General Assembly.

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Monday was the first of four days of hearings discussing the junta's objections to the jurisdiction of the court, formally known as the International Court of Justice (ICJ). A decision could take months to reach.

The junta nevertheless wants to be Myanmar's formal representative. The parallel civilian National Unity Government, made up of members of the ousted administration and other junta opponents, accepts the court's jurisdiction and also wants to be Myanmar's representative.

The case before the ICJ was brought in 2019 by Gambia, a predominantly Muslim West African country, backed by the 57-nation Organisation for Islamic Cooperation.

Gambia argues that Myanmar has violated the Genocide Convention, citing events in 2017, when more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh after a military crackdown. A U.N. fact-finding mission concluded that the military campaign had included "genocidal acts".

The Myanmar military denies the accusation, saying it was conducting a legitimate counterinsurgency campaign.

Judge Donoghue recalled that the parties in cases before the court "are states, not particular governments", before going on to call on Myanmar's new representative, Ko Ko Hlaing.

Ko Ko Hlaing is minister for international cooperation for the junta. While stressing that Myanmar was arguing the case was inadmissible because the court lacked jurisdiction, he added that the junta wanted to cooperate with the process.

"Myanmar raises these preliminary objections with utmost respect to the court," he said.

'NO LEGAL STANDING'

Lawyers for the junta argued on Monday that Gambia was a proxy for others and had no legal standing to bring a case.

Lawyers for Gambia will be able to respond on the second day of hearings, set for Wednesday.

Outside the court some 20 protesters braved strong winds and heavy rain, holding "Save Myanmar" banners and beating pots and pans in protest at the arrival of junta representatives.

"The military dictatorship is not only killing Rohingya but also all the ethnic (groups)," protester Zin Min Hdun told Reuters.

At a news conference outside the court, the foreign minister of the National Unity Government had called on judges not to recognise junta representatives. read more

Suu Kyi attended preliminary hearings in the case in 2019 in the Hague, when she also denied genocide had taken place.

In a 2020 decision, the court ordered Myanmar to take measures to protect the Rohingya from harm, given the urgency of the matter.

Speaking to reporters outside the court, Ambia Perveen of the European Rohingya Council said that, while the junta does not represent the people of Myanmar, it was important the case moved ahead.

"The people who perpetrated genocide should be brought to justice," she said.

Should the court rule that it has jurisdiction to hear the case, a decision on the merits of Gambia's allegation could take years more to reach.

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Reporting by Toby Sterling and Stephanie van den Berg; Additional reporting by Poppy McPherson; Editing by John Stonestreet, Nick Macfie and Alex Richardson

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