Evidence of meeting #7 for Subcommittee on International Human Rights in the 43rd Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was myanmar.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Bob Rae  Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations (UN) in New York, Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development
David Mueller  Country Representative, Myanmar and Laos, Lutheran World Federation
Manny Maung  Myanmar Researcher, Human Rights Watch

6:40 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Peter Fonseca

I call this meeting to order. Welcome, everybody, to meeting number seven of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights. Pursuant to the order of reference of October 27, 2020, the subcommittee will begin the study of the impact of COVID-19 on displaced persons, particularly from Venezuela and Myanmar.

To ensure an orderly meeting, I would encourage all participants to mute their microphones when they're not speaking, and to address all comments through the chair. When you have about 30 seconds left, I will put this up so that you can see that you have 30 seconds left for your comments. For those who require interpretation, at the bottom of your screen you'll see a globe icon. You can switch that to French or English, as you like.

Today, members, witnesses, everybody, we are meeting on December 10, Human Rights Day, the day the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 adopted the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. It's a real honour today that it is December 10 and we have our ambassador to the UN, the Honourable Bob Rae, with us.

Welcome, Ambassador Rae, who is joining us here today also in his former role as the special envoy to Myanmar.

I will just list the other two witnesses before we hear from Ambassador Rae. From the Lutheran World Federation, we have David Mueller, country representative, Myanmar and Laos; and from Human Rights Watch, we have Manny Maung, Myanmar researcher.

We will hear now from Ambassador Rae for five minutes.

Ambassador, the floor is yours.

6:40 p.m.

Bob Rae Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations (UN) in New York, Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development

Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate the chance to come back to familiar haunts. It's good to see all of you.

I am going to focus my remarks on both Myanmar and Bangladesh to give you a sense of the condition of the Rohingya refugees as well as other refugees in Myanmar.

With respect to Myanmar, there are about 600,000 Rohingya still in Myanmar, one in five of whom live in what are called IDP camps, or internally displaced persons camps. They've actually been called or compared to concentration camps by Christopher Sidoti, who's a former member of the UN fact-finding mission on Myanmar. I've actually visited one of the camps—the biggest one, in Sittwe—and it is like an open-air prison. Basically, that's what it is.

While COVID-19 has led to further restrictions on movement and access to services for these persons and has highlighted the vulnerabilities of very highly congested living conditions, we have to recognize the reality that these are hardships that are simply continuing. COVID has made things worse, but we need to understand how bad they were at the beginning in order to appreciate the circumstances.

The deterioration we've seen in Rakhine State, which is the northwestern state of Myanmar and on the border with Bangladesh, is that there's been significant fighting between the Tatmadaw, which is the army of Myanmar, and what's called the Arakan Army, which is not the Rohingya but are representative of the local Buddhist population in what is called Arakan, or Rakhine State.

There are still significant issues of discrimination affecting the Rohingya. There are still significant issues of hate speech. Their situation continues to be extremely vulnerable.

I think we have an opportunity now, after the election in Myanmar, to increase our level of engagement and try to push much harder with respect to what needs to be done to resolve the political crisis inside Myanmar. It's proving to be very difficult.

We have been a leading voice as well, as you know, in international efforts to increase accountability for serious violations, both in the International Criminal Court as well as in the International Court of Justice.

Inside Bangladesh, there are about 860,000 Rohingya refugees who remain in crowded makeshift camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, which I've had the opportunity to visit on a number of occasions. Right now there's not much prospect, in the near term, for their return to Myanmar. I'll be glad to answer some questions on that, if you'd like, but we do have some new issues, which have been enhanced by COVID.

It's important to remember that COVID is both a health event and a social and economic event, as it is for us in Canada. It is the economic impacts that are driving some of the internal issues inside Bangladesh and leading to extremely difficult conditions for the Rohingya.

