THE STANDING SENATE COMMITTEE ON HUMAN RIGHTS
OTTAWA, Wednesday, November 7, 2018
The Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights met this day at 11:30 a.m. to study the issues relating to human rights and, inter alia, to review the machinery of government dealing with Canada’s international and national human rights obligations (topic: the human rights situation of the Rohingya).
Senator Wanda Elaine Thomas Bernard (Chair) in the chair.
The Chair: Good morning and welcome. Before we hear from our witnesses, I would like all senators to introduce themselves.
Senator Andreychuk: Raynell Andreychuk, Saskatchewan.
Senator Cordy: Jane Cordy, Nova Scotia.
Senator Pate: Kim Pate, Ontario.
Senator Boyer: Yvonne Boyer, Ontario.
Senator Hartling: Nancy Hartling, New Brunswick.
The Chair: Wanda Thomas Bernard, Nova Scotia, and chair of this committee.
Since late August 2017, over 725,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh to escape violence in Myanmar where they are a stateless Muslim minority. The vast majority of Rohingya refugees reaching Bangladesh are women and children, including newborn babies. Many others are elderly people requiring additional aid and protection.
In September and October 2017, our committee held two meetings and heard from 16 witnesses. In addition, last June we heard from the Honourable Bob Rae, Special Envoy of the Prime Minister to Myanmar. Now we are looking for an update on the plight of the Rohingya refugees.
Today, our meeting is in two parts. During the first hour, we shall hear from the High Commissioner of Bangladesh, and during the second hour, we shall hear from a representative of the Rohingya Human Rights Network, Professor John Packer, a human rights specialist.
I would now like to welcome back to our committee His Excellency Mizanur Rahman, High Commissioner for the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. I would ask you to introduce the staff that are with you, and then invite you to give your testimony.
Mizanur Rahman, High Commissioner, High Commission for the People’s Republic of Bangladesh: First, I would like my staff to introduce themselves
Miah Md. Mainul Kabir, Counsellor, High Commission for the People’s Republic of Bangladesh: I am Miah Md. Mainul Kabir, Counsellor, High Commission for the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
Md. Shakhawat Hossain, Counsellor, Passport and Visa Wing, High Commission for the People’s Republic of Bangladesh: I am Shakhawat Hossain, Counsellor, High Commission for the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
Mr. Rahman: Honourable senators, chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights, Dr. Wanda Thomas Bernard, honourable members of the committee and distinguished guests, good morning to all of you.
First, I sincerely thank the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights for holding this hearing on the unprecedented violation of human rights in Rakhine State, Myanmar, and consequential exodus of forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals to Bangladesh and for inviting me to this hearing for two consecutive years.
I would like to begin by highlighting the ethnic background of the Rohingya population living in Myanmar. Rohingyas of Arakan are a mix of people from numerous races and cultures, including Indian, Bengalese, Arabs, Persians and Afghans in Central Asia. Linguistically, they use Pashtun, Arabic, Urdu, Portuguese side by side Bengali. British history and other records suggest that Muslims in Rakhine existed long before its annexation by the British in 1824. Rohingyas settled in Arakan or Rakhine after 1825 were indigenized well before the independence of Myanmar or Burma in 1948, so their Bengali language affinity in no way justifies their being identified as Bengalese.
Honourable senators, the root cause of the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar is the systemic denial of human rights citizenship of the Rohingya by Myanmar authorities, and not development deficit. This has been clearly recognized by the Kofi Annan commission report. The 1982 Citizenship Act of Burma identified Rohingyas as foreigners. Since 1962, successive military regimes in Myanmar have been executing planned actions to marginalize, persecute, and ultimately disenfranchise the whole community of Rohingyas in Rakhine State. They have been restricted from freedom of movement, education and public services.
Rohingyas in Myanmar have been forcibly deported from their homeland to Bangladesh in multiple phases. During 1978-1979, over 290,000 Rohingyas took shelter in Bangladesh and were subsequently repatriated to Myanmar. The second wave of deportation of nearly 250,000 Rohingyas from Myanmar took place in 1992, among which 236,599 Rohingyas were repatriated to Myanmar with the help of UNHCR. The third wave began in 2012, which included the exodus of 87,000 in October 2016 and the unprecedented mass deportation of nearly 700,000 forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals since August 25, 2017. Currently, Bangladesh is hosting around 1.1 million Rohingyas.
Prior to their being forcibly deportation to Bangladesh, the Rohingya underwent horrific atrocities including mass killing, torching of homes and properties, sexual violence, and so on. Our highest political leadership had no doubt that the violence and persecution suffered by the Rohingya were tantamount to the gravest crimes under international law. Our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasinatermed the crimes as genocide, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in an address to the 72nd and 73rd sessions of the UN General Assembly.
In its report, the Independent International Fact-finding Mission on Myanmar of the UN Human Rights Council concluded that the crimes against the Rohingya in Rakhine State were committed by Myanmar security forces with genocidal intent, while war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states.
Bangladesh, under the responsible and responsive leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has opened the border and welcomed distressed Rohingyas, despite various challenges to our economy, ecology, et cetera. Bangladesh has been handling the complex humanitarian emergency successfully, which is appreciated by the international community. These forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals have been extended all sorts of humanitarian assistance, including shelter, food, health, security, water and sanitation, solely on humanitarian grounds.
UN agencies and international partners are extending full cooperation in rendering humanitarian assistance. Field hospitals and primary health care centres are providing health care support to the Rohingya. The Government of Bangladesh has approved a guideline for humanitarian actors imparting informal education to Rohingya children up to 14 years of age in Myanmar language. I would like to mention that too much emphasis on education and the livelihood of the forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals in Bangladesh at this stage might work as a pull factor. The problem originates in Myanmar and the ultimate solution is their sustainable return to Myanmar.
UN Secretary General António Guterres visited Rohingya camps in Bangladesh in August 2018 and has called for ensuring accountability for the horrendous persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. He said that there could be no excuse for delaying the search for dignified solutions that would allow Rohingyas to return home in safety and dignity.
On September 6, 2018, the International Criminal Court ruled that it had jurisdiction over the crime against humanity of deportation, allegedly committed against members of the Rohingya people. Bangladesh, in line with its commitment to international norms, responded to the request of the Pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court regarding its jurisdiction over atrocities committed in Myanmar. Bangladesh would cooperate with the International Criminal Court in pursuance of its jurisdiction on forced deportation of the Rohingya from Myanmar’s Rakhine State, including the possible denial of their right to return.
At the 72nd UNGA session, on September 21, 2017, our Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called upon the UN and the international community to take immediate and effective measures for a permanent solution to this crisis. In this regard, she proposed five immediate actions:
First, Myanmar must unconditionally stop the violence and the practice of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State immediately and forever.
Second, the Secretary General of the United Nations should immediately send a fact-finding mission to Myanmar.
Third, all civilians, irrespective of religion and ethnicity, must be protected in Myanmar, so that safe zones could be created inside Myanmar under UN supervision.
Fourth, ensure sustainable return of all forcibly displaced Rohingyas in Bangladesh to their homes in Myanmar.
Fifth, the recommendations of the Kofi Annan report must be immediately implemented unconditionally and in its entirety.
Later this year, in September 2018, the honourable Prime Minister of Bangladesh placed a three-point recommendation before the United Nations to solve the Rohingya crisis:
First, Myanmar must abolish discriminatory laws, policies and practices against Rohingyas and address the root causes of forced displacement in a genuine and timely manner.
Second, Myanmar must create a conducive environment by building trust and guaranteeing protection, rights and pathway to citizenship for all Rohingyas. If needed, a safe zone should be created inside Myanmar to protect all civilians.
Third, prevent atrocity crimes against Rohingyas in Myanmar by bringing accountability and justice, particularly in light of the recommendations of the fact-finding mission of the UN Human Rights Council.
