THE HAGUE – Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi faced calls for Myanmar to “stop the genocide” of Rohingya Muslims as she personally led her country’s defense at the U.N.’s top court on Tuesday.
Myanmar’s civilian leader sat through graphic accounts of mass murder and rape as the West African nation of Gambia set out its case at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Thousands of people in Yangon rallied in support of 74-year-old Suu Kyi, whose silence about the plight of the Rohingya has tarnished her international reputation as a rights icon.
Around 740,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh after a bloody crackdown by the Myanmar military in 2017 that U.N. investigators have already described as genocide.
The United States meanwhile imposed sanctions on four Myanmar military leaders in the toughest action taken yet by Washington for the alleged human rights abuses against the Rohingya and other minorities.
The sanctions targeted commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, whose forces had committed “serious human rights abuse,” the Treasury Department said in a statement.
“Members of ethnic minority groups were killed or injured by gunshot, often while fleeing, or by soldiers using large-bladed weapons; others were burned to death in their own houses,” the statement said.
The sanctions also targeted his deputy, Soe Win, and two subordinates who headed the elite army divisions that spearheaded the crackdown on the Rohingya.
Tuesday’s sanctions were among a round of targets implemented under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which targets perpetrators of serious human rights abuses and corruption.
The sanctions freeze any U.S. assets held by those targeted and prohibits Americans from doing business with them.
In The Hague, Gambian Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou told the judges, “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.”
Muslim-majority Gambia accuses Myanmar of breaching the 1948 genocide convention and has asked the court, set up in 1946 to rule on disputes between U.N. member states, to take emergency measures to stop further violence.
“Another genocide is unfolding right before our eyes yet we do nothing to stop it,” said Tambadou, a former prosecutor at the tribunal into Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. “Every day of inaction means more people are being killed, more women are being raped and more children are being burned alive. For what crime? Only that they were born different.”
ICJ judges have only once before ruled that genocide was committed, in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia.
Suu Kyi, who 28 years ago was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, opened her country’s defense Wednesday by challenging whether events in Rakhine state, home to the Rohingya minority, fit the description of genocide.
Suu Kyi noted that several mass expulsions of people during the Balkan wars of the 1990s were not genocide.
“International justice resisted the temptation to use this legal classification because the specific intent to destroy the targeted group in whole or in part was not present,” she told judges. She said the troubles in Rakhine “go back centuries.”
Her decision to personally lead the nation’s case at the court has proved popular at home, where the Rohingya are widely regarded as illegal immigrants despite having lived in Myanmar for decades.
Myanmar faces a number of legal challenges over the fate of the Rohingya, including a probe by the International Criminal Court — a separate war crimes tribunal in The Hague — and a lawsuit in Argentina.