In response to the report I wrote and in response to the situation described in that report, Canada has committed itself to a three-year program. I'm not in a position to say what the next three years are going to be, but I know from my discussions with the department that there will be a new program starting in April. New efforts will be made to deal with the humanitarian impact.

We need to understand that it's been very difficult during COVID with the camp being essentially shut down to outsiders. It's been very difficult for us to engage successfully with many of the international partners we've been dealing with. We have been continuing to assist with local partners in trying to get the necessary food assistance and health interventions that benefit both the Rohingya, as well as the local Bangladeshi population.

There have been severe restrictions on movement and serious problems with respect to communication and access to the Internet. These remain very serious problems. Essentially, the camp is now in lockdown. I have not been there in recent months, but those who have seen it will say there's extensive barbed wire around the camp and that it is very difficult to get into and out of. Conditions in the camp, generally speaking, have deteriorated.

The latest data I have is that there have been 5,098 COVID-19 cases and 73 deaths in the host communities at Cox's Bazar, and 335 COVID-19 cases, resulting in only 10 deaths, in the camps. I am not sure about the reliability of this data, because the collection of information is extremely difficult to do.

To sum up, the solution to the political issues still lies in Myanmar. That's where the essential efforts have to be made. We are facing enormous challenges with respect to humanitarian conditions both in Bangladesh and Myanmar.

When it comes to education, we have a real crisis with the next generation. Kids are not getting access to education. This is going to prove to be a serious problem, not only in these two countries but, from my observations at the United Nations, around the world.

Thank you very much.

6:45 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Peter Fonseca

Thank you, Ambassador Rae.

We'll go to the Lutheran World Federation and Mr. David Mueller.

6:45 p.m.

David Mueller Country Representative, Myanmar and Laos, Lutheran World Federation

Honourable Chair, vice-chairs and members of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights, on behalf of the Lutheran World Federation, I thank you for the invitation to make this statement.

There are 700,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who continue to wait for safe, dignified and voluntary return to their homeland. There are 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Myanmar, including 130,000 confined to camps since 2012 in central Rakhine State, where they are denied freedom of movement, equal access to citizenship and access to essential services.

In both Bangladesh and Myanmar, the significant restrictions put in place to reduce the further spread of COVID-19 have limited camp residents' access to services, including access to protection, education and livelihood support.

In partnership with the Canadian Lutheran World Relief and the support of the Canadian government, LWF implements a project that assists 85,000 vulnerable displaced and marginalized people in eight camps and six host villages in Rakhine. The work addresses urgent needs for clean water, non-food items, gender-sensitive shelter facilities, dignity kits and COVID-19 prevention materials.

Despite the COVID-19 outbreak and government restrictions, LWF is able to implement activities through community-based staff and remote management techniques. However, the limited physical presence has increased protection challenges, such as extortion and gender-based violence.

After years of effort, camp management committees have accepted a terms of reference that mandates increased representation of women. Each committee now has at least four women out of 15 members. LWF continues to work toward the goal of gender equality in decision-making.

In the meantime, women and girls' groups are learning and practising rights-based empowerment, livelihood skills, leadership and good governance. Men and boys' groups discuss gender equality, and women and girls' rights. Whole communities are orientated on the prevention of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment and core humanitarian standards.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that humanitarian needs in Rakhine are a complex web of vulnerabilities arising from natural disasters, ethnic tensions, armed conflict, statelessness, institutionalized discrimination and protracted displacement. The situation is further compounded by chronic poverty, violence against women and girls, and COVID-19.

Durable solutions are elusive, but if they are to be realized, more integrated approaches that holistically address the human rights, humanitarian, development and peace perspectives are needed. The international community must balance accountability with engagement, as without sustained in-country engagement, transformational change will not be possible.

Every effort needs to be made to make the peace talks more gender and ethnic minority inclusive. More must be done to promote trust among and between the conflict-affected people, and all parties to conflict in Myanmar. The international community must continue to call for ceasefires and encourage inclusive dialogue.

