Why is Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in The Hague, defending Myanmar?

People gather to rally in support of Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Bago, Myanmar. (Reuters)

Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in the Netherlands on December 8 to lead her country's defence against charges of carrying out a genocide against its Muslim Rohingya minority.

In hearings at the Peace Palace at The Hague, where the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is housed, lawyers pressing the case will ask for immediate international action in Myanmar to protect the Rohingya.

Who has taken Myanmar to the ICJ?

It is the Republic of the Gambia, a tiny country the size of Tripura, which stretches out as a thin strip of territory on either side of the river Gambia before it empties itself into the North Atlantic Ocean on the west coast of Africa.

The Gambia, which is predominantly Muslim, went to the ICJ in November 2019, accusing Myanmar of genocide, which is the most serious of all international crimes. The Gambia is backed by the 57-member Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi departs from Naypyidaw International Airport ahead of her appearance at the International Court of Justice. (Reuters)

The case, 'Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (The Gambia v. Myanmar)', seeking the "indication of provisional measures", will be heard by 16 United Nations judges at the ICJ for three days from Tuesday (December 10) to Thursday (December 12).

Both the Republic of The Gambia and the Republic of the Union of Myanmar will have the opportunity to present two rounds of oral arguments before the court, and the hearings will be streamed live on the ICJ website.

What is the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar?

An estimated 7.3 lakh Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since 2017 when the Myanmar military launched a brutal crackdown on Rohingya villages in the country's Rakhine state. In August, the UN said the army action was carried out with "genocidal intent".

Myanmar has stoutly denied all allegations of genocide. It has also denied nearly all allegations made by the Rohingya of mass rape, killings and arson against its army. Myanmar says the soldiers carried out legitimate counterterrorism operations.

In its defence, which Suu Kyi will present personally, the country will say that no mass killings of Rohingya have taken place. It will also argue that the ICJ has no jurisdiction and that the case by The Gambia fails to meet full legal requirements.

What will happen after the hearings are over?

The ICJ will decide the plea on provisional measures fairly soon -- possibly within weeks. The hearings dealing with the main, and more serious allegations of genocide will follow -- and could begin next year.

That said, cases at the ICJ often drag on for years on end, and no quick closure can be reasonably expected. Also, as commentators quoted by international media reports have argued, the legal bar for handing out a conviction for genocide is rather high.

So far, only three cases of genocide worldwide have been recognised since World War II: Cambodia (the late 1970s), Rwanda (1994), and Srebrenica, Bosnia (1995).

"Proving genocide has been difficult because of the high bar set by its 'intent requirement' -- that is showing the genocidal acts, say killings, were carried out with the specific intent to eliminate a people on the basis of their ethnicity," a Reuters report quoted Richard Dicker, head of the international justice programme at New York-based Human Rights Watch, as saying.

The ICJ, also known as the World Court, was established in 1945 and has mostly dealt with border disputes. Allegations of war crimes against individuals go before a different court, the International Criminal Court, which too, is based in The Hague.