Date Modified: 2018-04-03
“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.
The Humanitarian Crisis in Bangladesh and Myanmar
- A fundamental principle of Canada’s approach to the Rohingya crisis should be that we listen to the voices of the Rohingya themselves. This principle should guide our actions and inform our advocacy.
- Canada should take a leadership role in responding to the current crisis by stepping up humanitarian and development efforts in Bangladesh and Myanmar. Canada’s response should focus on providing humanitarian assistance, education, supporting infrastructure, and mitigating the impact of the violent deportation on Rohingya women and girls by providing strong support to UN and other international organizations working in camps and elsewhere. Education in particular should become a priority for our longer-term approach. The Government of Canada should develop a multi-year funding plan starting in 2018-19 for this comprehensive work on both sides of the border. This multi-year plan should further include the necessary work on accountability and the gathering of evidence and the increased coordination effort required both domestically in Canada and globally. I estimate the increased annual cost of this combined effort, including for additional staff at headquarters and abroad, at $150 million for the next four years.
- While expressing our gratitude and providing much needed support to the Government of Bangladesh, Canada should be making clear its urgent concern about the need for additional land in and around Cox’s Bazar for the 100,000 Rohingya refugees deemed to be at risk of death or serious illness as a result of flooding, landslides, and water-borne diseases expected to be brought by the upcoming monsoon season. The 500 additional acres of land that the Government of Bangladesh has recently allocated are not sufficient to deal with the extent of the crisis. Similarly, the construction of the island camp of Bhasan Char by the Government of Bangladesh is unlikely to be completed in time or to be sufficient to deal with the extent of the expected crisis; it also raises serious issues about accessibility and mobility. The extent of the urgency of the humanitarian crisis and the real risks to the Rohingya and other populations in both Bangladesh and Myanmar need to be more widely publicized and appreciated. The continuing issues relating to acquiring visas and work permits for humanitarian workers must also be addressed and resolved by the Government of Bangladesh.
- In this multi-year plan, Canadian development assistance should not only focus on the needs of Rohingya refugees, but also take into account those of the Bangladeshi population in Cox’s Bazar, noting the impact that the arrival of an additional 671,000 refugees has had on the resident population. Canada should continue to work with organizations committed to development as well as human rights.
- Canada should continue to urge the signing of an MOU between the UNHCR, the Government of Bangladesh and the Government of Myanmar, and the establishment of stronger relations between all the UN and international agencies with both governments. Implementation of these plans and, in particular, allowing aid, assistance, observers as well as sustained and unfettered access to Rakhine State would go some way to reassuring both the Rohingya population and the international community of the sincerity and credibility of the commitment of both the civilian and military wings of the Government of Myanmar to an effective plan for the return of the Rohingya population.
- Canada should signal a willingness to welcome refugees from the Rohingya community in both Bangladesh and Myanmar, and should encourage a discussion among like-minded countries to do the same. This in no way lessens the obligations of the Government of Myanmar to accept responsibility for the departure in such violent circumstances of the Rohingya population from their homes.
- Canada should provide support to informal initiatives fostered by experienced NGOs intended to improve dialogue between the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh, and reconciliation between the ethnic Rakhine and the Rohingya. These initiatives, known as “Track Two”, have often proved useful to conflict resolution efforts around the world.
The Political Situation in Myanmar
- Canada should continue to pursue a policy of active engagement with the Government of Myanmar and should continue to provide development assistance focused on the needs of all communities in that country. There is no conflict between our continuing advocacy for the rule of law, human rights, democracy and accountability and the needs of human development.
- Canada should continue to emphasize that a return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar from Bangladesh has to be conditional on clear evidence that the recommendations of the Kofi Annan Commission to ensure the recognition of political and civil rights of the Rohingya in Rakhine State are being implemented on the ground, that a sustained international presence will be allowed, and that the return of the refugees will be voluntary, dignified, secure, and sustainable.
- Canada should continue to insist that humanitarian assistance and observers must be available to the whole population of Rakhine State, regardless of ethnicity. International assistance and the presence of observers need to be seen as pre-conditions to any repatriation of the Rohingya people to Myanmar. Funding will need to be provided to ensure such efforts are effective.
- Canadian development assistance to Rakhine State and the whole of Myanmar should be increased and should focus on the needs of women and girls, reconciliation, and the steps necessary to ensure the safety, security, and civil rights of the whole population, including the Rohingya. Special attention must be paid to the need for an emergency response for both Myanmar and Bangladesh.
- Beyond Rakhine, Canada should continue to support the broader peace process in Myanmar, with assistance to key stakeholders, civil society and those able to engage effectively with all the groups and regions in the country. Funding should also be provided for bona fide initiatives deemed to be making a positive contribution to the peace and reconciliation process.
- Given the role that the military continues to play under the existing constitution, consideration should be given to provide cross-accreditation to Myanmar of the Canadian Defence Attaché resident in Thailand, in order to increase more direct dialogue with the military wing of the Government of Myanmar in pursuit of Canada’s policy on human development and human rights.
The Question of Accountability and Impunity
- It is a fundamental tenet of Canada’s foreign policy that those responsible for international crimes, including crimes against humanity and genocide, must be held responsible for those crimes. In order to ensure accountability and to end impunity for violations of international law, concrete and specific actions are required, such as:
- a credible and effective process of investigation, which includes interviewing witnesses, collecting evidence and meticulous record keeping. Canada should work with like-minded countries to initiate such a process and as a matter of priority be prepared to contribute funding to it. This will require a willingness to work with like-minded countries, at the UN Human Rights Council, at the General Assembly, and at the Security Council to ensure that the most effective accountability mechanisms are put in place as soon as possible. This could include establishing a “Triple I-M” to collect and preserve evidence that could support case referrals to the ICC or to national jurisdictions carrying out prosecutions on the basis of universal jurisdiction;
- candid and direct discussions with governments, and all political actors, to ensure they are aware of the commitment of a number of countries, including Canada, to the need for accountability for violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law as set out in the Rome Statute, the UN Convention on Genocide, and other sources of international law.
- Individuals, organizations and companies deemed to have been involved in a breach of international humanitarian law, or other laws related to conflict, including breaches of the Rome Statute and the UN Convention on Genocide, should, in addition to the processes set out above, be subject to targeted economic sanctions. Canada should be actively working with like-minded countries to identify the individuals or parties that should be subject to such sanctions, which are likely to have more impact if multilateral in scope. Canada should also continue its arms embargo and should seek a wider ban on the shipment of arms to Myanmar.
Effective Coordination and Cooperation
- Canada should establish a Rohingya Working Group within the Government of Canada, to be chaired by a senior deputy minister, to ensure a “whole of government” response to all the elements of an effective policy. The Rohingya Working Group would report directly to a Cabinet Committee, would monitor the ongoing crisis, and recommend further steps and expenditures necessary to ensure Canada’s effective response and leadership in this crisis. The Group could issue reports to Parliament and the Canadian public in real time about the full extent of the crisis.
- Canada should urge like-minded countries to establish an International Working Group to ensure that, to the extent possible, policies, programs, and persuasion are exercised in a coordinated fashion. This would include countries in the region, as well as those committed to joint efforts. Canada should push for the issue of the Rohingya crisis to be addressed at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London, United Kingdom, this April and during Canada’s G7 presidency in 2018. Canada should also seek partnership opportunities with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and its members at the OIC’s 45th Council of Foreign Ministers Meeting in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in May.