The complex challenges Myanmar faces are further exacerbated by COVID-19. The potential spread of disease among displaced Rohingya and their host communities has further isolated them, and further restricted their access to adequate health care and necessary resources.

The pandemic has also restricted humanitarian work, workers and aid supply chains. The lockdown has adversely affected employment and access to education. It has strained relationships between host communities and camp residents, and has placed additional burdens on Rohingya women and girls, putting them at risk of gender-based violence.

Humanitarian, development and peace work in Myanmar is underfunded. The generosity of Canada is greatly appreciated, but the needs are tremendous. For example, the COVID-19 addendum to the 2020 humanitarian response plan is, so far, funded at only 52%.

Finally, the human rights universal periodic review for Myanmar will take place in January 2021. LWF supports the local and international NGOs in their stakeholder reports and recommendations. We would appreciate the support of this subcommittee in raising concerns about citizenship law reform; freedom of movement for the Rohingya and all ethnic minorities; the fulfilment of women's rights; children's right to education; rights of people with disabilities; and housing, land and property rights.

6:50 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Peter Fonseca

Thank you, Mr. Mueller.

Now we will move to Human Rights Watch. We have Manny Maung, who is the Myanmar researcher. We also have with us Farida Deif, the Canada director of Human Rights Watch. Manny will provide us with an opening statement, and I believe Farida will be available to answer questions.

During those questions, Farida, if you don't mind, please hold your microphone close to your mouth so that our interpreters can hear you well for their interpretation.

Go ahead, Manny.

6:50 p.m.

Manny Maung Myanmar Researcher, Human Rights Watch

Thank you to the chairperson and the honourable members of Parliament for inviting me to appear before this committee to discuss the impacts of COVID-19 on internally displaced people in Myanmar.

My name is Manny Maung and I'm the Myanmar researcher for Human Rights Watch. Prior to COVID, I was based in Yangon for several years, documenting rights abuses from inside the country, and I'll speak more about the context there.

The decades of conflict have resulted in over 360,000 internally displaced people across the country. They are mainly members of ethnic minority communities, spread across northern Myanmar in Kachin and Shan states, in western Rakhine, and in the southeast, near the Myanmar-Thai border. Renewed conflict has created fresh displacements in 2020 in both Rakhine and Shan states.

Humanitarian agencies overwhelmingly report that the government didn't take measures to ensure it could deliver emergency aid under the government-imposed travel restrictions to protect against the spread of COVID-19. In October, Human Rights Watch released a report, “An Open Prison Without End”, on Myanmar's detention of the 130,000 Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State since 2012. We found that the squalid and oppressive conditions imposed on the interned Rohingya and Kaman Muslims amounted to the crimes against humanity of persecution, apartheid and severe deprivation of liberty.

In the incidents on August 2017, military campaigns of killings, sexual violence, arson and forced eviction of Rohingya in northern Rakhine State forced more than 700,000 to flee to Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch has determined that the Myanmar security forces committed ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide.

Now, as you know, COVID-19 creates more vulnerability in already vulnerable groups. To date, Myanmar has just 29 confirmed COVID-19 cases among IDP populations in Rakhine. There aren't any reported cases among IDPs in Kachin, Shan or the southeast. However, we don't think this is an accurate reflection of reality. Factors such as a lack of testing resources and services, fears of stigma in crowded camps, and fear of officials is likely contributing to severe under-reporting of COVID-19 among the IDP populations. Government blocks on humanitarian access for international organizations and aid agencies make it difficult to investigate further on the ground.

The situation in Myanmar is complex and dire. Aid agencies report extremely difficult circumstances in which their ability to deliver aid is frequently impeded. The government requires aid workers to apply for travel authorizations on a monthly basis and has imposed stronger rules on movement and access to curb possible COVID-19 infections.

