Madam Speaker, I rise with great sadness tonight to reiterate the urgent situation that must compel the Government of Canada to demand unrestricted access for humanitarian agencies and for those doing the investigation work and to provide the humanitarian funding necessary for this crisis.
This is a discussion that has already gone on far too long without action over the years. As vice-chair of the subcommittee on international human rights, I can tell members that it was only last year that we completed a lengthy study of the situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar, and here we are yet again, the situation having grown even worse since our first report.
The world had great hopes for Myanmar when, in November 2015, historic elections ushered in a new civilian government. The National League for Democracy, or NLD, led by Nobel Peace Price laureate, democracy activist, and honorary Canadian Aung San Suu Kyi, assumed power through a peaceful, democratic transition in March 2016.
For over 50 years, Myanmar had been governed by repressive military rule, characterized by grave human rights violations, an absence of the rule of law, and low levels of human and economic development. The country's new government is now faced with the legacy of long-standing repression of Myanmar's ethnic minorities by successive military regimes whose attempt to shape Myanmar as an ethnically Burman nation in which the official religion is Buddhism has led to persistent internal armed conflict.
The Rohingya are concentrated in Rakhine State, also known as Arakan State. Rakhine State is located on the west coast of Myanmar and is very ethnically diverse. The majority of the population, about 60%, are ethnic Rakhine, who are Buddhists and recognized by the government as an ethnic minority indigenous to Myanmar. Muslim communities, including the Rohingya, make up 30% of the population. In the northern part of Rakhine State, which shares the border with Bangladesh, Rohingya comprise 90% of the population. The state is one of the poorest in Myanmar, where decades of economic neglect by successive regimes have resulted in poverty and underdevelopment all across communities.
The Rohingya are referred to as Bengalis by Myanmar's government and most of its public. This contributes to the false narrative that they are a community of “illegal immigrants”, when in fact the Rohingya have been established in Myanmar for generations. Myanmar's citizenship law, enacted in 1982, provided a list of 135 ethnic minorities recognized by the government. It excluded the Rohingya, resulting in the withdrawal of their citizenship. This judgment was based on the false claim that their ancestors were not present in Myanmar at the start of the British occupation of Rakhine State in 1823.
Further, the word “Rohingya” has become politicized in light of concerns that referring to the minority by their proper name could lead to their being identified as a recognized ethnic group with the full set of citizenship rights that follow. Rakhine Buddhists, themselves an ethnic minority in Myanmar, view the Rohingya Muslims as an existential threat to their current ethnic majority in Rakhine State, their desire for more political autonomy, their reassertion of their ethnic identity, and their economic well-being.
Over the decades, successive military regimes have used a divide-and-conquer ruling approach against or in Rakhine State, pitting Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims against each other for political gain, exacerbating tensions and causing numerous flare-ups between the two communities.
While Rakhine hostility against the Rohingya has grown since Myanmar's independence from the United Kingdom in 1948, successive military regimes have also gradually imposed policies of persecution and exclusion against the Rohingya. Even before their loss of citizenship in 1982, the Rohingya experienced the severest forms of legal, economic, educational, and social discrimination, including restrictions on their freedom of movement, which further affected their ability to earn a livelihood, pursue an education, or receive medical care. Their right to assemble to practise their religion was also curtailed.
According to testimony by Rebecca Wolsak of Inter Pares, the country's dictators have a vision “to build one nation, with one race and one religion”, one race being Burman and one religion being Buddhism. However, she also states that “Approximately 40% of the population are not Burman. They identity as ethnic nationalities.”
In a country with over 135 ethnic groups, implementing this vision led to widespread human rights abuses by successive military regimes, including the violent suppression of ethnic, political, cultural, social, and religious rights, and the economic neglect of ethnic dominated regions. A number of ethnic minorities formed their own guerilla armies to counter government oppression and violence, resulting in numerous protracted armed conflicts across the country. In all of these conflict areas, Myanmar's military has been responsible for human rights abuses against civilians, including forced labour, extra-judicial killings, the recruitment of child soldiers, the use of anti-personnel land mines, and sexual violence against women and girls.
This brings us to where we are tonight with the current crisis. I believe strongly that forums such as this emergency debate should be used for more than a recitation of the atrocities. New Democrats believe that it is our job to bring forward workable propositions, concrete ideas that might serve to improve conditions on the ground. Just last week, we heard powerful testimony at the Subcommittee on International Human Rights from Mr. Anwar Arkani, the president of the Rohingya Association of Canada, and Ahmed Ramadan, the coordinator of Burma Task Force Canada.
According to their very powerful, graphic, and disturbing testimony, some of which was recited here tonight, there is and has been for some time a very serious problem with humanitarian aid. In Myanmar, more than 120,000 Rohingya are presently confined to internment camps by the government. This is similar to the situation that occurred during the pogroms against the Rohingya in 2012.