Failure to find a sustainable solution to the crisis bears security implications for Bangladesh and the entire region. The unaddressed grievances of the whole community of Rohingyas should be reasons for concern for all stakeholders. Bangladesh remains committed in enforcing her zero tolerance policies against violent extremism and radicalizations of any kind or manifestations. Bangladesh has been cooperating with the international community, including Myanmar, on the subject and is ready to continue such cooperation.
Bangladesh, as a responsible neighbour has remained bilaterally active with Myanmar for more than a decade on the issue of repatriation. Bangladesh concluded three necessary instruments on repatriation of the forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals to Myanmar in safety, security, dignity, and their resettlement and reintegration into Myanmar society. The umbrella agreement named the “Arrangement on the Return of Displaced Persons from Rakhine State,” was signed on November 23, 2017, by both foreign ministers of Bangladesh and Myanmar. Subsequently, a Joint Working Group, JWG, along with its terms of reference, TOR, as well as a bilateral instrument on physical arrangement of repatriation, were concluded. These three instruments have created space for international involvement, and Bangladesh has already involved UNHCR in the process.
In our bilateral engagements with Myanmar, Bangladesh emphasizes the necessity of the sincerity and seriousness of the Myanmar authorities by creating a conducive environment in Rakhine of safety, security, and access to livelihood and rights of the prospective returnees.
During the meeting of the home ministers of both countries on February 16, 2018, Bangladesh handed over a list of 8,032 individuals or 1,678 families to Myanmar as the first batch for verification of residency in Myanmar. In response, Myanmar has verified 4,355 Rohingyas up to October 30, 2018.
The third Joint Working Group meeting at foreign secretary level was held in Dhaka on October 29, 2018, where Myanmar committed to commence the repatriation process by mid-November of this year, with the physical transfer of 2,260 Rohingyas whom they had verified as residents of Rakhine State. In addition, 65 displaced persons from the Hindu community, verified as naturalized citizens of Myanmar, will also be repatriated in the first batch. In that meeting, Bangladesh handed over a list of the second batch of 5,213 families, comprising 22,432 individuals, to Myanmar’s delegation for verification.
The Myanmar side described their detailed plans for sustainable rehabilitation of the returnees in Rakhine, including construction of houses and villages, safety, livelihood, education, health care, and so on, in collaboration with UNHCR, UNDP, WHO, and with the help of China, Japan, India and Thailand.
Bangladesh wants immediate commencement of the repatriation process to ensure the voluntary return of the forcibly displaced Rohingyas to their ancestral home in safety and dignity. Accordingly, we have agreed to commence the repatriation of rather a small number of individuals so far verified by the Myanmar authorities at the earliest opportunity. As a member of the international community, it is the responsibility of Myanmar to live up to its commitments and ensure those rights to the Rohingya once they return. Unless the Rohingya return to their homes, these commitments cannot be put to the test and further measures cannot be explored.
Bangladesh appreciates the support of the international community on the Rohingya crisis, particularly of friendly countries like Canada. It is due to the active engagement of the international community that Myanmar came forward in concluding the bilateral agreements. We hope the international community shall not lose focus on this issue and continues their engagement with Myanmar. They need to continuously seek more and more space from Myanmar to be involved in the sustainable repatriation process by creating a conducive environment.
Canada is a champion of human rights. Bangladesh thanks Canada for her active global engagement to sustainably solve the Rohingya crisis. The Canadian government humanitarian assistance to the vulnerable Rohingya people is of much importance to manage forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals. The visits to Bangladesh of Canada’s Minister of International Development, Marie-Claude Bibeau, and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland, and the report of the Special Envoy of the Honourable Prime Minister of Canada on Myanmar bringing the issue of the citizenship of Rohingyas to the forefront, were much appreciated.
Bangladesh highly values the support of Canada in the international forum. In this regard, we thank Canada for co-sponsoring the OIC-EU draft resolution on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, which is to be tabled at the UN on November 16, 2018. This resolution emphasizes accountability, calls for a full and in-depth investigation into the human rights violations against Rohingyas, and urges speedy commencement of the operation of the ongoing independent mechanism established by the Human Rights Council.
I would like to thankfully recall Canada’s co-sponsoring of the resolution on the Rohingya issue last year at the UN General Assembly Third Committee meeting. We also welcome the adoption of resolutions in the Canadian Parliament, including imposition of sanctions against Myanmar military officials and asking for their prosecution in the International Criminal Court.
I would like to mention, with strong concern, the latest incident of the unprovoked firing of 41 rounds of ammunition by Myanmar border guard police on November 4, 2018. This recent incident at the border caused grave injuries to two people, including one Bangladeshi national and one forcibly displaced Myanmar national staying in the camp in Bangladesh.
As I mentioned earlier, the ultimate solution of the Rohingya crisis has to be found in Myanmar, from where the problem originated. We call upon Canada to pursue Myanmar in line with the proposals the honourable Prime Minister of Bangladesh raised during the UN General Assembly to the world bodies to implement the recommendation of the Kofi Annan commission immediately and unconditionally in its entirety to ensure a sustainable, dignified and voluntary return to Myanmar of all forcibly displaced Rohingyas.
Bangladesh also stresses the necessity of the political will of the Myanmar government to ensure success of the repatriation process and integration of the returnees in Myanmar society. Bangladesh believes that the experience of the first batch of returnees, scheduled to commence in the middle of November, is very crucial as it will have impact on subsequent returnees. Bangladesh also feels that accountability is a binding aspect for creating a conducive environment and restoring confidence among Rohingyas. We hope for Canada’s active engagement in creating a conducive environment in Myanmar and ensuring accountability for sustainable repatriation and social integration in Myanmar of all the forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.
Senator Cordy: Thank you very much, Your Excellency, for coming to help us with our study. We’re doing it in stages so that we can get updates. I know that you were before the committee just a little over a year ago, and thank you very much for returning.
As you said in your speaking notes, the situation has become more complex and the numbers are growing. Are there developments that the Government of Bangladesh has noticed in the past year since your last appearance? I know the numbers are increasing, but are there specific developments of which we should be aware?
Mr. Rahman: As I mentioned, these numbers were from last year. The exodus is still there but to a diminished extent. After I spoke last, we have been able to conclude three agreements with them. Now the process of repatriation is scheduled to start in the middle of November. Now we appeal to international authorities, and especially the Canadian authorities, to remain focused and to concentrate on the accountability issues. The crimes that have been committed are crimes against humanity. The accountability feature should also be there, and we should remain focused so that this repatriation is carried on in due time.
Senator Cordy: I think you rightly said that the Rohingya have to be able to return home with safety: safety in getting to Myanmar but also safety once they arrive. You also said that it has to be done with dignity for the individuals.
Are you seeing any solutions in Myanmar? Are you seeing any movement in finding a solution? You talked about repatriation, and I know that your government has sent over lists of families. There was one list of over 1,800 and there is a recent list of over 5,000 families, which is a sizable start. How are they responding to verifying that they are indeed citizens of Myanmar?
Mr. Rahman: You may have noticed that we initially sent a list of 8,032 individuals. Recently, we received a list of a little more than 4,000. Of the 4,000, the first batch is around 2,200. It took some time to get these numbers from the Myanmar authorities, but from our side we are always trying so that the Rohingya can go back to their ancestral lands at the quickest possible time.
It is scheduled for the middle of November. From our side, we are hoping and we will see. It also depends on the international community remaining focused on the issue.
Senator Cordy: The 4,000 families are expected to move the middle of November.
Mr. Rahman: As I have mentioned, the first batch is around 2,260. Altogether, out of the 8,032 individuals, Myanmar has verified 4,355. Eventually, 4,355 are supposed to go back. In the meantime, at the third JWG meeting we handed over to them a further batch of 22,433 individuals for them to verify.
Senator Cordy: The reason the Rohingya fled was because of problems they were having as not being full citizens of the country. Will the international community be monitoring those who go back to Myanmar to ensure that in fact they are living with dignity and safety?
