Address by Minister Freeland to announce Canada’s response to the Rohingya crisis


May 23, 2018 - Ottawa, Canada

Check against delivery. This speech has been translated in accordance with the Government of Canada’s official languages policy and edited for posting and distribution in accordance with its communications policy.

Today, we are announcing the new steps Canada will take to address the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh and to defend the rights of this community, which has suffered too much.  

Before giving you the details, I would like to speak to you briefly about what I saw in the refugee camps that I visited in Bangladesh in early May. First, the Rohingya are living in the most horrific conditions. Refugees in the camps described the brutality of the exile and the dehumanization that they have endured. But the most chilling stories were the ones about rape being used as a weapon of conflict. It was truly terrible.  

This violence did not begin recently. Rather, over the past few years, Myanmar’s army and the militias have used the most repugnant sexual violence to oppress these people. The refugee women told us that their latrines had been destroyed, forcing them to relieve themselves in the bushes, where their attackers could easily lie in wait for them. The stories of the people who had arrived over the past two weeks were essentially the same as the stories of those who had been arriving since August 2017. These atrocities must end. Justice must be done. And we along with the international community must mobilize to say, “Enough.”  

When I was in Bangladesh earlier this month, refugees described the brutality with which they were treated. This is ethnic cleansing. These are crimes against humanity. We heard of families ripped apart, of husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, children and parents, friends and neighbours who have not seen each other in years. Most chillingly of all, we heard harrowing accounts of the use of rape as a weapon in conflict. Women told us that their toilets had been destroyed, forcing them to use outdoor latrines, where they would be easier targets for their attackers. They described covering their faces in mud to be less attractive as prey. 

Many Rohingya are still being forced to flee every day. The stories of people who had arrived just two weeks before my visit to Bangladesh are much the same as those who have been arriving since August of 2017. These tragic stories highlight the importance of making every effort to help these people—among the most vulnerable in the world. 

The Rohingya crisis requires a comprehensive response. That is why Canada is today launching a strategy that addresses four distinct aspects of the situation: the humanitarian crisis, which my amazing colleague, Marie-Claude Bibeau, who has also been to the camps, will speak about in a moment, as well as the political situation, the question of accountability and impunity, and the importance of effective international coordination and cooperation. These are the pillars that Special Envoy Bob Rae, my friend and neighbour, identified and has asked the government to address. 

I agree with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who has described the campaign against the Rohingyas as a textbook case of ethnic cleansing and has said that he has strong suspicions that acts of genocide may have taken place in Rakhine state since August. The Government of Myanmar has failed in its essential duty to protect human rights and to ensure the security and dignity of vulnerable and marginalized people, particularly women and girls. 

Without justice, equity and respect for fundamental rights in Myanmar, there can be no peace. We continue to advocate for the unimpeded access to Rakhine state by the UN and international organizations and the voluntary, dignified, safe and sustainable return of refugees, with the support of the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] on both sides of the border. The Rohingya have the right to return to their homes. We know, however, that the conditions for return currently do not exist. 

On the question of accountability and impunity, we must ensure that those responsible for the atrocities and human rights violations committed in Rakhine state, including sexual and gender-based violence, are brought to justice. Canada strongly supports the work of the UN Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission on Myanmar, which will report back to the council this September. We call on the Government of Myanmar to provide the mission with full and unhindered access. 

We sanctioned Myanmar’s Major General Maung Maung Soe in February under the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act, for his role in the human rights violations against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. Canada will continue to work with like-minded partners to enhance the effectiveness of targeted sanctions against perpetrators of gross human rights violations. We urge the United Nations Security Council to incorporate systematic sexual violence as specific criteria in UN sanctions regimes. 

Many of the people I met in Bangladesh, the people who have faced persecution, spoke with great passion about their personal desire for justice and accountability. And I think that is something we can all understand and sympathize with. They spoke about wanting the world to know what they have endured and of wanting the world to know who is responsible. For this legitimate desire to be realized, the survivors’ stories need to be documented. We need to keep working in a clear and fact-based way to collect and preserve evidence so that it can be presented to a relevant authority to establish accountability.  The funds we are announcing today will support ongoing efforts to document and protect evidence of the atrocities that have been committed. 

There can be no impunity for the perpetrators of these horrific crimes. Canada will lead the call for justice and will work with like-minded countries to explore all avenues for holding perpetrators to account, including the establishment of an accountability mechanism akin to the international impartial and independent mechanism for Syria, known as the IIIM. Canada is also working with partners on the next steps toward a referral of the situation in Myanmar by the United Nations Security Council to the International Criminal Court. 

Canada is committed to working with domestic, regional and international partners and the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh to address the impact of this continuing human tragedy. This will guide all actions and initiatives outlined in Canada’s strategy. As part of this strategy, Canada will establish an international working group of like-minded countries to better coordinate assistance, align advocacy efforts and mobilize support for our key initiatives. 

We also commit to continuing to work with the Government of Bangladesh and the UNHCR to determine the potential for resettlement of Rohingyas from within Bangladesh. Once resettlement is possible, Canada will work with the UNHCR to determine the appropriate timing and to identify the most vulnerable families and individuals. We know from our experience working with the Yazidi women that some survivors of sexual violence will need emergency resettlement. 

Our government has been seized of this crisis since violence began last August. We will continue to push international partners to help seek an end to this crisis, as we have done at the UN General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, the Commonwealth and, most recently, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. This issue was central to our G7 Foreign Ministers Meeting, which I hosted last month at my home in Toronto, and it will be on the agenda at the G7 Leaders’ Summit. