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Evidence of meeting #33 for Subcommittee on International Human Rights in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was capacity.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Greg Giokas  Director General, South, Southeast Asia and Oceania, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
Jeff Nankivell  Acting Regional Director General, Asia, Canadian International Development Agency

1:35 p.m.

Director General, South, Southeast Asia and Oceania, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Greg Giokas

The UN process of periodic reviews is one where we will have comments, but this particular review is not one that we participated in directly.

1:35 p.m.

NDP

Wayne Marston NDP Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, ON

I was looking for whether we had taken part in this or whether there were any officials we could contact, because that would have given us a different point of reference. The background you would work from there would be very good information for this committee.

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

1:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Scott Reid

Thank you, Mr. Marston.

We go now to Mr. Sweet.

1:35 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Conservative Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

It's no surprise that I agree with the government's position in lifting the sanctions. The European Union has also done that. The United States hasn't so far. In fact, it commented on the conditions that are still there.

I'm very positive and excited about what is going on, of course. We all celebrate the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi is not only free but actually elected, which is extraordinary. But I think there's room for a modicum of cynicism. These elections were robust and free and fair from everything that we were able to observe, but they were only 10% of the Parliament, because these ministers can't stay in Parliament.

I'm wondering if this is a sobering thought as we take a look at this development. I ask this question in an overall positive nature, in the spirit of what I think everybody feels about what's happening in Burma or Myanmar.

1:35 p.m.

Director General, South, Southeast Asia and Oceania, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Greg Giokas

Certainly the timeline we end up with—which works, in fact—is 2015, when general elections are to take place.

So that provides a bookend that is really quite useful, from both perspectives. It also conditions the Burmese government to understand that there will be intense scrutiny of those elections, and it will be the appropriate type of scrutiny, not just observers but proper monitors and that sort of thing.

So let's take yes for an answer for now and work with it, and see how far we can get with this and measure progress on all those many important elements of “yes” that we need to see demonstrated. But they will require capacity building.

One of the areas our minister has expressed interest in is parliamentary exchanges or contacts with the Government of Burma. He has mentioned publicly that this would be a good starting point, to engage not just with the opposition parties but also with government members. What is it like to be a member of parliament in a functioning democracy? How do you deal with the many stresses and pressures and requests and different social pressures that you receive?

1:40 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Conservative Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

Frankly, that would deal with your capacity issue as well, the fact that so much reform is required. Really, the history, the institutions, and the experience aren't there at all. So they really need that capability to be able to have the mentors and the benchmarking to really move forward.

The other thing is there's some news coming out of Burma now that Aung San Suu Kyi and her party have said they have some real concerns about the oath of office that needs to be taken. That brings me to a question I wanted to ask as well. Have we received any indication from the Burmese government that it is prepared to deal, for the long term, with the 25% of seats that are set aside for the military? To us it's thoroughly undemocratic, and it's absolutely not a way a constitutional democracy would work. Have you had any indication from the Burmese government in that regard?

1:40 p.m.

Director General, South, Southeast Asia and Oceania, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Greg Giokas

What we have is essentially from public records and press reports. Initially President Thein Sein was in Japan when this issue came up, and the report was that he was not comfortable discussing the oath that members of parliament have to swear in order to enter parliament.

Since then there has been a little bit of a modification in that stance and an indication that within the next little while they could come up with something. Frankly, from a distance, right from the very start it didn't look like necessarily the best issue to take on, but it was an important issue. The issue that the new members of parliament are speaking to is the constitution, which provides for this safeguarding of 25% of the seats for the military. An amendment to the constitution requires a vote of three-quarters of the parliament. They don't have those votes. Over time they will have to get those votes if they wish to amend that particular aspect of the constitution.

This is now, I would suggest, a domestic issue to a large extent in which we have a great deal of interest, but if they're going to develop a functioning democracy, they're going to have to deal with these things in a democratic fashion. It's not the most appealing representation of a democratic system, but it's not unusual in many countries where there have been coups or military takeovers or military involvement in governance in a big way that it takes many, many years—even decades—to move out of that. This is in fact a very clear and concrete expression of it. It's in the constitution. It's 25%. It's mandated. So there's clarity about what you have to change.