While authorities have the responsibility to take measures to protect public health, they must ensure availability of essential humanitarian services without discrimination. However, we found that in some cases, aid workers were limited to dropping off supplies at the camp entrances, and in other cases such as in Rakhine, they're completely denied entry into the camps. Camps outside of government-patrolled areas in Kachin and Shan states are totally inaccessible because of government blocks on movements to disputed areas.

Discriminatory restrictions on freedom of movement, which disproportionately impact the Rohingya population, have been long-standing in Rakhine State. The Myanmar government has prevented virtually all Rohingya from obtaining citizenship. Lacking legal identity documentation, they are particularly vulnerable to rights violations linked to barriers on freedom of movement. Numerous checkpoints and ID requirements have expanded opportunities for police and military extortion, arbitrary arrests, violence and further limitations on movements during the COVID-19 crisis.

Since June 2019, a government block on mobile Internet services in Rakhine State has curbed access to information amid armed conflict. This has seriously hindered outreach and education around COVID-19 prevention and management, particularly for displaced people. Though displaced people recognize the dangers from COVID-19, many told us that the daily challenges for survival conflict areas—fighting, land mines, explosive remnants of war—take precedence. This is similar in Kachin and Shan states.

Myanmar has taken few steps to reform and revise laws, policies and practices that have effectively entrenched the statelessness of the Rohingya and the forced displacement of other ethnic minority communities. Therefore, we ask this committee to urge the Government of Canada to take several concrete actions.

Press the Myanmar government to allow humanitarian organizations, independent media and human rights monitors unhindered access to IDPs, including to overhaul the government's travel authorization process.

Demand that all arbitrary restrictions on freedom of movement, including discriminatory groups, cease all practices that restrict movement that directly affects access to emergency medicine and livelihoods.

Continue to support relevant UN agencies by ensuring that humanitarian groups have adequate personal protective equipment and that IDPs have adequate access to medical facilities, including quarantine facilities.

Support oversight to ensure health care is compliant with safety and dignity for those who are exposed to illnesses.

Thank you.

6:55 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Peter Fonseca

Thank you, Ms. Maung.

Now we're going to have an opportunity to go to the members for questions. We are going to begin with the Liberals and Ms. Khalid for seven minutes.

7 p.m.

Liberal

Iqra Khalid Liberal Mississauga—Erin Mills, ON

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

Thank you to the witnesses for your very compelling testimony and your continued hard work on the plight of those who are most vulnerable.

I want to focus my questions specifically on a theme that all of you have touched on today, and that is on women and girls. We saw the impact of COVID on women and girls in Canada, where, I know, over 80% of care providers are women.

Maybe I can go to each of you to see what the impact is of COVID on women and girls in an IDP camp in Myanmar or in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, where there is limited access and where, you have mentioned, there is rampant gender-based violence. What is the impact on women and girls?

Mr. Mueller, I will start with you, and then I'll tweak my question for Ambassador Rae. Please go ahead.

7 p.m.

Country Representative, Myanmar and Laos, Lutheran World Federation

David Mueller

Yes, the COVID outbreak has put more restrictions on the camps, like access to health facilities. Of course, the burden of care is also on women in the camps, as everywhere, but with reduced access to health services. That has been the biggest impact on families and women in particular.

The increase in tension, of course, is also seeing violence against women in the communities. We've seen an uptick in that also due to the fact that we don't have a presence there. Our lack of international presence, due to the further restrictions in movement for us as well as the people, has meant that psychosocial support, health support or even complaints mechanisms are not working as well during this COVID period. Also, for women, the health facilities are not in the camps. They're outside the camps, so that really exacerbates their position as well.

7 p.m.

Liberal

Iqra Khalid Liberal Mississauga—Erin Mills, ON

Thank you, Mr. Mueller.

Ambassador Rae, first of all, thank you for all the work you've done over the past number of years as a special envoy for Canada. Congratulations on your new appointment as a representative to the United Nations.

