World

Canadian lawyer William Schabas defends role advocating for Myanmar government

Canadian lawyer William Schabas, an international scholar on genocide, has been criticized by friend and foe for first researching crimes against the Muslim Rohingya of Myanmar and now defending the state accused of perpetrating them.

Schabas's role alongside Suu Kyi comes 9 years after he researched a report on Rohingya attacks

William Schabas, the Canadian attorney defending Myanmar against genocide charges at the UN's International Court of Justice (ICJ), pictured Thursday in The Hague, Netherlands. (Eva Plevier/Reuters)

Canadian lawyer William Schabas, an international scholar on genocide, has been criticized by friend and foe for first researching crimes against the Muslim Rohingya of Myanmar and now defending the state accused of perpetrating them.

Schabas helped research a report in 2010 on systematic attacks against the Rohingya which concluded that they met the international threshold of crimes against humanity.

Three years later, in an Al Jazeera documentary, he was filmed saying: "Denying their history, denying the legitimacy of their right to live where they live, these are all warning signs that mean that it's not frivolous to envisage the use of the word genocide."

This week Schabas stood alongside Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the International Court of Justice in The Hague and denied genocide took place during a military campaign in 2017 in which thousands of Rohingyas were killed and raped and hundreds of thousands displaced.

"William Schabas is basically selling out the Rohingya for some Myanmar gov't $$$. Really the worst sort of behaviour, how totally immoral and two-faced," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter on Thursday.

Both sides have a right to have competent representation. If people don't understand that, that's not my problem.- William Schabas

In an interview with Reuters, Schabas rejected the criticism.

"I am an international lawyer. I do international law cases," he said at a book launch after three gruelling days in court where he argued the crimes did not constitute genocide.

"Both sides have a right to have competent representation. If people don't understand that, that's not my problem," he said.

Stephen Rapp, a former United States war crimes ambassador who works at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., was among colleagues who criticized Schabas.

"We have heard this morning from my friend Bill Schabas. I was just with him 10 days ago. I prosecuted genocide, we obtained convictions for this crime. He is wrong about the law: this was a genocide," Rapp told journalists and NGOs in The Hague on Wednesday evening.

Aung San Suu Kyi defends military against genocide allegations 0:20

In court the following day, Schabas tried to clarify his 2013 remarks in the Al Jazeera documentary The Hidden Genocide.

Schabas said he was responding to a hypothetical, not the real situation in Myanmar, which has also been known as Burma.

"The journalist persistently tried to get me to apply the word genocide … and I just as persistently refused, 'cause I've never said that genocide was taking place in Myanmar."

Distinct interpretation of genocide leads to criticism

Schabas, a professor at Middlesex University in London, previously taught at Université de Montréal, where he also completed his law degree.

In the Reuters interview Schabas also countered criticism of his views about the events in Srebrenica, Bosnia, when around 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred by Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995.

Rapp said, "He, frankly, doesn't think Srebrenica was [genocide] and that was found by the courts [to be genocide]. The position he takes on genocide is, in my view, entirely too restrictive."

It's about whether the legal qualification should be crimes against humanity rather than genocide.- William Schabas

Schabas said he has accepted that Srebrenica was genocide.

"I am not arguing with anybody about whether genocide took place in Srebrenica. That has been decided. That train has left the station, and the fact that I had an opinion about it before the decisions were reached seems to me to be quite normal and understandable," he said.

His distinct interpretation of the crime of genocide has led some people to call him a genocide denialist, a criticism he rebuffed.

"If you discuss genocide and you suggest that this probably doesn't fit the definition of international law, very quickly some people say you are denying, they say you're denying genocide, as if you're, you know, a Nazi sympathizer whose claiming that Auschwitz didn't exist, which most of the time is not the case.

"Your old debate about Srebrenica was not whether it happened or not, it's not about that. It's about whether the legal qualification should be crimes against humanity rather than genocide," Schabas said.

Defending a party accused of genocide is never going to be a popular job, said Sareta Ashraph, an international lawyer who believes genocide in Myanmar is ongoing.

"For him, a genocide has to involve a substantial number of dead — he relies on body count," she said. "I think he's actually the perfect person for that case, although I disagree with his arguments. It's not an absurd argument, it's just very, very conservative on genocidal intent."

"What he is saying is that what is being described [in Myanmar] is crimes against humanity, not genocide," Ashraph said.

Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle for freedom and democracy in Myanmar. But now — as the current leader of her country — she's in The Hague, before the International Court of Justice, defending her regime against charges of genocide against Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim population. Today, on Front Burner, Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign U.K., brings us the story of the violent attacks against the Rohingya and why a once-revered human rights icon is now being called an apologist for ethnic violence. 25:06

In 2015, Schabas was forced to resign as the head of the United Nations commission of inquiry on the Gaza conflict after a complaint from Israel about his prior work for the Palestine Liberation Organization.

UN Watch director Hillel Neuer said he told Schabas at the time that he "had breached his duty of impartiality as head of the UN Human Rights Council inquiry" because he had made prejudicial statements "including his call to indict Israel's prime minister as his 'favourite' defendant."

Genocide, Schabas said, is a subject of great sensitivity to people "and the debates can be not only quite robust, but people get angry very quickly."

He said his decision to stand in Myanmar's corner was not emotional but professional. "I am hired as a lawyer, they're my client."

With files from CBC News