Canadian lawyer William Schabas, an international scholar on genocide, has been criticized by friend and foe for first researching crimes against the Muslim Rohingya of Myanmar and now defending the state accused of perpetrating them.
Schabas helped research a report in 2010 on systematic attacks against the Rohingya, which 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 Burmese State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi at the International Court of Justice in The Hague and denied that genocide took place during a 2017 military campaign, in which thousands were killed and raped, and hundreds of thousands displaced.
“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,” Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said on Twitter on Thursday.
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 that 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 US Department of State Office of Global Criminal Justice ambassador-at-large who works at the Holocaust Museum, is among colleagues who have 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 non-governmental organizations in The Hague on Wednesday.
In court the following day, Schabas tried to clarify his 2013 remarks in the al-Jazeera documentary titled 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, because I’ve never said that genocide was taking place in Myanmar,” Schabas 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,” Schabas said. “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.”
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 as a “slow-burn genocide.”
“For him, a genocide has to involve a substantial number of dead. He relies on body count,” she said.
Schabas said his decision to stand in Myanmar’s corner was not emotional, but professional.
“I am hired as a lawyer — they’re my client,” Schabas said.
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