How Canada can act to ensure justice for Rohingya

Some Canadians have launched a campaign to revoke the honorary Canadian citizenship granted to Aung San Suu Kyi, the globally celebrated human rights activist who is now the de facto leader of Burma. The UN and human rights groups accuse Burma of ethnic cleansing.

For decades, the million-strong Muslim minority living among 50 million Buddhists have faced brutalities at the hands of extremist Buddhists and security forces, but now many including the UN are calling it an unfolding genocide. Since the first brutal military action against the Rohingya in 1977, about one million have fled their homes to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, mostly in Bangladesh.

Last year a Parliamentary Subcommittee on Human Rights issued a report titled “Sentenced to a Slow Demise” highlighting the plight of these stateless persons.

Despite nothing concrete coming out of the report (at least publicly), Ottawa did not openly raise the plight of the “world’s most persecuted minority” during Suu Kyi’s visit here this summer.

Sadly, even much of the media and politicians have for the most part maintained an unusual eerie silence.

On the other hand, the primary barrier in achieving legal justice for Rohingya under international law is that Burma is not a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Court, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC). Jurisdiction is restricted to countries that have signed and ratified it. Consequently, the only way that the ICC can investigate and prosecute is through a resolution of the UN Security Council. Another way would be if Burma voluntarily acceded to ICC jurisdiction. Not likely given that it refused to even issue visas to UN investigators. Suu Kyi also publicly opposed the move stating that the “resolution for the investigation is not in keeping with what is happening on the ground.”

There is a possible international law loophole, though perhaps of only symbolic value. We argue that Canada can investigate Suu Kyi’s (or any other Canadian citizen or permanent resident) involvement in state-backed or state-acquiesced atrocities without any UN authorization. On June 24, 2000, we became the first country to incorporate the obligations of the Rome Statute into our domestic laws by adopting the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act (CAHWCA). This act allows Canada to exercise jurisdiction over a crime that is committed outside Canada by a Canadian citizen or permanent resident.

Adopting the principles of the Rome Statute, the CAHWCA makes it an indictable offence punishable by up to life imprisonment if a person in authority conspires, attempts to commit, commits or counsels genocide, a crime against humanity, a war crime or fails to exercise proper control over a person, under his or her effective authority. Liability extends for failing to take all necessary and reasonable steps to prevent or repress the commission of the offence or submit the matter for investigation.

Since her victory in the 2015 elections, and her subsequent ascension to the highest position, state counsellor, on April 1, 2016, Suu Kyi has been heavily criticized from many quarters for her silence and what some call her complicity by denying atrocities committed under her watch. Earlier this week during a parliamentary session, conservative MP Garnett Genuis also accused Suu Kyi of being complicit for rejecting the UN investigation in the face of mounting evidence.

Given that Suu Kyi accepted the honorary citizenship, Canada should not ignore these accusations. There is a clear Canadian connection. Moreover, the CAHWCA does not distinguish between honorary or full citizenship. Canada made a commitment when it ratified the Rome Statute that it will bring individuals engaged in such crimes to justice.

Furthermore, by enacting the CAHWCA, Canada also removed the jurisdictional barriers and reaffirmed our commitment both to the international community and to Canadians. If “never again” is to have any real meaning, Canada must fulfil its obligations and commence an investigation against Suu Kyi and any other citizens or permanent residents involved. We must also extend a refugee sponsorship program for the victims.

Canada must revoke Suu Kyi’s citizenship and then push to prosecute her for conduct while she held the honor. Yes, this is unconventional, but then again there is nothing conventional about what is happening on the ground. Our citizenship, even if honorary, must not be sullied.

Authors: Faisal Kutty and Washim Ahmed

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