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Canada Should Lead on Rights at APEC and ASEAN Summits

Ethnic Cleansing in Burma Calls for Concrete Action

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (L) attends a news conference with his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the Government Office in Hanoi, Vietnam November 8, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau begins a series of high-level meetings in Asia this week against a backdrop of increased repression in places like Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia and Thailand.

But the darkest cloud looming over the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summits is the horrifying and brutal ethnic cleansing campaign in Burma.

Since August 25, the Burmese military has unleashed a wave of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine State, including attacks on villages, massacres, rape, looting, and mass burnings of homes and property. More than 600,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee for their lives to neighboring Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch has determined these atrocities amount to crimes against humanity.

Many governments, including Canada, have rightly reacted with outrage and urged Burma to allow UN observers and humanitarian agencies into Rakhine. Several countries have suspended military engagement and re-imposed travel restrictions on high-level military leaders. The UN Security Council has condemned the violence, but tougher measures are needed.

Clearly, Burma is not responding to ordinary diplomatic pressure - only hard consequences can affect the behavior of Burma’s generals. While in Asia, Trudeau should signal a tougher stance from Canada, including imposing travel bans and targeted economic sanctions cutting off senior military commanders from all Canadian financial institutions. He should make clear these measures will stay in place until substantial improvements are made, including respect for human rights and holding those responsible for abuses to account for their crimes.

The summits also provide a critical opportunity for Trudeau to build a coalition of like-minded governments to demand that Burma provide access to Rakhine State by the UN Fact-Finding Mission set up by the UN Human Rights Council in March. He should also announce Canada has co-sponsored a UN General Assembly resolution strongly condemning abuses against the Rohingya and reiterating the need for access to the area by UN investigators and humanitarian agencies. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has drafted a resolution making these calls. Trudeau should announce Canada’s strong support.

These actions would bolster Canada’s leadership in forging a resolution to this crisis and demonstrate that Canada will not shy away from a strong response to gross human rights abuses across the region. By doing so, Trudeau will make clear that toothless “quiet” diplomacy at these summits and smiling photo ops are not a measure of success.

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