The Sunday Magazine

Why a Nobel Peace Prize winner is defending her country in court, against a charge of genocide

She received many honours around the world for standing up for human rights and democracy. Now, Myanmar’s foreign minister Aung San Suu Kyi is defending her country against a charge of genocide in the International Court of Justice in The Hague — the genocide of the Rohingya people. Bob Rae, Canada’s Special Envoy to Myanmar talks about this apparent paradox and about Canada's role in making Myanmar accountable for its treatment of the Rohingya.
Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi will appear at the Hague to address the accusations of genocide against the government of Myanmar. (Hwee Young/EPA-EFE)

This week a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize will defend her country in a courtroom. The charge: genocide.

Aung San Suu Kyi appears December 10 before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The foreign minister of Myanmar will argue her country did not commit genocide, that it was not responsible for the deaths and persecution of hundreds of thousands of the Rohingya people. 

Canadian special envoy Bob Rae released a report on the humanitarian and security crisis in Myanmar at a press conference in Ottawa in 2018. His report offered up 17 recommendations for government action. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

This flies in the face of many reports to the contrary. A United Nations fact-finding mission, the International Criminal Court and many governments, including Canada, have said what happened to the Rohingya people in Myanmar's Rakhine state does indeed constitute genocide. 

Other governments such as the U.S. and the U.K. have called it ethnic cleansing. In April 2018, Bob Rae — Canada's special envoy to Myanmar — submitted his report to the government following his own investigation. 

The report documented crimes against humanity and a massive refugee crisis in neighbouring Bangladesh. It also offered 17 recommendations for government action. 

Rohingya refugee children watch Myanmarese and Chinese offcials arrive at Nayapara camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. (Mahmud Hossain Opu/The Associated Press)

Rae spoke to The Sunday Edition's guest host Gillian Findlay about the upcoming trial, what took place in Myanmar and what some see as Canada's insufficient intervention in the tragedy. 

Here is part of that conversation. 

Gillian Findlay: Aung San Suu Kyi was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate at one time — an icon of courage in the fight for human rights and democracy. Do you still have trouble wrapping your head around the fact that this is the same person who is now the chief apologist for the Myanmar regime that stands accused of committing these terrible crimes?

Bob Rae: No, but that's because I — like a lot of people — I've had a lot of time to reflect on her life, on her father's life and on her political struggles and political battles … She is really defending the reputation of her country and the reputation of the institution that her father established.

She's also going to be defending genocide.

Her [Suu Kyi's] view is most of the world doesn't even know where Rakhine state is. They don't understand the history of the Rohingya population. In Myanmar, there's been a profound difference of view between most Burmese, most Myanmar peoples and the Rohingya about whether or not that's where they actually belong. 

The establishment of the State of Burma in 1948 created a borderline between what was then East Pakistan and Myanmar, that ended up including a lot of people who the Burmese feel are not really part of their country. And I think this lies at the heart of the issue — the word Rohingya is not a word that you will hear on the streets of Yangon. The word you will hear is Bengali, and often prefaced by a swear word of some kind. So the Rohingya are considered by the Burmese to be a group that is outside the framework of the political family that is Myanmar.

That's the first thing. The second thing is that the argument of the government will be that there has been a radicalization of this Muslim population over a long period of time and there is a militant wing of the Rohingya community called RSA which, in fact, is responsible for launching what they describe as terrorist attacks on the army and the police and other people who are living in Rakhine state.

Is she [Suu Kyi] convincing in person? Does she believe that all of the actions that her country is now accused of are defensible?

I really don't know the answer to that question. She certainly believes that the rest of us have no clue — we don't know what we're talking about. What she insists is that we come from far away and don't really know what the details or the history of her country are.

She certainly believes that the government was responding to a terrorist attack. Before the latest terrible forced deportation took place, she did establish a commission headed up by Kofi Annan of the U.N. to try to help her in dealing with an issue around the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims living in Rakhine state. So she'll say, "I was doing my best to try to resolve a difficult political situation. I don't believe the army committed genocide. I don't believe that was their intention."

A Myanmar border guard policeman stand near a group of Rohingya Muslims in front of a small store in a village. (Richard Sargent/AFP/Getty Images)

Why is she the person who's going to the Hague, as opposed to one of the military leaders or government lawyers?

I think this is something she wants to do. I think this is something she sees as an opportunity for her to be the face of Myanmar in the face of these what she considers to be unjustified attacks.

I would expect that most of the arguments around the legality of things will be handled by her legal team and what she's doing is an intensely political act. It's not a legal argument that she's got.

I think it's a high risk for her because there's a very strong case about what has actually happened. There's a lot of hard facts and evidence that shows what took place. Thousands of people were killed by the army, close to three-quarters of a million people were displaced in the late summer of 2017, they're living in appalling conditions in Bangladesh and there are still several hundred thousand Rohingya left in Myanmar whose security is by no means assured.

One of the many things that's interesting about this is that it's the tiny African country of Gambia that has brought this case to the International Court of Justice. How is it that the world   including Canada have come to rely on Gambia to take the lead on this issue?

It's actually the right approach. Chrystia Freeland and I had the opportunity to go to a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Communities in May of 2018. We discussed a lot about the possibility of the invocation of the of the Genocide Convention, and one of the people who was most interested in continuing those discussions was the Minister of Justice of Gambia. 

The OIC basically gave it to Gambia, and we said we'll support it. We've continued a number of discussions with the Gambian government about how they were intending to go forward.

A Rohingya Muslim woman cries as she holds her daughter after they were detained by Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers while crossing the India-Bangladesh border from Bangladesh, at Raimura village on the outskirts of Agartala. (Jayanta Dey/Reuters)

But why has Canada not done this? 

I personally believe that having a former colony like Gambia — that has a clear interest in this case — having them make the argument is symbolically very important. We've indicated that we're very much prepared to support Gambia in these arguments and we're very interested in making sure that Gambia has all the resources that it needs in order to be able to make the case. We will be talking to Gambia and to other countries and to the court itself about other ways in which we can intervene.

But Canada is a party to the U.N. Genocide Convention, which does require members not only to prevent genocide but to punish genocide when it occurs. There are Rohingya activists who have said this was our responsibility to do.

It's our responsibility to see that it gets done. The way in which it gets done I think is something where we can show some flexibility. Canada has been part and parcel of every discussion that's been held about how this might be done. We have not shirked our responsibilities. In fact, I think when you compare what we have done and the support that we provided, when you compare it with other countries, I think we're doing what needs to be done. 

Amassing the evidence for a case of genocide is extremely onerous and difficult. We have helped to fund that and we continue to help to fund that ... That's something that Canada has been very active in funding and contributing to and encouraging. The work of the fact-finding mission was supported financially in every way; the establishment of an independent mechanism in Geneva, which is going to be responsible for gathering and keeping evidence, which is going to be crucial in actually bringing people to justice. Canada has been very instrumental in doing that. 

We've been speaking to some of the activists in preparation for this, and they have asked, 'What is left to be gained by having a special envoy?'

Activists of various kinds can say can say various things. I ought to be modest, but I think the fact is we have been able to focus on this crisis and to continue to focus our governments on it and focus other governments on it. I speak to members of the Rohingya community in Canada and internationally. I think those efforts are appreciated.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.


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