You spoke about possible resolutions to the political crisis in Myanmar and how difficult that is. Over the past number of years, the United Nations has been working quite actively to include gender-based violence, which is often used as a weapon in areas of conflict. Obviously, we are talking in the context of COVID. Maybe you can shed some light on how not just Canada but the international community can continue to include women and girls in that conversation for conflict resolution in the climate that Myanmar has been faced with.

7 p.m.

Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations (UN) in New York, Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development

Bob Rae

First of all, I would just endorse everything that David said. I think the evidence for that is growing.

The other disturbing thing is that, where we thought we'd made progress, things are going backwards, like with early forced marriage, for example. Girls are being married off at very young ages. It's a source of income in the Rohingya culture. When there's no other money and no other work, it just feeds into the system.

There have been significant increases in gender-based violence. I think the point you're making about the role that women and young people can and must play in peacebuilding is very significant.

For the last year, Canada has been the chair of the peacebuilding commission at the UN. We've made the inclusion of women a theme of our work. In all the work we've done around the world and in our hearings that we've held at the UN, we're always focusing on this question of how we can make sure that women are present and that women are part of the solution. We've been doing this even in terms of the recent discussions in Afghanistan.

It's tough. It's a challenge because there's still a lot of resistance from many sources of patriarchy that say that's not the way they do things. The reality is that women are demanding a place at the table and are demanding to be involved. We see it in the effective leadership of the camp in Cox's Bazar, as well as in the larger camp in Sittwe. They are women. They are playing such a critical role. They are tired of being marginalized.

We have a significant issue with respect to education, as it relates particularly to women. The very small efforts and progress we were able to make in education had the most significant impact on women and girls because it finally allowed them to get access to education, which they never had. In northern Rakhine, most young Rohingya and other groups do not have access to education, particularly women. It's often just said there that there's no education after the age of 10 or after the age of 12. This is a really big issue.

I think it's where the logic of the feminist foreign assistance program and the feminist foreign policy becomes overwhelming. It's not an ideological statement. It's just the reality that this is where the major inequities lie right now. If we can drive that agenda, then we can do better on a number of other fronts as well.

7:05 p.m.

Liberal

Iqra Khalid Liberal Mississauga—Erin Mills, ON

Thank you very much, Ambassador.

There's a minute left and I know Mr. Zuberi had a question as well, so I'll just concede my time to Mr. Zuberi.

7:05 p.m.

Liberal

Sameer Zuberi Liberal Pierrefonds—Dollard, QC

My girls are in the background. I apologize in advance if they're making a lot of sounds.

I want to ask you quickly, Ambassador Rae. I want to thank you for your comments around the Uighur people. Our committee found unanimously that genocide is, in fact, occurring against the Uighur people in China.

I want to know if you can shed extra light on what led you to make your comments, if you want to say that in 30 seconds.

7:05 p.m.

Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations (UN) in New York, Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development

Bob Rae

My comments were made in the context of what the law is on genocide and what the allegations were that had been made. That's one reason that I've argued so strongly, and we continue to argue strongly, that the human rights committee in Geneva needs to take this issue to heart and needs to allow us to take the same kind of approach to fact-finding as we did, frankly, on the Rohingya issue.

Once we have evidence, we then have to see how we can gather that evidence effectively. That's the next step that has to be taken.

7:05 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Peter Fonseca

Thank you, Ambassador Rae.

We have to move over to the Conservatives for seven minutes. We have Mr. Reid.

7:05 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, ON

Thank you.

Just before moving to the situation of the Rohingya, maybe I'll just make the comment.

I think I'm right, Ambassador, that ultimately you are making a decision as to whether or not a technical definition had been met. The technical definition of genocide has, in this case, been met, up to a standard of evidence that you regard as satisfactory.

Is that a good way of summarizing your findings?

7:05 p.m.

Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations (UN) in New York, Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development

Bob Rae

Not exactly, because there's a process of further confirming evidence that has to take place.

