THE HAGUE – Canadian lawyer William Schabas, an international scholar on genocide, has been criticized by friend and foe for first researching crimes against Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya and now defending the state accused of perpetrating them.
Schabas helped research a report in 2010 on systematic attacks against the Rohingya. It 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 were killed and raped and hundreds of thousands displaced.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter on Thursday: “William Schabas is basically selling out the Rohingya for some Myanmar gov’t $$$. Really the worst sort of behavior, how totally immoral and two-faced.”
In an interview, Schabas rejected the criticism.
“I am an international lawyer. I do international law cases,” he said at a book launch after three grueling 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.”
Stephen Rapp, a former United States war crimes ambassador who works at the Holocaust 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.
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.
“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.”
In an 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.
“He, frankly, doesn’t think Srebrenica was (genocide) and that was found by the courts (to be genocide),” said Rapp. “The position he takes on genocide is in my view entirely too restrictive.”
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 considers the events in Myanmar a “slow-burn genocide.”
“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.”
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.
U.N. Watch director Hillel Neuer said he told Schabas at the time that he “had breached his duty of impartiality as head of the U.N. Human Rights Council inquiry” because he had made prejudicial statements “including his call to indict Israel’s prime minister as his ‘favorite’ 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.”
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