Mr. Rahman: That is a very important question. From the Bangladesh side, we are for voluntary repatriation. We are not forcing anyone. Also, as you may know, Bangladesh first concluded agreements with UNHCR and UNDP. Myanmar has also done so in June of this year. They are working both in Bangladesh and on their side also.
There are also authorities to oversee the transfer. Of course, as we have emphasized, livable conditions ensure safe return and livelihood. Those things have to be ensured. The Myanmar authorities have told us that they are in the process of building some shelters and facilities, all with the cooperation of the countries I have mentioned here.
Senator Cordy: It is more than just physically getting there.
Mr. Rahman: Of course. This is necessary because otherwise it will not be a sustainable repatriation.
Senator Cordy: Absolutely.
Mr. Rahman: History tells us that they have come back again.
Mr. Kabir: In this last joint group meeting that happened on October 29, the Foreign Secretary of Myanmar committed to building houses and villages. From the Bangladesh side, we asked about the progress they have made so far to ensure the safe and dignified stay of Myanmar Rohingyas in their homeland. Actually, they are interested in returning to their villages, not to temporary shelters.
Also it was discussed that first they will be placed in temporary shelters, but this time the Myanmar authority committed that ultimately they would be repatriated to their homeland and ensured security, safety and freedom of movement of all returnees. There is a restriction that Rohingyas cannot go out of Rakhine State. This time they committed that they will make arrangements for free movement within Myanmar.
They also ensured arrangements for education and health facilities. So far we know that there are no health facilities or education in Rakhine State, Myanmar, for Rohingyas. This time they committed, and we have already discussed what initiatives they have taken.
From the very beginning of this process, Bangladesh had the objective to involve international communities. This time, the Foreign Secretary of Myanmar mentioned that they would involve UNDP, UNHCR and WHO, the World Health Organization, to ensure this involvement. Bilaterally, India, Thailand and Japan will be involved, for example, in the construction of houses. Japan, India and Thailand will provide assistance. These countries and other international bodies are already engaged and involved in construction and in other matters.
It is time to observe the commitments that Myanmar made to implement them in a true sense. The political will is very important. Bangladesh, from the very beginning, highlighted during the joint meeting of the JWG the political will of the Myanmar authorities. After the meeting there was a press briefing. On October 30, they visited the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh. The Foreign Secretary of Myanmar also elaborated on and discussed all these things with the Rohingya.
Let us see whether Myanmar keeps it commitment. We can do test their experience with the first batch that goes.
Senator Martin: Your Excellency, building on what Senator Cordy was asking regarding the safe return, if possible, of the Rohingya to Myanmar, you mentioned the safe zones. Also you mentioned before that they would potentially be under UN supervision.
I am trying to envision how these safe zones could be created and what role Bangladesh would have in helping create such zones. If they’re fleeing the country from which they come, I am trying to imagine how this could be possible. Perhaps you could elaborate on the discussions you have had.
Mr. Rahman: Safe zone is an idea. At present, as it stands, we have been told that once they return they will be taken to a reception camp where they will stay for a few days. From there, they will be taken to a transit camp, where they will be staying for some weeks. We are told the transit camps will be near to their villages, and from there they will ultimately go to their villages. This is the present structure of how it will happen, as the Myanmar authorities have told us.
Mr. Kabir: There is a commitment on the Myanmar side, or actually a proposal by Bangladesh, that the Joint Working Group will monitor progress in Myanmar in terms of how they are implementing this Myanmar commitment. Myanmar has also agreed that there will be a joint visit of the Bangladesh and Myanmar of all shelters or villages and maintenance of the commitments.
Mr. Rahman: Housing these people is an international commitment of huge resources. Basically the repatriation is done, and these people have to go back. It’s better that they are repatriated as early as possible by the creation of safe zones inside Myanmar. This is one of the concepts, yes.
Senator Martin: Are you saying the safe zones would ultimately be the village from where they came or other villages?
Mr. Rahman: It could be. It is an evolving definition, so it will work out.
Senator Martin: There will be several steps. Ideally there will be a reception camp for a few days.
Mr. Rahman: That is what we are told. Bangladesh authorities have agreed to start the repatriation process even if the numbers are not that high. We have 1.1 million Rohingyas. After eight months we have a list of a little more than 4,000 and out of this 4,000 the number is 2,260.
We want to start the process, because we believe that once the process is started, and if the right conditions exist in Rakhine State, these people will act as a catalyst. They will tell other people, which will create a conducive environment. Because of this, we have agreed to these numbers.
Mr. Kabir: Within two months of the agreement with the foreign ministers being signed last year, the repatriation process was supposed to commence. However, we have experienced so far that it has not yet started. By mid-November, Myanmar has committed to start the repatriation process.
Whether it is a small number or a big number, 1.1 million is definitely a concern for Bangladesh. We want to start this as a test case. Ultimately, we need to solve the problem of repatriation of 1.1 million to their homeland.
Senator Martin: I understand that we have to start at some point. As you say, it is a growing number. I can imagine the impact it has had on the Bangladeshi people and where your resources would need to be divided.
Before asking the second part of my question, in terms of the reception camp, the transit camp and then eventually to the village, is that system set up to begin the process?
Mr. Rahman: This is what we have been briefed on at the third Joint Working Group. This is the process Myanmar authorities are contemplating to take these people back. Once the repatriation starts, then we will understand how these things are working out as per the commitment.
Senator Martin: Have the Rohingya people had a role? Have they been consulted in any way? Are they ready to go back? Who will guarantee their safety in this journey?
Mr. Rahman: As we have said from the beginning, the repatriation will be voluntary. They have registered with us and other authorities. I think the Myanmar authorities also visited the Rohingya camps and talked with them. Only after these visits was the repatriation process begun.
From the Bangladesh side, we have always emphasized that it has to be voluntary. Otherwise, the same thing will reoccur by forcibly sending these people. We are careful about that. The people are in the picture, and the repatriation is voluntary.
Senator Martin: Their safety is paramount.
Mr. Rahman: Of course.
Senator Martin: If the process is not working, once it has begun, then it will cease.
Mr. Rahman: This is the third joint committee meeting. During the second joint committee meeting Bangladesh asked Myanmar to elaborate on the various livelihood measures taken. We were not given that information, but at the third meeting we were told, as my colleague said, that these were the measures they plan to take, including the building of confidence and safety measures. Because of that, we are in the process of repatriating these people.
Mr. Kabir: At this time they have officially acknowledged that they have involved international partners, international bodies and neighbouring countries, as I mentioned.
Senator Andreychuk: Following up on the same questions, I am a little confused: There will be some repatriation, but it will be on a voluntary basis. You hope to start shortly.
Mr. Rahman: Yes.
Senator Andreychuk: Is there already a list of those who wish to go back under the present terms that you’ve negotiated? If so, how many of the 1.1 million?
Mr. Rahman: I will elaborate again that there are 1.1 million Rohingyas. The first list from the Bangladesh side was handed over on February 16, 2018, which consisted of 8,032 individuals.
In the agreements we have signed, it is said that after we send the list, the Myanmar side will use their methods to verify that they are residents. They have verified and come up with a list of 4,355 Rohingyas. They have cleared these people. They want to take them back. The first batch of these cleared Rohingyas of 2,260 will go back, and under the same process all the others will go back.
When we said that Bangladesh was ready to repatriate the 2,260 Rohingyas, at the same time we have handed over a second batch comprising 22,432 individuals. It will happen in phases, and all the repatriation will be voluntary.
Senator Andreychuk: If it’s voluntary repatriation, it looks like it is phased. That may be good or bad, I am not sure. We’ll see how it works out.
Mr. Rahman: We have 1.1 million, so we cannot send everyone in at once. It has to be phased.
Senator Andreychuk: I appreciate that. However, from the horrific experiences these people have had, we hear from the reports that the trust level is low. What if the people do not want to go back, despite all the assurances and despite the graduated integration? What is the plan for those who adamantly cannot or will not go back?