Accessing humanitarian aid in those camps has been very difficult for several years. Right now, food is not getting into these camps. In northern Rakhine State where the recent violence has been taking place, the government has effectively ousted all of the major humanitarian groups that were on the ground providing life-saving aid. The World Food Programme is not permitted to deliver food to northern Rakhine State. There are tens of thousands of children who are suffering from severe, acute malnutrition. Without humanitarian intervention, they will die. This is an area that the government of Myanmar has completely sealed off to all humanitarian group, with one exception, the International Committee of the Red Cross. Here the government seems content with allowing local Burmese civilians to prevent the International Committee of the Red Cross from delivering aid.
In Bangladesh the needs are massive. There is an enormous influx of people, upward of half a million people since August 25, and the needs are dramatic. Food and health care are in great need. After fleeing horrific violence and travelling on foot, dodging areas strewn with anti-personnel land mines, with little food for up to two weeks, refugees are arriving exhausted, hungry, dehydrated, and in most cases traumatized by their experiences.
Major concerns exist for the children's survival and well-being, with emergency food, nutrition, and health interventions as well as psycho-social support all critical and time sensitive to prevent further harm. In addition to urgent food and shelter needs, of particular concern is the potential outbreak of contagious diseases, given the low health status of the population, severely crowded conditions in the settlements, and poor water and sanitation. We might as well say no sanitation.
With new arrivals crossing the border daily, aid agencies, local communities, and the Bangladeshi government do not currently have the resources to meet the spiralling scale or scope of the need, which brings me to what we, the New Democrats, hope to see from our own government.
When crimes against humanity are taking place, Canada has a moral and international legal obligation to ensure these crimes come to an end, and that all those responsible are brought to justice. Canada must call on the UN Security Council to take measures, including targeted sanctions and referral to the International Criminal Court, in order to stop the violence and bring those responsible to justice.
The Government of Canada must demand that the Government of Myanmar guarantee unrestricted and meaningful access to humanitarian agencies that provide the crucial life-saving services in Rohingya communities and in camps for the internally displaced Rohingya.
The Burmese government should likewise immediately stop using anti-personnel land mines and join the 1997 mine ban treaty. Several reports from the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and others have documented the use of anti-personnel mines, having been laid between Myanmar's two major land crossings with Bangladesh, resulting in casualties among Rohingya refugees who are fleeing government attacks on their homes. The use of land mines must stop, and all must be removed. Our government must also demand that Myanmar guarantee unfettered access to UN and other independent investigators so that all human rights violations are fully documented. Without this full accounting, justice simply is not possible.
We also believe that Canada should increase humanitarian assistance for conflict-afflicted Rohingya in Bangladesh and Myanmar through trusted humanitarian partners. Given the scale of this crisis, $6.63 million is a start but not nearly enough. The United Nations has called this the most urgent refugee crisis in the world. We also believe that Canada should plan to accept Rohingya refugees in Canada.
We very much would like to see more leadership from Canada on this and other international issues. So far, our government is great with a selfie and a sound bite, but it comes up seriously wanting when actual global leadership is required. Accordingly, Canada must work actively, indeed lead with like-minded states to find a political solution.
I would now like to quote former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy and Allan Rock, former ambassador to the UN. Here is what they wrote in a recent column:
And what does that mean for Canada in concrete terms? It means forming a coalition of like-minded states drawn from all the world's regions to demand that Ms. Suu Kyi end the Myanmar military's rampage. It means calling for accountability for those in Myanmar who have committed crimes against humanity. It means mobilizing global public opinion to put pressure on the UN Security Council, where China and Russia are already standing in the way of any sensible discussion, to take measures that will end the violence.
It is good to hear these former statesmen, both Liberals, speak out about this important issue. Now, if only we could see some action from the Liberals who are now in government.
Last, we believe that Canada must call on the Government of Myanmar to repudiate anti-Muslim violence, to end impunity for acts of violence against the Rohingya and other minorities, and to develop a strategy for promoting tolerance between the Rakhine and Rohingya in Rakhine State.
I mentioned Ahmed Ramadan earlier, from Burma Task Force Canada, who spoke last week at the Subcommittee on International Human Rights. Mr. Ramadan requested that Canada work to bring in UN peacekeepers to create a safe zone for the remaining Rohingya, because he believes that nothing short of that will be able to provide the requisite security and safety so that food and medical aid can be brought in. While Canada certainly cannot do something like this on its own, it is something that can be accomplished by the international community working together, and Canada must speak up.
Myanmar is a party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR, which is not a treaty, requires member states to confer, in a non-discriminatory manner, some of the most fundamental rights denied to the Rohingya: the right to life, liberty and security of the person; the right to a nationality; the provision of equal protection before the law; protection from discrimination; freedom of movement; freedom of religion, including communal worship; the right to a livelihood; the right to access public services; and the right to health, including providing special care to mothers and children.
It is not a treaty. Many of the rights guaranteed by the UDHR have been recognized in international case law and have gained the status of customary international law. That is to say, it is widely and uniformly applied by states on the understanding that it is legally mandatory. This effectively creates a universally binding obligation on all states, including Myanmar.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has condemned this situation as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. We have the opportunity to seize this opportunity, with the global community, to act now.