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Refugees are seen at the Cox's Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh, near Rakhine state, Myanmar, during a trip by United Nations envoys to the region April 29, 2018. Picture taken on April 29, 2018.  © 2018 Reuters

The Canadian government is stepping up the call for justice for Myanmar’s embattled ethnic Rohingya population.

On Wednesday, the government announced a series of measures to respond to the Rohingya crisis including supporting a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and measures to preserve evidence of the Myanmar military’s heinous crimes against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.

“Canada will lead the call for justice and work with like-minded governments to explore all avenues to hold perpetrators to account,” said Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. “There can be no impunity for the perpetrators of these horrific crimes.”

The same day, parliament unanimously passed a motion calling on the Trudeau government to “redouble efforts in accountability and evidence-gathering,” publicly support an ICC referral, and impose new sanctions on Myanmar’s military.

There is an urgent need for accountability in Myanmar, where the military launched a campaign of ethnic cleaning in August 2017 involving mass killing, rape, looting, and the destruction of hundreds of villages forcing 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Our research found that military abuses amounted to crimes against humanity.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the United Nations Security Council to refer the crisis in Myanmar – a non-ICC member – to the court because of the government’s failure to investigate these mass atrocities. Canada has now heeded this call by putting forward a comprehensive strategy in response to the crisis. Other countries such as the US, UK, Germany, France, and Australia, which are major donors and have substantial influence in Myanmar, should follow suit to send a strong message to Myanmar’s civilian and military leadership.

Canada also announced that it will support initiatives to collect and preserve evidence of atrocities for future legal proceedings. This accountability mechanism is a critically needed successor to the current UN Fact-Finding Mission, whose mandate expires in September 2018, and would help increase pressure on Myanmar’s leaders to end abuses and abide by international law.

The government also said it would establish a working group of likeminded countries to more effectively coordinate response efforts. This group should include countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Pakistan that are influential regional neighbors. Besides the “likeminded” countries, it will be critical for Canada to work with countries that may be persuadable like Japan and China, both major investors in Rakhine State. These countries have acted as a major firewall for de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the military against coordinated international action and are critical to engage around any accountability efforts. 

The road to justice for the Rohingya is long, but Canada should stay the course so that victims and their families can one day see those responsible for these horrific crimes held to account.

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