I said in the committee that there is a definition of genocide. There are categories that are there. There are serious allegations. As I said in my answer to the committee, there now has to be a next step where one goes forward and starts the process of gathering the evidence.

We went through this very similar process on the Rohingya issue, where there were serious allegations. We have to find out how we can gather more evidence. That's exactly what's being done. That's why Canada has been so supportive of the fact-finding mission and of the independent investigative mechanism that exists for Syria and Myanmar.

When it comes to the situation of the Uighur, I've said that there's a threshold. Now we have to figure out a way of gathering more evidence and creating a stronger dossier that will then allow us to take the steps on how we go forward. That's the approach I think we should be taking.

That's the approach Canada is taking. We are urging the human rights committee to do that.

December 10th, 2020 / 7:05 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, ON

Thank you.

Turning to the Rohingya, the numbers we've heard regarding actual COVID cases and COVID deaths are low, and I'd say surprisingly low from my perspective, given the large number of people crowded into very congested conditions. I've been wrestling with why these numbers might be low. One, of course, is failure to report or even perhaps intentionally dishonest reporting.

Another thought that occurred to me, though, is this. I don't know what the age profile is of the Rohingya population. I suppose it is possible that it is a fairly young population, or a very young population—

7:10 p.m.

Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations (UN) in New York, Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development

Bob Rae

Yes, very young.

7:10 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, ON

—and that may account for it. Is that a possibility?

7:10 p.m.

Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations (UN) in New York, Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development

Bob Rae

Yes. I think there are a number of factors.

First of all, I'm not a doctor and I'm not an epidemiologist, but we have discussed this issue. I would say that most of the discussion I've seen talks about not so much false reporting as under-reporting, in the sense of people not coming forward because they're afraid to come forward. I think that's a factor.

I think the other factor is, as you've said, the age of the camp. The significant majority of the camp are under the age of 21, and there are a lot of small children. As you know, the evidence is that people are often asymptomatic, but as in Canada, the other thing I just would bring to bear is that conditions of great isolation sometimes are at the beginning a protection, because it doesn't get carried in.

The virus doesn't get carried in, but the problem is that when there is a breakout, it tends to have a very dramatic effect. We're seeing that in northern Ontario, northern Manitoba, northern Saskatchewan and northern Alberta.

7:10 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, ON

Also, I might add that we saw that a century ago with the influenza pandemic, where the highest recorded death rate in the world was in an isolated Inuit village in Alaska, after most of the rest of the world had gone through the pandemic.

7:10 p.m.

Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations (UN) in New York, Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development

Bob Rae

That's the fear. We're seeing this in other countries, in Haiti and elsewhere. While the numbers up to this point are very low, the fear is that if there were to be an outbreak, it would have a significant impact because of the social and economic conditions—the underlying social conditions in the country or in the camps. That I think continues to be a significant worry, and then the question becomes how quickly we can get the vaccine into the conditions of greatest vulnerability, and I—

7:10 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, ON

I'm sorry. Forgive me, but I only have a couple of minutes left.

I want to ask you my next question as well, Ambassador, but I want to redirect you a bit to ask it this way. The question is, of course, on what Canada can do to be useful in this situation. I guess the question is whether trying to get the vaccine into the camps is the rational thing to do, or is there some other measure that we ought to be advocating for in the case of the Rohingya?

7:10 p.m.

Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations (UN) in New York, Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development

Bob Rae

I think Canada should be actively participating in ensuring that the most vulnerable populations around the world are among the first to be vaccinated. I think that's an essential humanitarian principle. That's certainly something that we've discussed.

I know it's being discussed in Geneva at the WHO and elsewhere. We have to make sure the vaccine gets to the most vulnerable places. That includes refugee camps, but it's not confined to refugee camps. I know that we live in an era where everyone is concerned and it's “well, what about me?”, but I think we also have to recognize that it's also “what about everybody else?” We have to keep that in the back of our minds all the time.