“Tell them we’re human” What Canada and the world can do about the Rohingya crisis
As Prime Minister Trudeau’s Special Envoy to Myanmar, I engaged in extensive research, travel and meetings with key interlocutors from October 2017 to March 2018 to assess the violent events of August 2017 and afterward that led more than 671,000 Rohingya to flee their homes in Rakhine State, Myanmar, and seek refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh.
This report focuses on the following four themes: the need to combine principle and pragmatism in responding to the serious humanitarian crisis in both Myanmar and Bangladesh; the ongoing political challenges in Myanmar; the strong signals that crimes against humanity were committed in the forcible and violent displacement of more than 671,000 Rohingya from Rakhine State in Myanmar; and the clear need for more effective coordination of both domestic and international efforts.
The humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh and Myanmar: With the arrival of more than 671,000 additional refugees in Bangladesh since August 25, 2017, the displaced Rohingya population living in camps in Bangladesh now approaches one million. Camps are overcrowded, the population is traumatized, and the rainy season will soon be upon them. UN agencies have responded with a Joint Response Plan aiming to gather US$950.8 million for the next year. In addition, there could be as many as 450,000 Rohingya remaining in central and northern Rakhine State. Their situation is precarious. Many are in camps for internally displaced persons (IDP), and others are essentially locked into their villages, with poor food supplies and little access to international humanitarian assistance. This demands a response from the international community, and Canada needs to play a strong role. Canada needs to increase its budget dedicated to the crisis, as well as to encourage deeper coordination with like-minded countries. Canada and other countries should also explore avenues to allow the Rohingya to be eligible to apply for refugee status and resettlement, including in Canada, but it needs to be stressed that resettlement alone will not solve the problem.
The political situation in Myanmar: The military remains in firm control of key ministries and budgets within the government that is currently in place in Myanmar. In addition to the crisis in Rakhine State, military conflict is taking place in many border areas of the country, having a negative impact on the peace negotiations and constitutional reform as a result. Despite the 2015 democratic election of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), she was not permitted by the constitution to become president and instead has the role of Minister of Foreign Affairs and State Counsellor, an office that was created for her and whose responsibilities are not clearly defined. She remains the main interlocutor of Myanmar with the world and has been defensive of the activities of the Myanmar military in Rakhine State. The Government of Myanmar, at least its civilian wing, is now formally committed to the implementation of the recommendations of the Kofi Annan-chaired Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, which seek to bring long-term peace and stability to Rakhine, but howthese recommendations can in fact be implemented is not yet clear. The government has also said it will allow for the return of the Rohingya to their home villages, but evidence suggests that many of these villages have been destroyed, and there is a prevailing sentiment within the local ethnic Rakhine population against the Rohingya’s return. Consequently, United Nations (UN) agencies have stated that they do not believe conditions are present for the “safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable” return of the Rohingya to their homes in Rakhine State. I agree with this view. Canada needs to continue to engage with the Government of Myanmar, in both its civilian and military wings, and continue to do so in a way that expresses candidly its views about what has happened, and is still happening, and to insist that all activities of the Government of Myanmar, including military activities, must be carried out in conformity with international law. Canada also needs to engage with civil society throughout Myanmar to support the peace process and to insist on the need for international humanitarian access to northern Rakhine.
The question of accountability and impunity: There is clear evidence to support the charge that crimes against humanity have been committed. These have led to the departure, often in violent circumstances, of more than 671,000 Rohingya from Rakhine State since August 2017. This evidence has to be collected, and we need to find a way to move forward to bring those responsible for these crimes to justice. It will not be easy, as Myanmar is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, but steps should be taken to encourage the International Criminal Court to consider an investigation on the issue of forcible deportation. In addition, Canada should lead a discussion on the need to establish an international impartial and independent mechanism (IIIM or “Triple I-M”) for potential crimes in Myanmar, such as was established by the UN General Assembly for Syria. The Government of Canada should be actively involved in funding these efforts and in continuing to apply targeted sanctions against those where credible evidence supports such measures.
Effective coordination and cooperation: The report recommends formalizing the coordinated efforts of the Rohingya Working Group within the federal government to include those departments with a clear interest and mandate (Global Affairs Canada, Justice Canada, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the Department of National Defence, PCO, PMO) and continuing discussions with other like-minded governments about coordinating international efforts on the three challenges described above.
Download full report HERE.