Bob Rae’s final report: A glimpse of hope for Rohingya

By Saifullah Muhammad

Prime minister’s special envoy to Myanmar, Bob Rae, released a report Tuesday urging Canada to “signal a willingness” to welcome Rohingya refugees and implement sanctions against those responsible for the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the southeast Asian country.

The report titled: “Tell them we’re human,” also states that there is evidence “to support the charge that crimes against humanity have been committed” in Myanmar.

The federal government says it is studying Rae’s findings and intends to do more in the “coming days and weeks” Rae’s 17 recommendations include Canada increasing its funding, and consider playing a prominent role in initiating an investigation into potential war crimes, but stops short of wading into whether or not Canada should revoke Myanmar civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s honorary Canadian citizenship.

“I’m calling the situation as I see it,” Rae said, speaking to reporters in Ottawa about his new report. “It’s a very, very troubling tragic situation. It’s going to require a change of heart inside Myanmar to really make repatriation possible. It’s going to require a willingness to accept international presence, assistance… That’s going to take a lot of effort to make that happen. The situations in the camps are terrible.”

Minister of International Development and La Francophonie Marie-Claude Bibeau meets with the Rohingya activists in Kitchener to discuss the Rohingya project on March 20, 2018/Photo by Selina

Responding to the report, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, and Minister of International Development and La Francophonie Marie-Claude Bibeau issued a statement saying they welcome Rae’s work, and that it “reaffirms” the urgency of the crisis. The ministers said they will soon be outlining further measures the federal government will take.

“We can and must do more,” the ministers said. “That is why we will continue to engage at home and abroad over the coming days and weeks to register our deep concern about the crisis and to seek a path forward with the international community.”

Since August 2017, roughly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar’s Buddhist-majority Rakhine state for refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh amid widespread violence that the United Nations has labelled “textbook ethnic cleansing.”

In October 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named Rae, a former Toronto MP and Ontario premier, as Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar to investigate the Rohingya’s plight.

Although initially barred from entering Rakhine state — the epicentre of the Rohingya humanitarian crisis — Rae travelled to the region in February where he was able “to see the extent of the destruction of the Rohingya villages.” He also visited refugee camps in Bangladesh. “Words cannot convey the extent of the humanitarian crisis people currently face in Bangladesh and Myanmar,” Rae wrote in Tuesday’s report.

“In addition to accounts of shooting and military violence, I also heard directly from women of sexual violence and abuse at the hands of the Myanmar military and of the death of children and the elderly on the way to the camps,” Rae told reporters he briefed members of Cabinet and Trudeau on his findings last week.

The Prime Minister welcomes the final report. “Today, I welcome the final report from the Special Envoy to Myanmar, Bob Rae. I appreciate Mr. Rae’s thorough work as Special Envoy and thank him for his invaluable insights, his professionalism, and his thoughtful recommendations,” Prime Minister said. “Canada is determined to help respond to this crisis. In the coming weeks, we will assess the recommendations in this report and outline further measures we intend to take.”

These are the main takeaways from Rae’s report:

Welcoming refugees

In his list of recommendations, Rae states that “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.” Such resettlements, the report adds, should not be seen as a solution to the ongoing refugee crisis, nor should they diminish the Myanmar government’s duties to take responsibility for the violent exodus and aid hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in returning home.

Although Myanmar’s government has publicly expressed a willingness to resettle those who have fled the country, years of systematic violence at the hands of Myanmar’s security forces and Buddhist mobs means that such plans have been met with widespread scepticism by Rohingya refugees. Moreover, many Rohingya villages, Rae notes, have likely already been razed.

Economic sanctions

The report recommends that Canada and its allies implement “targeted economic sanctions” against individuals, organizations and companies that have broken international humanitarian laws “or other laws related to conflict, including breaches of the Rome Statute and the UN Convention on Genocide.”

“Canada should be actively working with like-minded countries to identify the individuals or parties that should be subject to such sanctions,” the report adds. “Canada should also continue its arms embargo and should seek a wider ban on the shipment of arms to Myanmar.”

Canada’s Myanmar arms embargo were first implemented in 2007. Speaking on CTV Power Play Tuesday evening, Rae also argued against broader economic sanctions. “Big-time economic sanctions only hurt the most vulnerable,” he said. “And … if you don’t have China, India, Thailand, neighbouring countries onside, you got nothing.”

Crimes against humanity

According to the report, there are “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.” The alleged perpetrators, Rae’s report adds, include Myanmar’s military.

“Those who are responsible for breaches of international law, including crimes against humanity, should be brought to justice,” the report states. “This applies to all those involved, including state actors and non-state actors, armies, and individuals.” Evidence must be collected, Rae adds, though difficulties in prosecuting such crimes exist insofar as Myanmar is not a signatory to the treaty that established the International Criminal Court.

“But steps should be taken to encourage the International Criminal Court to consider an investigation on the issue of forcible deportation,” Rae writes. “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.”

Increasing aid

Rae recommends that Canada “take a leadership role in responding to the current crisis by stepping up humanitarian and development efforts in Bangladesh and Myanmar.” In addition to humanitarian assistance and supporting infrastructure development, education should also be a priority, Rae states. In the report, he estimates the annual cost of such a commitment to be $150 million for the next four years.

The visiting Canadian Minister discusses with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh during her visit/Photo by the Sun

“A good chunk of it is going to go to the camp in Bangladesh,” Rae added while speaking on Power Play. Some of it, he said, should also help “people living in Myanmar in very tough and precarious situations.” “And some of it goes to us because we need to up our game in terms of our diplomatic representation,” he added. “I recommend that we should get a defence attaché there in Yangon able to engage with the government on the military side because it’s a two-headed government and right now we’re dealing only with the civilian side.”

To date, Canada has already earmarked more than $45 million in humanitarian aid to the troubled region. The need for humanitarian assistance is particularly urgent now, Rae’s report notes, as those who reside in Bangladesh’s sprawling and crowded refugee camps, are “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” that begins in May.


International advocacy

In his report, Rae states that Ottawa’s response to the crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh should be considered a “litmus test” for Canada’s foreign policy. He also suggests that the crisis is discussed during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London in April as well as during the 2018 G7 summit that Canada will be hosting in May.

“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,” he says in the report. “If we do things together, we can have more impact than if we do them alone,” Rae added on Power Play.

Rae said that Canada can lead by example — and that could start by earmarking more money for the Rohingya crisis. “That way you can go to… all the European countries, and go back to Indonesia, you can go to the wealthy Gulf States, who frankly haven’t done a lot in terms of money, and say, ‘This is what we’re doing and this is how we think you can help,’” he said.

Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s military

Rae notes that Myanmar’s civilian leader, honorary Canadian citizen and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, wields no control over the country’s vast military, which only recently loosened its hold on Myanmar after nearly 50 years of dictatorship. Myanmar’s military has often been cited as a main aggressor in the Rohingya humanitarian crisis.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets Aung San Suu Kyi in Ottawa during her visit to discuss democracy, human rights, and the protection of minorities in Myanmar. Photo from twitter

“(Former UN Secretary-Genera) Kofi Annan referred to there being ‘two governments’ in Myanmar—one military; one civilian,” Rae writes. “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.”

Speaking on Power Play, Rae declined to weigh in on the contentious issue of Aung San Suu Kyi’s honorary Canadian citizenship, nor would he opine on whether or not the country’s civilian leader shares responsibility for the humanitarian crisis. “Until you have the evidence, you really don’t want to go around making political statements saying, ‘Well, we think she’s responsible,’ because we actually don’t have the evidence for that yet,” he said.

Read the full report here….