Mr. Rahman: We want to focus on their going back. We will see if there is some issue. For example, the people who have registered voluntarily. No one forced them. They have registered voluntarily to go back. These 8,000 or 22,000 people have already registered voluntarily.
Our concern is to now send them back as quickly as possible. Since they have volunteered that they will go back, I do not see their saying that they will not go back. As I have said, it will depend on the sincerity of the Myanmar side, from the things they have told us, to create safe zones, a safe situation, livelihood, and all of that. Once these people go, they will act as the catalyst. They will tell the others that the situation is safe.
Let us now think about sending them back.
Mr. Kabir: They are willing to go back to their homeland. That is the basic idea. Bangladesh never forced them.
Mr. Rahman: We are not forcing anyone. As you know, we have around 400,000 from the previous exodus or incident in Bangladesh. Those people came after August 25, 2017, and these people were there since 1992. We are not forcing anyone to go back. Systematically, they will go.
Senator Andreychuk: What if they do not? You have some from 1992. Will you be treating the 1.1 million the same way that you have treated the rest, that if they do not wish to go back they will remain?
Mr. Rahman: Let us first concentrate on how many go back, and we will see from there.
Senator Andreychuk: On another area, you received these people, and I think the international community has noted that and understood the difficulties of housing that many people.
Is there a collective will in Parliament to support this initiative? How have you involved the opposition parties in this plan and project?
Mr. Rahman: Everyone in Bangladesh, every party, wants the Rohingya to go back as quickly as possible. In this regard there are no others: everyone wants them to go back as quickly as possible.
Senator Andreychuk: I will leave it at that.
Mr. Rahman: As you know, there is no benefit for the government, the opposition or anyone to keep them in Bangladesh. Everyone wants them to go back, yes, with safety and dignity.
Senator Martin: I want to ask you a question, Your Excellency, about the role of the international community. Although the Rohingya people are in Bangladesh, it is a large number. You have neighbours, G7 countries and members of the UN, et cetera.
Could you speak specifically in terms of Canada’s role and what we can continue to do or do more of, and in terms of some of the other neighbouring countries and partners that you feel can play an important role?
Mr. Rahman: The main role that is being played is that they are maintaining the focus on Myanmar. We’re thankful to the international community, including Canada. Canada has been deeply involved and appointed the special envoy. Recently, I saw a contribution by Canada and the World Bank to help with the informal education of the Rohingya children.
I said in my statement that our honourable Prime Minister of Bangladesh raised three points at the UN. In short, the first one is to abolish the discriminatory law. The second is to seek conducive environment, and the third is accountability. For these we need Canada’s continuous focus so that these proposals are implemented.
More importantly, the question of accountability is there. On the question of accountability, the recent IOC-EU resolution will be tabled on November 16. Canada has co-sponsored it. We are very much thankful for Canada in this regard. This resolution also calls for accountability and the speedy commencement of the operations of the ongoing independent mechanism established by the Human Rights Council.
Canada can play a role in this regard to ensure accountability, and accountability will create a conducive environment in Myanmar for the sustainable repatriation of these people. One is ensuring accountability. The second is the financial aid Canada is giving, and the third is to remain focused on the issue. These three important points.
Senator Martin: I am wondering about the Bangladesh citizens that are close to the refugee area. Would you elaborate? I want to put the focus on them. What are their challenges? What is happening? I can imagine, as the government, trying to address the crisis and to take care of its own citizens.
Mr. Rahman: We have here 1.1 million people, which has a huge impact on the environment, the socio-economic situation, and everything. Because of this, we want repatriation to commence as quickly as possible.
I mentioned the recent incident of guns being fired on our border. Bangladeshi nationals were fired upon, not only Myanmar. All of them are in this very serious situation. Because of this, we want to repatriate them as quickly as possible with safety and dignity, of course, and voluntarily.
It is important that as long as these people are there, they are a vulnerable demographic. They are susceptible to terrorism. There is also a security issue for the region and for the people.
Senator Martin: It is very complex.
Mr. Kabir: In fact, there are more Rohingyas than Bangladeshi nationals living in the area known as Cox’s Bazar. That is the area where they are staying.
Mr. Rahman: As far as we know, in terms of a total number there are more Rohingyas now in Bangladesh compared to being in Myanmar. Most of them are there now.
The Chair: Your Excellency, I have a follow-up question to one asked by Senator Martin in response to what is happening in Bangladesh with the community there.
For the record, could you tell us what some of the impacts are that you are seeing?
Mr. Rahman: Impacts on what?
The Chair: The local population.
Mr. Rahman: As I just mentioned, it is creating an environment where we have to house people in the area and deforestation is one of the aspects of that. I was there. The honourable ministers were there. Deforestation is being caused. There are also security issues and financial matters to house 1.1 million people.
In the first instance the honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina agreed to take these people based on purely humanitarian considerations. She said in 1971, when we were a country fighting for our independence, that more than 10 million Bengalese people took refuge in neighbouring India. We heard that sentiment also, and we understood the sufferings. Because of that, we a have taken these people. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh also said that if we could feed 160 million people, we could also feed these 1.1 million people for some time. As we have mentioned, the main aspect is the spirit. In the spirit of Bangladesh, they have been welcomed in their time of distress.
The Chair: On behalf of the committee, I express our sincere thanks to you for providing this update from your perspective on the Rohingya refugees.
We will now proceed with our next two panellists. We welcome Yasmin Ullah, President, Rohingya Human Rights Network, participating by video conference from Vancouver; and in the room we have John Packer, Director of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa.
Ms. Ullah, the floor is yours.
Yasmin Ullah, President, Rohingya Human Rights Network: Thank you for allowing me to share my story and the stories of my people with you. I am a Rohingya, born in Buthidaung, northern Rakhine State, Myanmar. Although many of my relatives and loved ones have fled to different countries and are scattered on different continents, my extended families are still largely residing in Myanmar, even after the campaign of brutal military attacks on civilians back in August 2017.
What happened and has continued to happen in Myanmar against many minorities, especially Rohingya, may seem like a recent development to some. I would like to use this opportunity to point out that the persecution my people are facing day in and day out is an old one.
In late 1942, Hafeza Khatun, an older child of a chief of the village of Aphokwa in Kyauktaw Township, went out to play with her friends and her brother Abdhul Hashim. During that time, a hate riot of some communal Rakhine people, armed by fascist Japanese soldiers, had erupted in large parts of Arakan, now known as Rakhine State. The mob targeted Rohingya, torturing, killing and raping them, looting their belongings, and torching their houses.
Hafeza and her brother saw what had happened and ran to seek refuge in the best shelter they could both think of, their home. They looked for familiar faces, only to find out that entire families, including their parents, had been killed. Their entire village was wiped out. They had no choice but to flee from the pain and the suffering they had witnessed. Hafeza was 13 and Abdhul Hashim was only 9. They took refuge in Buthidaung township later and grew up without the love and the supervision they had deserved as children. Hafeza Khatun is my late grandmother.
For all I know, there is a grandmother who had been through some kind of different characteristics of genocide in every Rohingya family. This isn’t unique to me or my own family but a common fact of shared pain that every Rohingya suffers through.
In 1995, I was a three-year-old toddler when my mother, Aseeah Kasim, decided to pack our small belongings and flee from Myanmar. My father had already escaped but could not come to take us. The situation in Rakhine State had worsened for Rohingya. We were no longer allowed in schools. Access to hospitals or health care facilities became increasingly difficult or were simply denied. Farmlands owned by the Rohingya were seized. Massive numbers of men, and at times women, were incarcerated without trials. Newborn babies could no longer be registered for birth certificates. The Rohingya were oppressed and humiliated for calling ourselves Rohingya, just like it is today.
Perhaps my mother can be seen as a visionary for predicting that what the future held would not be any better than then. She embarked on that journey, having to choose to leave behind her homeland, leaving her fate in the care of Myanmar military human traffickers who took a fortune from my desperate mother. My mother got into a large ship with these predators, only hoping that what awaited us in the future would be better than what we had left behind.