Going back to the oath, we're hopeful that this will be resolved soon.

1:40 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Conservative Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

You're correct. We're really asking these questions from the Emerald City, with centuries of democratic history behind us. There's no question but we want to take a look at those indicators.

I also wanted to ask you about NGOs. They're another measure. Are they getting freer access now?

1:45 p.m.

Director General, South, Southeast Asia and Oceania, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Greg Giokas

My understanding is yes—and, Jeff, you may have a little bit more on this—but in fact our understanding is that international NGOs in particular are able to operate in areas where they want to, but in a limited function. The reporting that we get is that there is generally good support and ability to operate in health and humanitarian areas.

1:45 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Conservative Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

1:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Scott Reid

Ms. Sgro, please feel free to continue.

April 26th, 2012 / 1:45 p.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro Liberal York West, ON

Thank you, Chair.

It's good to have you here today.

Following up on that and the concerns about capacity and certainly our immense desire to see things continue to go in a positive direction there.... From a capacity perspective, from either Foreign Affairs or CIDA, what's your capacity to be able to assist and see that that is the ultimate goal? What's the capacity of either one of your departments to be able to give them the assistance they need to move forward?

1:45 p.m.

Director General, South, Southeast Asia and Oceania, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Greg Giokas

I'll speak very briefly to that and then pass it over to my colleague, who also has a little bit more information, I believe, on the operation of NGOs.

We'll be having a mission going in from our embassy in Bangkok, and an official or two from Ottawa, to go and look at what areas of programming could be contemplated. We have done some modest programming outside of Burma, of course. But now is the time to start looking at what we can do with the mechanisms that we have in order to provide support.

Canada is generally very good at doing quite a bit with the means we have, so I would suggest that we do have a good starting point. We have abilities in areas of interest to them. The first area that our minister has highlighted is parliamentary contact and exchanges of information and support.

That would be it from our department. I'll turn it over to my CIDA colleague.

1:45 p.m.

Acting Regional Director General, Asia, Canadian International Development Agency

Jeff Nankivell

Thank you.

First, as an addendum to my colleague's answer on the question of NGO access, we have, through our CIDA border areas programming, just a very small window on a slice of life in Burma as seen from the border, and we work indirectly with over 50 NGOs based in border areas in the neighbouring countries, principally Thailand but also in the other neighbouring countries. What we are hearing anecdotally from some of them is that they are seeing some improvement in their ability to do things. Some of them are people who go in and out of Burma. Some media organizations that we support report that their websites are no longer blocked in Burma. They can track where the visits to their websites are coming from and they're seeing a definite increase in the traffic on their websites from readers within Burma, so that's encouraging.

At the same time, access is a really big issue for anyone wanting to help in Burma, especially in the border regions and in those places where ceasefire arrangements have not been concluded yet. It's very difficult to get to populations in these border regions. Typically they are so-called ethnic minority populations and it's very hard to access them from within Burma. It can also be difficult to access them from outside, of course.

We have anecdotal stories of some definite changes in the last six months, but still there are huge challenges.

On the question of capacity to assist, in CIDA we are monitoring the developments in Burma very closely. We're encouraged by the changes that have taken place. We have been providing humanitarian assistance, as I mentioned in my statement, and we have been providing assistance to the communities of displaced persons and refugees in the border areas.

CIDA is not opening a bilateral program in Burma at this time. We're monitoring the situation closely. We have staff in the region in Southeast Asia who are in touch with other donor agencies—the UN agencies as well as the international financial institutions, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, and bilateral donor agencies, countries like the United Kingdom, Australia, and the U.S. We are in touch with them about what they are doing, but as Mr. Giokas mentioned, the Canadian capacity to be involved on the ground is extremely limited at this time.

1:50 p.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro Liberal York West, ON

What are the steps the Government of Burma needs to take in order to assure the world that they really are on the way to reform?

1:50 p.m.

Director General, South, Southeast Asia and Oceania, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Greg Giokas

They need to more or less put in place what they're talking about. It has been more than just good talk; they've been backing it up with actions. Very often in situations like this we see statements for international public consumption and then actions that defy the intent or apparent intent of the statement. They appear to be doing what they're saying, in other words, developing democratic instances in their institutions and dealing with media freedom and freedom of people.

