Early in 2018, the Trudeau government promised to take vigorous measures to help the persecuted Rohingya of Myanmar, but an end-of-year report card by a group of experts and advocates gives the government only a mediocre C for its performance.
In October 2017, the prime minister asked former Ontario premier Bob Rae to study the humanitarian crisis facing Myanmar’s Rohingya, with a view to advising the government as to what Canada should do about it. In the latter half of 2017, violence in the southeastern Asian country of Myanmar targeted the Rohingya people, forcing more than half a million people to flee and triggering what has been described as the fastest growing humanitarian crises in the world.
Rae’s report, in March of 2018, underscored the grim reality of the crisis and recommended Canada take a “leadership role … by stepping up humanitarian and development efforts.”
The former premier proposed the government commit $600 million over four years to a variety of measures, including “the necessary work on accountability and the gathering of evidence.” In other words, a key part of Canada’s role should be to identify those responsible for the crisis and find ways to hold them to account.
Recognition of genocide, but no effort to pursue civilian leaders
As the year comes to an end, a group that includes human rights institutes at the University of Ottawa and Concordia University, and the Rohingya Human Rights Network, which brings together experts and advocates throughout the country, has evaluated and graded the government’s actions, or lack thereof, subsequent to Rae’s mission.
On the money issue, the group gives Canada a solid B.
The government did not go for Rae’s $600-million suggestion. It did, however, commit half as much, over a shorter period – three years rather than four. The advocates and experts welcome this commitment, but add that had the government gone all the way for the full amount they would have given it an A.
The group did award a grade of A for the initiative Canada’s parliament took in September of 2018, when it voted unanimously to recognize the persecution of the Rohingya as a genocide, and revoked Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s honourary Canadian citizenship. Canada’s was the first national parliament to officially label the crisis as a genocide.
At the other end of the spectrum, the group is extremely disappointed with Canada’s failure to take concrete measures to “address the source of the crisis, namely an official policy of genocide against the Rohingya people.” The group notes that “despite a year of calls by the Rohingya Human Rights Network and others for the government to invoke the United Nations Genocide Convention – a treaty that was created for exactly this type of situation – Canada has failed to take any action in this direction …”
In an election year, will the politicians notice?
The Trudeau government earns only middling C grades in two other areas: taking tangible actions to “hold Myanmar’s leaders accountable for crimes against the Rohingya” and “working with other nations and the international community to address the crisis.”
On the accountability front, the Canadian government has focused exclusively on a few leading members of Myanmar’s military, and has applied sanctions to only one of those. It is a mistake, the group argues, to ignore the culpability of the civilian leadership as well.
“It was under the watch of the civilian government,” they point out, “that the mass murders, gang rapes and destruction of Rohingya villages took place. Their actions, or failure to act, created the conditions for the crimes.”
As for rallying others in the world community, the group recognizes that Canada has, in a pro forma way, evoked the Rohingya crisis at meetings of the G-7 and APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation). The group is deeply disappointed, however, that “there is no indication Canada and its allies are in any way involved in a united effort to address the broader issues of the crisis, beyond the humanitarian component and a few avenues for individual accountability.”
Officials at Global Affairs Canada will, no doubt, take note of this report card, which comes from a group of respected and knowledgeable folks.
Elected politicians, on the other hand, are now quite obsessively focused on the looming election, which will take place in October of 2019.
Politicians who worry about being re-elected might not be inclined to publicly agonize over the suffering of people half a continent away. They are more likely to worry about such home turf phenomena as the stubborn resistance of many voters to even modest measures to fight global warming and the brewing backlash against refugees.
The report card from the Rohingya experts and supporters might serve a helpful purpose if it reminds the Liberals that they did make some fairly major rhetorical commitments vis-à-vis the Rohingya, not too long ago. That rhetoric has yet to be fully matched by action.
Photo Credit: Evangelos Petratos, Rakhine, Myanmar/Burma
Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.
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