Academic Seminar: Summary Report
One-Year Anniversary: “Tell Them We’re Human”:
What Canada and the World can do about the Rohingya Crisis
Report of the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy, the Honourable Bob Rae
Hosted by the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy
Organized by the Canadian Rohingya Development Initiative
April 17, 2019
Co-Chairs’ SummaryOn April 17, 2019, lawyers, academics, activists, humanitarian workers, human rights defenders, representatives from NGOs, the Canadian Rohingya Development Initiative (CRDI) and Burma Task Force (BTF) convened to discuss the progress made in the year since the release of the Hon. Bob Rae’s report, “Tell Them We’re Human: What Canada and the world can do about the Rohingya crisis”.
Hosted by the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, the round-table benefited from the attendance of the Hon. Bob Rae (Canada’s Special Envoy to Myanmar). The purpose of the round-table was to establish connections, exchange insights, discuss the challenges and accomplishments made over the past year, and to develop concrete and actionable recommendations for the consideration of the Government of Canada and the wider public.
The first half of the meeting focused on an overview of the report by the Hon. Bob Rae, a discussion by Christopher Tuckwood (Sentinel Project) regarding the current situation on the ground in Myanmar, input from Dr. Fariha Khan on the conditions of the Bangladeshi refugee camps, and the perspectives of Greg Sarkissian (Zoryan Institute), on coordination and next steps.
Building on the previous round-table convened last year (April 16, 2018) at the University of Ottawa’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre, the second half of the discussion was structured around the recommendations of Hon. Bob Rae’s report: the humanitarian crisis; the question of accountability and impunity; and effective coordination and cooperation.
Several key issues set the tone of the meeting:
- Lack of coordinated international response with like-minded countries
- Freezing of international aid budgets (a decades’ long issue)
- Canada’s lack of trading partnership with Myanmar, providing less leverage on a bilateral level
- Slow constitutional reform in Myanmar; no evidence of change that would make the return of the Rohingya a practical possibility
- Urgent issues in the refugee camps such as monsoon season, the unsustainability/ vulnerability of the land in Cox’s Bazaar, lack of formal education for Rohingyas, and the ‘emergency’ mindset of the Government of Bangladesh
The breakout group discussions may be summarized as follows:
- As was the case this time last year, with the approaching monsoon season, people continue to be at direct risk from landslides and flooding. In 2019, the risk is increased with the extreme deforestation in the area, particularly in and around Kutupalong camp.
- Exploitation and human trafficking remain an issue, with the number of brothels increasing. There are reports of sexual violence, both against fleeing refugees and within camps.
- Lack of access to health is still rampant and providing medical relief is difficult due to the enormous scale of the camps.
- Mental, physical, psychological trauma remains an urgent issue.
- Lack of access to schooling is contributing to a generation of people without formal education. Since Bangladeshi policy officially forbids formal education in the camps, children over a certain age have no opportunity to advance in their studies in a formal manner or to go on to post-secondary education.
- There is an influx of babies born in the camps due to systemic rape perpetrated by the Myanmar Armed Forces, security services and/or their proxies.
- There is an urgent need for flood-resistant and cyclone-resistant housing.
- The issue of biometric identification cards issued by UNHCR was raised in relation to the safety and security of Rohingyas upon their eventual return to Myanmar. A fear exists among Rohingya that biometric information will be shared with the Myanmar government in the event of repatriation.
- As was the case in 2018, the activities of UN agencies and INGOs within northern Rakhine remain limited. It is unknown how many Rohingya still live in Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung Townships. In central Rakhine State, Rohingya live in displacement camps, while a number still live in rural villages.
- A lack of reliable information means that getting a precise understanding of the situation on the ground in Myanmar, especially on a granular level, is difficult.
- Rohingya no longer have homes and properties to return to, if repatriation were to occur.
International Court of Justice (ICJ)
- Participants discussed the possibility of Canada asking the ICJ for an advisory opinion.
- One advantage of the ICJ is that there is likely enough evidence to go down this route, and the ICJ (unlike ICC criminal prosecution) is a less complicated avenue to pursue. Currently, there is movement in Canada, in both the Senate (brought by Senator Marilou McPhedran) and the House of Commons to take this course of action. The Prime Minister can make this happen prior to the next federal election.
- Participants discussed that the launching of this case would have an effect on Myanmar’s leadership, once their conduct is under the scrutiny of the Court and of the international community. If a judicial process is not locked in place, the issue likely will be swept under the carpet.
International Criminal Court (ICC)
- Myanmar is not a “state party” to the Rome Statute, so the ICC does not have jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute alleged crimes committed in their country. Jurisdiction could be conferred on the ICC if the United Nations Security Council referred the case to the Court, but it is unlikely that the Security Council would refer the case as any member of the P5 (five permanent members) can block the referral, and the Trump administration of the United States is openly hostile of the ICC.
- The ICC prosecutor has agreed that the ICC has jurisdiction over an alleged “crime against humanity” involving the Myanmar military and security forces. The creative ‘lawyering’ behind this idea is that Myanmar committed the crime of forcible expulsion, but that the crime was not complete until the Rohingyas arrived in Bangladesh. Since Bangladesh is a state party to the Rome Statute, the ICC has jurisdiction to investigate there, and possibly indict all parties to an offense committed in that jurisdiction. Since the Government of Myanmar sees the Rohingya as ‘aliens’ and Bangladeshis, there is clear evidence to support such a course of action.
- Observers note that the generals of Myanmar are worried about the possibility of prosecution since they submitted a ‘press release’ that was actually a legal brief against this idea. Some members of the junta may soon have arrest warrants against them. The disadvantage is that, at best, only a handful of people will be prosecuted.