They really have to deal with a lot of these border conflicts. They have to find a way through this. That's one key ingredient. They are making those attempts, but they have to keep making them. I imagine they will also have to get more appropriate civilian control over all the institutions of their government.

The other thing is economic development. This is where the sanctions have likely had an effect. They will want to attract investment. They will want to see employment. They will want to see economic activity for their people. Without that, everything else will likely become problematic. So there's an economic piece to this that really needs to be developed, and that's where western expertise, technology, innovation, and ability will come in handy. In order for that to succeed, they will need to have the appropriate mechanisms.

As we sit now, it would have to be a brave and bold company to invest in that environment. There's a desperate lack of infrastructure. There's virtually no cellphone capacity, so communications are difficult. The government has been controlled by the military, which will for some time have personal and physical linkages with the important infrastructure and development in that country. They will need to work on a set piece of institutions and architecture to attract the type of investment they will require to create prosperity in their country.

Those things all fit with democratic development. If you have a situation where you're denying your people fundamental freedoms, you're not allowing them to free up their innovative capacity either. If you allow them to free up their innovative capacity and you don't want that to turn into riots in the street, you need to have them gainfully employed or feeling that there are prospects, hope, and a future for them and their families.

That is where we sit now.

1:50 p.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro Liberal York West, ON

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

1:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Scott Reid

Thank you very much.

Mr. Van Kesteren, please.

1:55 p.m.

Conservative

Dave Van Kesteren Conservative Chatham-Kent—Essex, ON

Thank you for appearing before us today. It's good to see you.

Jeff, I'm curious. As you're aware, CIDA's efforts are centred mostly in Africa, but we were talking about how we can pair up with industries to develop aid. I believe you were with us at one of our proceedings just recently.

We just heard that there isn't a whole lot of industry going on, but what about microfinancing? Is there opportunity? We know that as Burma begins to move out of this dark period in their history, the industry and commerce of the nation...that has sometimes proven to be the best method for us to help other countries.

Is there any opportunity for micro-financing? Has any of that been happening? Is CIDA involved with any of that in Burma at this time?

1:55 p.m.

Acting Regional Director General, Asia, Canadian International Development Agency

Jeff Nankivell

CIDA is not involved with that in Burma as we don't have and are not now opening a bilateral program.

With respect to other donor countries and the multilateral agencies, we understand that what these other agencies are doing in development assistance, given the very weak capacity in Burma and the poverty and the needs on the ground, is focused on basic health and education needs. They are helping to deal with water and sanitation issues and infectious diseases. These are the kinds of things one deals with on an emergency basis.

There's no question that the way forward for economic development in a country like Burma will depend on building up that kind of grassroots economic development, where microfinance plays a critical role. But it would be premature for me to speculate now about what that might mean for CIDA. It's certainly one of the things we are looking at, as you've heard in other sessions. And it's something we're looking at everywhere in the world now when we're looking at challenges of economic development and sustainable economic growth.

1:55 p.m.

Conservative

Dave Van Kesteren Conservative Chatham-Kent—Essex, ON

Maybe I can just direct my questions to Foreign Affairs.

You mentioned that it would take a brave company, indeed, to set up shop in Burma at the present. Are there any Canadian companies operating in Burma at this time?

1:55 p.m.

Director General, South, Southeast Asia and Oceania, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Greg Giokas

There are none. The sanctions have been very effective.

1:55 p.m.

Conservative

Dave Van Kesteren Conservative Chatham-Kent—Essex, ON

Is there no movement to change that at this particular time? Will there be an opening available when the sanctions are lifted?

1:55 p.m.

Director General, South, Southeast Asia and Oceania, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Greg Giokas

Yes, of course. It would be possible now for Canadian companies to get involved in Burma and look at economic opportunities and investment opportunities. The minister just this week announced the suspension of sanctions.

1:55 p.m.

Conservative

Dave Van Kesteren Conservative Chatham-Kent—Essex, ON

Okay, so who filled the void at the time when most of these companies from the west left?