She saw the vast opportunities and access to higher education I could have that she never had. She risked her life, taking care of a toddler on a ship full of men in uniform who, on many occasions, tried to take advantage of her. Had she not been strong enough to fight back and had she not stayed awake for three days and three nights, we might have never made it.
This isn’t unique to my mother or my family. Rohingya mothers are equipped with very little to survive. Yet the only thing they have put their lives on the line to defend is the hope that their children would live better lives.
I am here, speaking to you as a Rohingya and as a woman because my people can’t. It pains me, and perhaps many other Rohingya diaspora carry this same pain, that we lived what we would consider a luxurious life back in our villages. Despite the comfort in a generous and kind third country like Canada, I am indebted to my people for they bear all the hate, the loss and the scars so that some of us could move forward. A luxurious life for us is to be free from any physical harm, to have a shelter that protects one from the extremities of weather, and to have food for all three meals.
To conclude, I would like to leave you with two things and point out that, as mentioned by my family in Buthidaung and Sittwe every time I hear from them, the Rohingya in Myanmar are under anticipated threats of massacre above all else.
Rohingya women would have to go through multiple check points just to be able to see a doctor during their pregnancy and delivery process. She would not only need to obtain a permit that costs more than possibly her entire household income, but she would also be faced with time constraints when the permit taking days to be procured. Many difficult deliveries call for these women to be examined by qualified doctors. There are no qualified Rohingya doctors around because we have had two generations of discrimination in education. As a result they can only ask Rakhine doctors for help. With the kind of hate rhetoric prevalent in Myanmar right now, a large number of women and newborn babies who end up dead after visiting the hospitals. This isn’t a folktale. This is a reality that we live through every day.
My maternal grandmother has a congenital heart disease. She is deteriorating every minute, but she refuses to go to hospital because she is fearful she would be murdered by the medical professionals, as happened to countless Rohingya women who ended up dead after visiting local hospitals.
With the recent tripartite memorandum of understanding reached by Myanmar and the Government of Bangladesh to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya genocide survivors as soon as this week, I am dismayed at the larger global community’s idleness. These are the people who have just risked everything they have left in this life, in exchange for a moment of peace where they would be allowed to be respected as humans.
The process of repatriation without consent from the refugees themselves is not only harmful but deadly. The most probable scenario is that as soon as these people reach Myanmar, they will be forced into concentration camps. In the last weeks, I have seen reports and updates that the refugees are now forced to fill out national verification form. I couldn’t help but think, “How is it that our legitimacy, existence, history and lives could be confined to a piece of paper?”
I would also like to emphasize how frightening the process of forced repatriation is by pointing out that Rohingyas have been in this situation before and were not treated any better once they got back to Myanmar. In August of this year, there was a report of 80,000 women who were due to deliver babies as a result of gang rapes by the Myanmar security forces. These are only the reported cases. These women also contracted unwanted sexually transmitted diseases.
Please keep in mind that at the refugee camps the ratio of doctors or health care facilities to the number of refugees is vastly disproportionate. Most women cannot cure themselves from these physical ailments. Not only that, as many women know, there is a certain trauma to being sexually abused. Many of my Rohingya sisters are isolated from their community due to the lack of understanding in case that they need to raise these innocent lives that originated from the worst kind of soul-shattering torture without much choice.
These same women will be forced to go back to face their perpetrators. Not only will my mothers and my sisters have to tolerate torture in the future, but they will have to deal with the problem that justice will never come to them. They will never be able to convict these evil soldiers with any crimes. How is this possible?
It is perhaps worth noting as well that in the current memorandum of understanding between the countries there isn’t even one place that mentions the word Rohingya. None of the conditions that would guarantee safe returns have been met.
Dear senators, I hope you are with me on this: the Rohingya should not be, in any circumstances, forced to return without international protection.
Lastly, I would like to propose two recommendations. First, Canada should lead the international community in ensuring that no Rohingya are forced back into Rakhine State without consent, safety and citizenship reinstated. Second, Canada and the global community should ensure that Bangladesh is equipped with the resources and funds it needs to keep Rohingya refugees protected in its land.
The Chair: Thank you very much for your testimony, Yasmin.
We will hear now from Professor Packer, and then we’ll have questions from the senators.
John Packer, Director, Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa, as an individual: Thank you Madam Chair, honourable members of the committee, honourabler senators. Let me begin by thanking you for the invitation to address you on this important topic, a matter which remains urgent, not least because it is an ongoing genocide for which some half-million innocent Rohingya still face the full effects inside Myanmar without any protection and, I fear, with already diminishing attention of the world.
Permit me to note that I first became aware of the Rohingya in 1992 when I was a United Nations staff member in Geneva and was assigned as assistant to the first UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma/Myanmar. That was in the shadow of the second mass exodus of Rohingya to Bangladesh, a large number of whom were forcibly repatriated and suffered accordingly.
I visited northern Rakhine at the time, personally viewing and reporting upon the situation. The terror was palpable then, as were the oppressive conditions created by the former regime. Over 25 years later, and on a larger scale, that experience was repeated with less hesitancy, greater enthusiasm and no shame. Perhaps owing to developments in information technology, this time the world could watch in real time as villages were scorched and masses fled the targeted and unrestrained violence of Myanmar authorities and their proxies.
To be clear about my own engagement, I remained involved with the situation since 1992 at a number of levels, notably intergovernmental and non-governmental, but also contacts with many governments and the Rohingya themselves. I have visited the country and region, including Rohingya communities in various places, not least the refugees arriving in Bangladesh in the last year — and still arriving, as we meet, while others are fleeing elsewhere.
I do not need to recount the facts of the situation. These are well known, substantially documented and abundantly clear. Today, it is not that we do not know what has happened and, indeed, what has been happening for a long time. It is before our eyes, much of it written in the laws, policies, programs, practices and constant actions of the Myanmar authorities, both the military/security institutions and the civilian ones.
Last year, as the world watched, it became untenable to deny the facts. Let me underline that the plight of the Rohingya is not the result of a natural disaster or of a war, nor, in fact, even a low-intensity armed conflict. The oppression they have endured the past half-century is entirely the result of determined policy of the responsible Myanmar authorities, whether authoritarian or putatively democratic or democratizing.
So, it’s not that we don’t know. The problem, senators, has been one of inadequate response. In part, this is arguably a problem of analysis and attribution of responsibility of wrongdoers, although I believe that is quite clear in international law. Perhaps, more so, it has been a problem of our own failures, especially a troubling hesitancy to name what we know and to act accordingly.
As my time is short, let me draw your attention to a straightforward and foundational instrument of contemporary international law: the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, to which both Myanmar and Canada are States Parties, along with 147 other states — so three quarters of the world.
I note that the genocide convention was adopted by the United Nations on 9 December, 1948, one day before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That was no accident. Rather, it follows the logic of the UN charter that the state is responsible for the well-being of the whole population within its territory, whatever their status, and certainly may not seek the destruction of any group in whole or in part. That was the Holocaust. Upon that baseline, the regime of elaborated human rights is built and follows toward the realization of full lives for everyone in dignity and rights.
General international law obliges States Parties to implement the genocide convention in good faith; to take steps within the sovereign authority of the state over its territory, population, and, of course, its agents to prevent genocide and, should acts occur that would breach it, then to punish those individuals responsible.
The obligation, senators, is between states, between Myanmar and Canada and all other parties, so-called inter pares. Failure to implement the obligations constitutes a breach which gives rise to state responsibility, according to which other states may act to hold the violating state accountable.
Of course, state responsibility is a foundational element of general international law and, importantly, to be distinguished from individual responsibility, notably for internationally proscribed criminal acts committed by individual persons. Seeking to hold individuals accountable is important but also highly problematical, notably in time, resources and even in law. But the first and principal basis of international law is that the state is responsible for ensuring obligations are fulfilled.
