The House of Commons’ decision comes on the heels of another unanimous vote to call crimes committed against ethnic Rohingya at the hands of Myanmar’s military a genocide. Myanmar’s leaders denied the charge last month following the results of a UN fact-finding mission.
Both decisions are a symbolic victory for advocates who have been urging action as upwards of 10,000 people are estimated to have been killed and more than 700,000 have fled the country since Myanmar’s military launched attacks against the Muslim minority group more than a year ago.
While symbolic declarations matter, says Fareed Khan, director of advocacy and media relations for the Rohingya Human Rights Network, there’s more Canada could — and should — be doing to help.
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Strong action from the U.N. Security Council is unlikely after China, backed by Russia, watered down a council statement on Myanmar earlier this year. But that doesn’t mean Canada is without options.
What has Canada already done?
In the spring, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland pledged $300 million in humanitarian and stabilization initiatives for the Rohingya. In doing so, she promised those responsible for the genocide will have “no place to hide” and committed to supporting Rohingya refugees, the majority of whom have fled to Bangladesh.
Freeland also announced Canada would join the European Union in adding seven Myanmar military leaders to Canada’s sanctions list. Under law, that means those seven leaders have their assets frozen and are blocked from most business dealings with Canada.
More recently, the government has supported a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution to establish an organization that would prepare evidence of human rights abuses in Myanmar for possible future prosecution. Canada was one of 35 nations that voted in support of the successful resolution on Thursday.
It’s important to remember that while there are hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who need help, this is not just a refugee crisis, says Kyle Matthews, executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights at Concordia University.
Until that’s addressed, he says, “we’re going to see more displacement, more destabilizing.”
What else could Canada do?
One option, Matthews says, is to ramp up freezing assets and placing travel bans on those implicated in the atrocities. Those particular measures, he feels, could increase pressure on those responsible without actually further endangering Rohingya people.
While thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands have fled, there is still a sizeable group remaining in Myanmar that the international community and human rights organizations have not been able to get access to.
That uncertainty of what’s happening at home weighs heavy on Anwar Arkani, president of the Rohingya Association of Canada. His nephew is still in Myanmar, as are several of his cousins.
“They’re in absolutely dire situations,” he says. “There’s no way for me or anyone to send anything to them, money or anything else to help.”
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Arkani says it’s time for tangible action to help those still in Myanmar.
“The next step is to try to protect them,” Matthews says.
Khan says one way to do that is to bolster existing sanctions by extending them to include not just the military leaders but also their families, as well as civilian leaders like Suu Kyi and their families.
“Targeted sanctions against these people is meaningless unless the pain is felt within their larger circle.”
Invoke the Responsibility to Protect
There’s no real political will at this stage for a military intervention, Matthews says, but Canada could invoke the UN Responsibility to Protect.
UN members have been committed to that principle, borne out of the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, since 2005. In both conflicts, the international community failed to prevent the atrocities and then faced criticism for their intervention strategy.
Per that principle, each country is responsible for protecting its own people from genocide and other crimes against humanity. However, the international community has a similar obligation and, through the UN, must “use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means.”
It’s a policy tool, Matthews says, one that every single member endorsed 13 years ago. Since then, the responsibility to protect has been raised as part of several resolutions in recent years. In 2011, it was used in Libya, Côte d’Ivoire, South Sudan and Yemen. In 2012, it was used in Syria, and in 2013, it was used in the Central African Republic.
“Yet,” Matthews notes, when it comes to Myanmar, “there’s been absolute silence.”
Invoke the UN Convention on Genocide
That the House of Commons unanimously recognized the Rohingya killings as a genocide is remarkable given the conflict is ongoing, Matthews says. In the past, such declarations have happened “long after it’s over, long after people were killed.”
And yet, Khan says, “it doesn’t mean much without the government operationalizing the resolution.”
Khan is urging Canada to enforce the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The convention commits all countries who are a party to it to recognize genocide as a “crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.” As a party to the convention, Canada is entitled to call upon the UN to take action to prevent or suppress genocide. If Canada were to enforce the convention, Myanmar would — per article VI of the convention — have to face a tribunal.
That’s important, Khan says, and not just because both Myanmar and Canada are party to that convention. Thus far, he says, international efforts have focused more on individual military leaders rather than leadership as a whole.
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“There has been no effort and no work really done to hold the state, the government, accountable,” Khan says.
Those efforts are slow, admits Arkani, but he believes they are happening. He uses Suu Kyi as an example. She once was known primarily as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and his association couldn’t speak ill of her without people defending her. Now, her awards are being slowly stripped from her. UN investigators in August said her civilian government has failed to protect minorities from war crimes and crimes against humanity, allowing hate speech to thrive and contributing to crimes.
“It’s a little thing here, a little thing there,” Arkani says. “But little things add up.”
— with files from Reuters