- The United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) commissioned an independent fact-finding investigation into the Rohingya crisis, and it issued a report in 2018 describing atrocious crimes against the Rohingya committed by the Myanmar military. The HRC has authorized the creation of an agency to collect and preserve evidence that could be used in future prosecutions. The group stressed the importance of the evidence repository. In the camps, there is witness contamination, as some NGOs, Ph.D. students, and researchers in the camps interviewed the same witness, which may disqualify them. Among the interviewing bodies, there is little cooperation, and inter-agency coordination is needed.
- A truth commission would focus on victims rather than the perpetrators. In this option, victims would be able to tell their stories and to set the historical record. The benefit of a truth commission is that it is less costly than a criminal case. It can have the same effect as collective therapy and can be vital to the well-being of survivors. Such a commission could be spearheaded by civil society and might be more impactful for the victims than formal mechanisms, such as legal channels.
- Need for a sustainable relationship with any Canadian federal party in power.
- Engage political parties to go beyond the election cycle.
- Encourage people to write to Members of Parliament about the Rohingya issue.
- Continue to improve host-refugee community relations by focusing on dual priorities and providing support to both.
- Determine the lightning rod issue or story that will galvanize public opinion.
- Engage with a public relations company to drive a compelling narrative, and bring people together on the cause.
- Find a strategic public spokesperson for a campaign.
Owing to their undocumented status and the policy of the government of Bangladesh, Rohingya students are unable to pursue secondary education and higher studies.
- Canada should provide these students with scholarships and a pathway to resettlement to continue their education in Canada.
- Inside the camps, efforts need to be made to provide education to the genocide survivors.
- Canada can partner with organizations, and offer funding while engaging with the Bangladeshi government to allow for education programs.
- The most vulnerable Rohingya refugees should be given priority for resettlement through the GAR program or through private sponsorship.
- Canada should continue to work with Bangladesh to allow refugee visas, especially to women and children, and the most vulnerable.
Coordinated action between Canadian actors
The challenge is if the response to the Rohingya crisis is splintered or siloed, it will drift away. Different sectors work independently and energy is wasted on ‘reinventing the wheel’. For that reason, the institutionalization of information sharing is required between academics, lawyers, humanitarian actors, activists, and NGOs.
- Sustain communication through a mailing list of involved people to streamline efforts. Increase coordination between religious groups in Canada.
- Increase engagement with the arts community: TIFF, Hot Docs, Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg, OCIC photo-based exhibit, etc.
Coordinated action between other minority groups in Myanmar
The Rohingya situation has created a creep effect: Karen people are also afraid of the Ma Ba Tha movement. However, the support for them is compartmentalized. This makes it diplomatically more possible to say that the Rohingya crisis is an isolated issue and that Myanmar is otherwise making progress on democracy. Furthermore, the fracturing between minority groups is an argument used by people who are complicit in persecution. The humanitarian community needs to treat the crisis in Rakhine as integral to what is happening in the rest of the country against other persecuted minorities.
- Build partnerships with other minority groups, since crimes against humanity are also perpetrated against them.
- Engage and support groups that work on reconciliation and federalism, even as the NLD pressures them to stop working.
- Call out anti-Muslim sentiment and Islamophobia.
- Hold social media platforms, such as Facebook, responsible for allowing blatant hate speech and the incitement of violence.
- Spearhead a civil-society led truth commission concurrently with other legal channels.
- Along with medical aid, more psychological rehabilitation for genocide survivors, survivors of rape and children is required.
- Internet-based education
- Partnership with the Rohingya Project
International Court of Justice
- Canada has declared that it wants to provide global leadership by supporting the rules-based international order.
- Canada should spearhead this process by requesting an advisory opinion from the ICJ on genocide in Myanmar.
- Although flawed, full sanctions (notwithstanding food and medicine) worked in the past to force Myanmar to transition to a democratic government.
- More sanctions need to be applied to Myanmar, with a better review of their impact.
- Canada should work with like-minded countries to reinstate full sanctions, which should be lifted only once certain conditions are met.
- Canadian companies doing business in Myanmar should use their economic power to hold Myanmar accountable.
- Companies that continue to ignore the genocide in Myanmar should face repercussions.
- Particular attention is needed in Rakhine state in Myanmar in order to stop the government from seizing land and selling it for profit to private and government-owned companies.
- Canada should repurpose assets seized through sanctions.
- Money seized through corruption charges should be used to support Rohingya victims and refugees.
Institutionalize the response
- Keep pressuring the Canadian government to create a Rohingya working group.
- Establish a co-chair to the Rohingya working group with someone from outside of politics, ensuring Rohingya representation.
- Host a genocide convention with international governmental and non-governmental actors including Rohingya leaders.
Conditions for return
- Commit to a process establishing the conditions in Myanmar necessary for the safe, sustainable, voluntary, informed and dignified return of the refugee population.
- Guarantee the security, with full rights and freedoms, of the Rohingya still in Myanmar.
- When Rohingya start returning to Rakhine, building trust with other local communities will need to occur.
Compensation for losses
- The prevailing opinion is that the Rohingya have lost their land and all assets. The government should prepare to properly compensate affected populations for their losses.
Jaivet Ealom, Canadian Rohingya Development Initiative (CRDI)
Saifullah Muhammad, Canadian Rohingya Development Initiative (CRDI)
Ahmed Ramadan, Canadian Rohingya Development Initiative (CRDI)
Yuriko Cowper-Smith, PhD Candidate in Political Science, University of Guelph