The breaches of the genocide convention in the case of the Rohingya are first and foremost attributable to the state — to Myanmar. A simple reading of the convention, together with a glance at the long and substantial record of Myanmar’s conduct — the facts — shows evident and inescapable breaches of the convention.
These are not by accident or chance, nor excusable on any other basis. The genocide — like all genocides — has been determined, targeted and purposeful. It still is! And there is no doubt about state responsibility insofar as the laws, policies, programs, practices, and even the words spoken in defence of these are by the voluntary choice of the recognized state authorities.
To be clear, the Tatmadaw is not a gang of thugs who maraud across Myanmar out of control. Rather, they are the official armed forces of the republic. They are disciplined and under clear control of the legal authorities. Their use of force, especially against unarmed innocent civilians, cannot be excused.
Similarly, to refer to a strictly civilian authority, the Citizenship Law of Myanmar is the result of a policy elaborated and adopted by the Parliament, subject to usual processes. Likewise, granting access of foreign observers to the country falls under the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aung San Suu Kyi. The authority to act is there and has not been used. In all these cases, state responsibility is implicated.
In simple terms, the conditions of the Rohingya genocide have been created and applied by the recognized authorities of Myanmar and by them alone. The state is responsible and only the state can repair the breaches.
With regard to Canada, I believe the people of Canada know what has happened and is still happening, and they support a robust engagement by our government. So far, the Government of Canada is to be commended for a clear and substantial engagement in response to the humanitarian imperative for those who managed to flee. Canada has also — hesitatingly and late — spoken out, finally drawing some obvious conclusions. Some efforts at the multilateral level are consistent if inconclusive, with the exception of efforts to hold some individuals accountable. These are welcome, if obvious, positions and steps.
What appears missing is the consequential follow-up to hold the state of Myanmar accountable to bring an end to the ongoing genocide, to obtain due reparations, and to seek a durable solution. I know this requires a determined, robust and creative diplomacy, not only to act ourselves, but to champion the matter as the serious breach that it is of the rules-based international order, and to build a coalition which will result in changed behaviour on the part of Myanmar. That will not be easy or quick. And for the long-suffering Rohingyas, it will not come soon enough. I believe, therefore, thought must be given to the idea and terms of a protected return to a protected homeland for the Rohingya, and to address the range of interests and concerns that would make that possible in whichever manifestation it may take place.
Canada could lead. For a variety of reasons, I believe Canada would be welcome in leading and so stands a small chance of succeeding. Without doubt, I believe we should try.
Senator Cordy: Both of you have brought different perspectives but basically reached the same conclusions that on what the Senate voted is in fact a genocide of the Rohingya people.
A previous witness talked about repatriation of the Rohingya people to Myanmar. He mentioned that lists had been sent to the Myanmar government to verify the citizenship of the people on the list and that the repatriation is to start within a few weeks’ time. We also heard from His Excellency about the firing of guns on the border at the Myanmar people.
Listening to what you both have said today, I am not quite sure how successful this repatriation will be. Mr. Packer, you said it has to be a protected return to a protected homeland. You both talked about the need for oversight by the international community so that in fact it is a protected return and a protected homeland. Ms. Ullah, you gave us two things that have to be taken into consideration for this repatriation.
First, I would like to know whether or not you think this repatriation has any hope of succeeding successfully, and what we should be doing to ensure that it is. I am sure the Rohingya people would like to be back in their homeland, but they certainly need security once they get there. They can’t be going back to the same situation that they left. Do you have any comments on that?
Ms. Ullah: A lot of criteria needs to be taken into account prior to an agreement or any arrangement to possibly repatriate Rohingyas to their homeland. We have seen the reports of Myanmar’s military erecting military bases in the areas of the Rohingya villages that have been burned to the ground. We have seen a lot of seizing of the land. We have seen that the lands that Rohingyas used to live on were distributed to Rakhine people.
Myanmar has a problem with the hate rhetoric targeting not just Rohingyas but other minorities as well. The backlash of Rohingyas getting back into Myanmar right now would be extremely high. A report came to my attention yesterday that there was a riot within the Rakhine villages. They were protesting any repatriation of Rohingya villagers in Rakhine State.
There is no guarantee that the communal violence would not erupt from this sort of situation. A hate rhetoric is still prevalent, not just within the Rakhine State but all around the country. In order for us to even think of repatriation, this sort of hate rhetoric or propaganda fuelled by the Myanmar government has to stop. Before we can think of repatriation, Rohingyas need to get a seat at the table to discuss their criteria and to discuss what would satisfy them as safety and security measures that would work for them in order to go back.
There has never been a Rohingya present in these sorts of agreements. There have been discussions over and over about repatriation last year, earlier this year, and the middle of this year. Now they are being forced to fill in national verification forms. It is very degrading, but it doesn’t help us that we are forced to make a decision.
It should come from the Rohingya that they would like to go back. I have listed three simple criteria. Safety and citizenship have to be reinstated, and the law has to protect us from any sort of violence that could happen.
Mr. Packer: If I may add, I fully agree with the remarks just made. It is a core element of the kind of immediate situation, but let me parse it in two ways.
It is a matter of international law that the return must be voluntary. Otherwise, this constitutes a refoulement. These persons are indisputably persons subjected to systematic persecution. There is no doubt about this. To return them without their full volition and conditions of safety is a breach of international law. That’s a very simple point. The principle of non-refoulement is supported by customary international law.
Connected to that, by the way, I would add the non-participation of the affected persons. Not only the Rohingya as a community but the individuals themselves would constitute another breach of international law. These persons who do form a community should have rights at least of consultation. Right now, the arrangements have been entirely conducted not only without their participation but without disclosure. Let’s not forget that the fundamental agreement brokered by UNHCR formally was secret, which is a kind of absurdity.
Let’s also think about the conditions in fact to which they would return. Those conditions have not only hardly changed but are arguably worse. Their actual places of origin have been largely destroyed, literally erased from the face of the earth. The position to which they would be returned would be not to their original place of origin and homes, conditions of economic livelihood and so forth, but almost certainly it’s declared by Myanmar authorities to be prepared, controlled environments. The existing controlled environments amount to little more than detention centres. One could characterize them as worse. The social conditions are worse, as we just heard. The atmosphere of hatred that has been fomented and mobilized against the Rohingya themselves would subject them to a worse situation.
I would also argue that the Government of Myanmar in this case has forfeited the idea that they should be trusted. Let’s see what happens was the idea of testimony you received earlier today. I don’t think one should see what happens in this regard. We know what happens. I personally was involved in 1992-1993. That’s why I made that reference. There was an exodus and a forcible return, and we know what happened. This isn’t imagination or speculation on the part of the affected people, and it shouldn’t be for us. We have clear evidence and a situation which is worse.
I would like to link that to the constant idea that they lost their citizenship and they need to regain it. Simply as human beings they are entitled to the full respect of their human rights. The idea that citizenship was the right to have rights was before the UN charter. Since the charter you get human rights on the basis of being a human being, and that’s it. You don’t need nationality and citizenship.
Citizenship is also important. In this case, for the record, I would like to point out that there is actually no doubt in general international law that these persons were and remain nationals of the state of Myanmar. This follows from two elements. Nationality and general international law turn on a genuine effective link between an individual and a state. The only genuine effective link of any of these persons is with Myanmar. It is not one that is rendering them protection, obviously. That’s the breach, but they have no genuine or effective relationship with any other state. They are connected to Myanmar.
More fundamentally, the very birth or creation of the state of Myanma/Burma, as it was in 1948, turned on the general principle in international law that population goes with the territory. When Burma sought its recognition as an independent state, its territory, as defined, included Rakhine and the permanent population there. Whatever was their problem at that time, it was overtaken by the acceptance on their part of the recognized sovereignty over territory and population. That is what is called the critical date for this matter: the date of independence and recognition of Burma. At that point, the argument that these are not nationals of the state is obviated by the matter of independence and recognition.
