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Joint Letter From Canadian Legal Experts On Rohingya Crisis To Canadian Government

Letter circulated at the request of the Burma Task Force 

To: The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, PC, MP

Prime Minister of Canada

The Honourable Chrystia Freeland, PC, MP

Minister of Foreign Affairs

The Honourable Marie-Claude Bibeau, PC, MP

Minister of International Development

Dear Prime Minister and Ministers,

          Since the intensification of Myanmar’s violence against the Rohingya in August 2017, more than 700,000Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh; up to 43,000 have been killed; as many as 81,000 women and girls have been impregnated by rape; and more than 360 Rohingya villages have been fully or partially burned to the ground. With the arrival of monsoon season in Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees living in camps face compounded misery and danger from flooding and mudslides.

          It is not only Myanmar’s military that bears responsibility for these atrocities, but also civilian branches of the government under control of Aung San Suu Kyi for enabling them (these include the Ministries of Information, Religious Affairs, Immigration, and Foreign Affairs).

          And yet, the state of Myanmar has been made to suffer few consequences. As a May 2018 report from the UK Parliamentary Committee on International Development points out: “sanctions have not been re-imposed except on a small number of officers …; development aid still flows in; the army seems to be more popular if anything; and Burmese military spending has risen markedly.”

          Canada claims to be playing a “leadership role” in responding to the Rohingya crisis – but has pledged only half the amount recommended by Special Envoy on Myanmar Bob Rae for humanitarian aid, and has placed sanctions on only one general so far (two months after the United States).

          Unlike France, Canada has not even recognized the situation as a genocide – even though it is well-documented that the Rohingya have been subjected to almost all the forms of treatment listed in the UN Genocide Convention: 1) killing; 2) serious bodily and mental harm; 3) infliction of conditions calculated to bring about their physical destruction as a group (tens of thousands of Rohingya have been confined in “internally displaced persons” camps in Myanmar, where they have been deprived of food, water, and medical care) ; and 4) imposition of measures intended to prevent births (for example, Myanmar’s “Race and Religion Protection Laws” of 2015, which impose restrictions on Rohingya marriages and births).

          Under international law, states are obligated not only to prosecute genocide after it has occurred, but also toprevent genocide as it is in process. According to the International Court of Justice, “a State’s obligation to prevent, and the corresponding duty to act, arise at the instant that the State learns of, or should normally have learned of, the existence of a serious risk that genocide will be committed.”

          That threshold was passed long ago. Myanmar’s atrocities against the Rohingya have been recognized as characteristic of genocide by the International Alliance to End Genocide (since 2012), Yale Law School’s Allard K Lowenstein Human Rights Clinic and Fortify Rights (2015), the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London (2015), an international experts’ tribunal on Myanmar (2017), the US Holocaust Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide (2017), the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies(2017), and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar (March 2018).

          The international failure to address the genocide of the Rohingya people has not only emboldened the Myanmar regime in its violence against other minority groups, but also undermines the international rules-based system.

          We call on Canada to recognize the Rohingya crisis for what it is – a genocide – and act commensurately by:

  •        using all political and economic means to pressure Myanmar to comply with international law in its treatment of the Rohingya – including through imposition of sanctions on all military and civilian authorities responsible for violations;
  •        re-evaluating all Canadian assistance to and investment in Myanmar, to confirm that individuals and institutions implicated in genocide are not receiving any downstream benefits;
  •        doing our share to ensure that the humanitarian relief effort for Rohingya refugees is fully funded; and
  •        supporting efforts to hold the Myanmar state and individuals responsible for genocide accountable.

          Last month, the Prime Minister announced that he will formally apologize for Canada turning away Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust during World War II. As Irving Abella and Harold Troper make clear in their book None is Too Many, Canada’s gross failure towards Jewish refugees was due not to lack of information about their situation, but to lack of political will. As a genocide continues to unfold in Myanmar in plain sight, we should expect that our failure to act now will be judged harshly by history. 

Yours sincerely,

Sharry Aiken, Associate Professor, Queen’s University Faculty of Law

Reem Bahdi, Associate Professor, University of Windsor Faculty of Law

David Baker, BakerLaw

Natasha Bakht, Associate Professor, University of Ottawa Faculty of Law

Faisal Bhabha, Associate Professor, Osgoode Hall Law School

Michael Byers, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law, University of British Columbia

Paul Copeland, CM, Life Bencher of the Law Society of Ontario

Mohammad Fadel, Associate Professor, University of Toronto Faculty of Law

Nader Hashemi, Associate Professor, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver

Jasminka Kalajdzic, Associate Professor, University of Windsor Faculty of Law

Hon. David Kilgour, JD

Dimitri Lascaris, lawyer and journalist

Stephen Lewis, former Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations

Audrey Macklin, Director, Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies, and Professor and Chair in Human Rights, University of Toronto Faculty of Law

Errol Mendes, Professor, University of Ottawa Faculty of Law; President, International Commission of Jurists (Canada Section)

Obiora Okafor, Professor and York Research Chair in International and Transnational Legal Studies, Osgoode Hall Law School

John Packer, Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa

Anneke Smit, Associate Professor, University of Windsor Faculty of Law

Institutional affiliations are listed for identification purposes only.

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