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Updated: 11th January 2020 20:42 World

Aung San Suu Kyi at UN court for Rohingya genocide case

The UN's highest court on Tuesday began a hearing into allegations of genocide in Myanmar over the military campaign against the Rohingya minority, with leader Aung San Suu Kyi set to defend those who once held her under house arrest.

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Fallen human rights icon is expected to address the court in The Hague Wednesday

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi stands before UN's International Court of Justice on Tuesday in the Peace Palace of The Hague at the start of a three-day hearing on Rohingya genocide case. (Koen Van Weel/ANP/AFP/Getty Images)

Twenty-eight years to the day after Aung San Suu Kyi's husband and sons accepted her Nobel Peace Prize while she remained under house arrest in Myanmar, the former pro-democracy icon appeared in a United Nations court ready to defend her country's army from allegations of committing genocide against the Rohingya minority.

Suu Kyi looked on attentively from the front bench at the International Court of Justice in The Hague Tuesday as a legal team for Gambia detailed accounts of killings — including of women and children — sexual violence and the destruction of tens of thousands of Muslim minority homes in northern Rakhine state.

Acting on behalf of the 57-country Organization of Islamic Co-operation, Gambia is asking the world court to take "all measures within its power to prevent all acts that amount to or contribute to the crime of genocide."

Opening Gambia's case, Justice Minister Aboubacarr Tambadou urged the court to "tell Myanmar to stop these senseless killings, to stop these acts of barbarity that continue to shock our collective conscience, to stop this genocide of its own people.

"It is indeed sad for our generation that 75 years after humankind committed itself to the words 'never again,' another genocide is unfolding right before our eyes," Tambadou said. "Yet we do nothing to stop it."

"This is a stain on our collective conscience," he said.

Myanmar denies the charges

Myanmar's military began a crackdown on the Rohingya in August 2017 in response to an insurgent attack. More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh to escape what has been called an ethnic cleansing campaign involving mass rapes, killings and the torching of homes.

The head of a UN fact-finding mission on Myanmar warned in October "there is a serious risk of genocide recurring." It also found Myanmar should be held responsible in international legal forums for alleged genocide against the Rohingya.

Myanmar has strongly denied the charges, but says it stands ready to take action against wrongdoers if there is sufficient evidence.

A statement on the website of the Ministry of the Interior said recently the renewed international pressure on the country was due to a lack of understanding of "the complexities of the issue and the narratives of the people of Myanmar."

Beyond detailing graphic accounts of rape, mutilation and the killing of children by soldiers in a three-hour presentation, Gambia's representatives underscored what they said was Myanmar's "ongoing genocidal intent" and the government's continued incitement of racial hatred.

They said there is "overwhelming" evidence of genocide and they want steps taken to prevent "extrajudicial killings or physical abuse; rape or other forms of sexual violence; burning of homes or villages; destruction of lands and livestock, deprivation of food" and other acts "calculated to bring about the physical destruction of the Rohingya group in whole or in part."

More than 700,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh to escape what has been called an ethnic cleansing campaign. (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

Scores of Rohingya supporters gathered outside the International Court of Justice in The Hague behind a banner marked "Stop Genocide." Some carried photos of Suu Kyi that included words like "Shame" and "agent of the military."

On Monday, Global Affairs Canada issued a statement saying Canada and the Netherlands would "jointly explore all options to support and assist" Gambia in its efforts to bring accountability.

"For decades, the Rohingya have suffered systemic discrimination and exclusion, marred by waves of abhorrent violence," the GAC statement said, pointing to the findings of recent investigations into the violence, including the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar and human rights organizations. 

Suu Kyi's Canadian citizenship revoked

Suu Kyi was seen as a light for democracy and human rights as she was held under house arrest for about 15 years until her release in 2010. She became a beacon of hope after leading her National League for Democracy party to election victory in 2015.

Suu Kyi received honorary Canadian citizenship in 2007. In 2018, the Canadian government revoked her honorary citizenship amid concerns over violence against the Rohingya.

An extraordinary scene is set for Wednesday, when Suu Kyi — once a shining light for democracy and a global beacon of hope for human rights — is expected to defend the actions of the armed forces, despite having spent 15 years under military-ordered house arrest.

Suu Kyi, who was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for championing democracy and human rights under Myanmar's then ruling junta, is leading the Myanmar delegation in her capacity as foreign minister.

A group of seven Nobel Peace Prize winners has called on Suu Kyi "to publicly acknowledge the crimes, including genocide, committed against the Rohingya. We are deeply concerned that instead of condemning these crimes, Aung San Suu Kyi is actively denying that these atrocities even occurred. "

They wrote in a signed statement ahead of the hearing, which runs until Thursday, that "Aung San Suu Kyi must be held criminally accountable, along with her army commanders, for crimes committed."

In Myanmar, hundreds of people have rallied to show their support for her in recent days.

At one rally, around 700 people, including many NLD party members, gathered outside the colonial-era City Hall in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city.

As the crowd waved national flags and listened to music and poetry, a popular local singer told them "Mother Suu is the bravest human being in the world — her weapon is love."

Bob Rae, Canada’s Special Envoy to Myanmar, talks about the Rohingya, the paradox of Aung San Suu Kyi, and Canada's role in holding Myanmar to account. 26:57

With files from CBC News

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