We need to understand what has happened. These are nationals. They have been subjected by a legal act within the state to the impermissible removal in international law of their effective enjoyment of their nationality, that is to say their status in law as citizens.
Not to confuse these matters, returning with citizenship is something that needs to be addressed as a matter by the way of general international law and the responsibility of Myanmar. These are humans who have a right to a voluntary and safe return and the respect of all their human rights.
Senator Cordy: Following up on your comments about whether we trust Myanmar, your answer was no. You also said that we have to hold the state of Myanmar accountable internationally to change its behaviour. If we’re just saying, “Repatriate them and we’ll see what happens,” that’s not quite good enough.
How do we do this? You said it’s not quick or easy. How do we change the behaviour or force the change of the behaviour, if it doesn’t come voluntarily? How do we do that through the international community?
Mr. Packer: This is what many people regard as the weakness of the levers of international law levers or its access to means of an effective enforcement.
There are means. The use of force, as such, can be contemplated pursuant to UN Security Council resolution for maintenance of international peace and security. I would argue that this exodus is the responsibility of Myanmar. It also constitutes a disturbance, at a minimum, of frontiers and relations between neighbouring states and, I would even say, regional peace and security.
It would be in the purview of the Security Council to act if it so wishes to act, including to authorize force. That is supported by the principle of the responsibility to protect. If the state is unwilling or unable to protect, and in this case manifestly unwilling, it falls on the international community, including a resort to force, which is the purview of the Security Council to make such a determination.
Will that happen? No. My conviction is that it is unlikely to happen because of the political reality of the situation. The first and best alternative is through diplomatic engagement on the basis of permissible retorts and actions by concerned states to press for Myanmar to live up to its responsibility to meet its international obligations. That is a matter of diplomacy.
How do you persuade the authorities to change their behaviour? That is normal conduct of international relations. In this regard, as I was saying, hinted at, and will express now, think that the Government of Canada has not been leading, to use that idea. I am not convinced they’ve even been pursuing energetically that kind of robust diplomacy. I have seen no evidence of it. Attending a UN meeting is not evidence of what I am speaking about.
I am talking about a series of bilateral and multilateral initiatives, groups of friends, and coalitions of the willing to persuade those who will obviously have effect in the region. We could talk about that at length, but that’s a creative enterprise of skilled diplomats under authority.
Senator Martin: Yasmin, your voice is very strong and very clear. I listened to your testimony on the story of your family with great interest. It was very moving. I want to encourage to you continue to do what you are doing. I think you are very courageous. Mr. Packer, you also speak very convincingly, and I want to continue on the question regarding Canada’s role.
You said Canada could lead, but many countries often take the leading role or are positioned to take that role. You insist that we could do more, be it with robust diplomacy. If you were to advise the Government of Canada, would you articulate what we should do right now in the short term and maybe long term?
Mr. Packer: I will refer to the speech given in June of last year by our foreign minister, which underlined the position of Canada in a world with a lot of challenges, the importance in that world of a rules-based international order, and the commitment of Canada to uphold that.
What we see in this case and what should be concerning to Canada, fundamentally, is the cornerstone of that rules-based order, the genocide convention that has been shamelessly and very visibly breached. As a State Party to the convention, we should be concerned that another party can so easily get away with that kind of breach, apparently without much consequence because there is very little consequence inside and for Myanmar at this point. Then we could ask, “Who can act on this?” There are 149 states, and there are lots of means available to Canada immediately.
By the way, legally and formally, the convention itself prescribes or indicates the recourse. I presume we have a dispute because Canada, Parliament and so forth have unanimously declared it a genocide. I presume Myanmar disagrees with that. That means we have a dispute. The convention itself prescribes expressly that the recourse to settlement dispute is the International Court of Justice. That begs the question: Why is Canada not simply bringing the case to the International Court of Justice to resolve that dispute, or with other states?
I can tell you that I have discussed this with a number of other governments, and governments would not be against that as a recourse to get a legal determination of not only the responsibility but potentially the terms of acts of reparation. That would be straightforward.
The other ones are to use our diplomacy to engage and to rally with other states. Why do I say Canada not only could but should? It is because we’re relatively well placed. It is a situation on the other side of the world. We are not a neighbouring state. We are not in the region. We have very limited economic relations. It would cost us very little at this point, even if you bring in that calculation, which I think is not an appropriate calculation. Even if you do, we actually have very little. We have almost no diaspora. In terms of the implications of threats, risks and population, that is lower.
We have the financial means. We have the intellectual means. We have the diplomatic means. We look admiringly at Norway and Switzerland. We are six times the economy of Norway. It doesn’t explain why we’re not energetic on this issue. It requires political determination. Canada has a history of capable diplomacy. We have to decide it matters, and my argument is that this should matter.
Senator Martin: If Canada were to step forward to lead, are you saying that there are other countries with which you have had conversations that would support it?
Mr. Packer: Absolutely, and I will give you an example. Our foreign minister addressed in Bangladesh a meeting of foreign ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, an organization I have worked with on the Rohingya issue for many years. That was a very welcome address. It was unprecedented, and she was very well received.
She did call for the OIC to lead. That is problematical. It would underline or characterize the matter as religious and that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation was protecting an Islamic community. Many OIC states have told me directly they are very hesitant, and I think rightly so. We do not want to underline a Muslim versus Buddhist paradigm here, which is not the actual case. They also have complicated relationships in the region, in neighbouring states and so forth. It would make more sense, as many of them have said, if Canada were to lead even in terms of recourse to the ICJ. Many of them would follow suit and would participate.
By the way, one of the options would be not to bring a contentious litigation, which is permissible and for which Myanmar has already accepted the jurisdiction. It’s possible, but you could even seek an advisory opinion, which costs nothing financially to the Government of Canada and would open the matter for all participating states in the United Nations to share their own views. You could make the advisory opinion jurisdiction a kind of review of the situation. Many states would like to say something about this. The relative costs for Canada in taking the lead on that are small.
Senator Martin: That is interesting.
I have a question for Yasmin. Earlier today we heard the High Commissioner of Bangladesh commit to the fact that all repatriations will be voluntary. We don’t know if the conditions are prepared in order for the first group of repatriated Rohingya people to be settled safely.
These are questions that we still have, but from what you were saying I sense, if and when the conditions are right, that ultimately everybody wishes to go back. Do you believe that the refugees right now in Bangladesh ultimately wish to return to the homeland? Do we ultimately want the people to be able to go back?
Ms. Ullah: I think that would be the most practical solution. Unfortunately, a huge number of Rohingya refugees are residing within many different countries, especially within the region. In Bangladesh we see that the numbers are over a million people. In Malaysia, it is a few hundred thousand, if I am not mistaken, and there are many more in Thailand, Indonesia and India.
All of them are suffering the same kind of pain and hate rhetoric. This is the doing of the Myanmar military, the Myanmar government, in the sense that a lot of the ASEAN countries are very receptive to the propaganda or hate rhetoric the Myanmar government has put out.
Because I also had the experience of living in Thailand for about 16 years, I can read Thai. I see a lot of online posts about how hateful the entire country of Thailand is toward the Rohingya who are trying to flee to Thailand by boat through human trafficking. It leaves us no recourse to even choose how we could be alive. The fact of the matter is that all of us essentially want a place we could call home. All of us want to have a place where we could settle, where we could have equal opportunities, where we could go to school, and where we could have our basic needs met.
To question whether or not all the Rohingya would like to go back, I am not entirely sure I could speak to that or if I could speak for all the Rohingya, but I know that the majority of the Rohingya I’ve spoken to want to go back home and have equal rights and equal opportunities like any other Myanmar citizen.
Senator Martin: I apologize, but I need to leave at this time.
Senator Hartling: Thank you, Mr. Packer, for being here and for your commitment to this issue and your passion about it. You have some really good ideas.
Thank you, Yasmin, for the story about your life and for sharing it through your grandmother, your mother, yourself, and the many people you know.
I was greatly disturbed hearing about the gender-based violence that happens and continues to happen. Last week we had witnesses from Global Affairs who were talking about programs in the camps with a feminist agenda to help women deal with some of these issues.
In your communications, are you hearing about any help that is coming that way to talk about or deal with some of these issues? It must be horrendous, from some of the things you are saying. Do you have any knowledge of that?
Ms. Ullah: I have very little knowledge of what is being done in the case of villagers in Myanmar. We are a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone. We try to prevent harm, and we try our best to protect each another.
When the violence erupted last year WhatsApp Groups were opened. We tried to add lots of villagers and lots of people. We tried to warn each other against the harms and against the troops that are moving in different directions toward different villages. Even then, in actuality we are not capable on our own to protect each other from all these harms that are strategically planned to persecute us.
Even in Bangladesh, I hear disturbing accounts of women being trafficked for sex work, as well as being trafficked into other countries, especially India, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. They would essentially have to try to find a way to flee on their own. We are so fragmented, in a way, and so exhausted that it is hard to form any group or to provide any support for each other. It is mostly done within the family setting or among the people we know.
On that note, in an election earlier this year a woman was elected to be a leader of the community. I don’t quite remember which organization was trying to put some sort of structure into the refugee camps. I am sorry that I don’t have the names of the specific camps, but we are seeing the hope and initiatives that the Rohingya are moving toward.
There are some attempts to make things better, but we need huge support from Canada and from the global community to reinforce all the programs, educational resources and libraries. We don’t have any of that in the camps. There are people who are willing. There are a lot of people and a lot of children who would like to learn, to move forward, and to make progress in life. That is the route to go, but it’s still largely lacking.
Senator Hartling: I was wondering if people would be watching us. Your people are people like we are. What is fuelling the hate?
Ms. Ullah: When a Nation State is newly established, there is a lot of ideology and a lot of things basically being swept under the carpet. I don’t want to point out just one or two things, but we used to be able to coexist with the Rakhine people. Before colonization ended in 1942, the Rakhine people were a bit more pro-Japanese. The Rohingya were promised in the 1940s that we would get our own homeland or our own country back. It was not part of Burma in any way, shape or form.
The main purpose of Rohingya fighting along with the British troops in World War II was so that we could get our own land back. That includes the Arakani, the Rakhine people, and many other people with whom we used to coexist in that confined space.
Later on a division happened. I don’t know if this is the cause of why the hate is so rampant, but I know that since 1942 it was fuelled by the government in the 1960s and 1970s, even in the 1990s, and up until today. The government has crafted a plan, including teachings in the curriculum, that points out that Rohingyas are scum and people that need to be hated. If there is any economic failure on their part, they point out that Rohingyas have too many children. If the Rohingyas were allowed to go to school, they would be faced in large part with discrimination and humiliation.
It is not only that. The government has turned to the religious institutions. This is not to do with any teachings of Buddhism at all, but the government has taken in the institution and passed on radicalizations or radical teachings to the monks that preach the hate to the rest of the country. In Myanmar the religious institution is the heart of the community. It is where people meet; it is where a lot of things get done. In the Buddhist communities some monks say it is not wrong or sinful for them to kill Rohingyas.
This is being strategically done everywhere and from every angle. I fail to find exactly what has brought us to this point. It could be that division back in World War II. It could have existed longer than that. The culprit in this case isn’t anyone else except the government, which has been doing this very successfully.
The Chair: I have a couple of questions. I will start with you, Yasmin. One of your recommendations calls specifically for Bangladesh to be equipped with resources.
Ms. Ullah: Yes.
The Chair: Do you reference any specific resources, particularly around the issues related to women and maternal health? Are there specific recommendations you would make in terms of resources?
Ms. Ullah: There should be more funding and more organizations allowed to operate within the refugee camps.
I could be wrong in this, but the latest I have heard from the refugee camps is that most of the health care facilities have to be closed by 6 p.m. If there were any emergency or if anything happens during the night, no aid organization is able to help. These Rohingya women then have to resort to their own poorly equipped community to actually help them.
You are aware that more than 60 per cent of the population in refugee camps are women and children. We have to make sure we support Bangladesh in almost every step of the way to establish more health care facilities and for them to feel a bit more confident in taking on so much. It is a huge number of people in a small country with very limited resources to help. We need to ensure they would not need to force anyone to repatriate or force any refugees to get out of the country.
It is imperative that we ensure the establishment of health care facilities and increase opportunity for these people to gain vocational training, which is still largely lacking for women. Because the heads of households are mostly women now, and the children are under 18, we need to make sure that these two points are taken into consideration first and foremost.
Senator Pate: Thank you very much for your presentations, Ms. Ullah and Professor Packer.
I hesitated whether I would actually even make this comment, but it strikes me that oftentimes Canada will leap into action when there are horrendous happenings in other parts of the world, in part to show that we’re leaders in human rights. These kinds of xenophobia, racism and misogyny are not unknown in this country — I shouldn’t say this — but by degree.
Has there been any analysis of why so few countries are moving in this particular context that might help us in terms of pushing our own government to take action? We haven’t really acted on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations which are, by degree, different but certainly echo some of the same issues we’re hearing. Is there anything else that comes to mind along those lines?
Mr. Packer: May I respond?
The Chair: Yes, please.
Mr. Packer: In some senses I can only speculate, but I can also share a bit of experience in terms of how international relations are really conducted with diplomats and so forth. In some respects, it’s divorced from the internal experiences. Many states behave with stark contradictions between their domestic and international behaviours.
There’s one obvious link, I would say, in the way in which our own government has eschewed and to this date still refused to invoke the genocide convention. It is one thing to say that there has been genocide, but to decide simply not to mention the genocide convention is amazing. It is the obvious thing to do; it follows from it.
Why not? It is because responsibility follows from it. The questions will be: “And therefore what? Do you shrug your shoulders? Do you have consistent behaviour?” This is a bit of the problem even if you make the connection with the experience of Indigenous peoples in this country being forced into positions of having to finally recognize responsibility through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission or through judicial determinations, such as the Child and Family Services case and so forth.
Then, to actually act, to repair and to address the wrongs, are different things. There is this kind of hesitancy. Governments, in the sense of bureaucrats and others, do their calculations on political costs and material costs. The problematic aspect of the Rohingya is their physical location. We haven’t talked about it. Why do people care or not care?
In my view, it is an almost exemplar case. These people have never claimed external self-determination. They don’t have a separatist movement. There has been no real armed conflict unlike in other parts. They don’t have a militia. They are a tiny group of some people with their own homemade weapons and so forth. It’s clear what this group is subjected to. Why? They are unfortunate in their location. They are in northern Rakhine, which has geostrategic importance. The port of Sittwe is now being built as part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative as a port to bring oil and hydrocarbons from the Middle East. This implicates even Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia that export not to export through Malacca anymore but to export up the Bay of Bengal, save a fortune, avoid competition with the Americans controlling Malacca and all these other issues.
The competition in the region, the neighbouring states, the ASEAN member state and the European Union all have contracts. Some 300 European corporations are invested. In terms of the taking of the land, by the way, it has been expropriated and is in the hands of private interests, many of them closely connected if not controlled by the military. This is exploitation. The poor Rohingya are in the wrong place, and nobody is acting for them.
My point for Canada is that this is an egregious breach of a cornerstone of international relations and law. If we don’t think about the Rohingya, we’d better think about what this means. Therefore, the responsibility, and I think we have to connect this in terms of what we should be doing. Do we shrug as a state party to the genocide convention? Do we just shrug our shoulders as a state partner to the genocide convention, or do we say that this is a breach of the rules-based order? We have recourse. We have interests. We are actually easily in place to act upon them.
The Chair: Unfortunately, we are out of time. I thank you both very much for your compelling testimony this morning. You have given some very clear recommendations to us and issued what I would consider to be a call to action for Canada.
(The committee adjourned.)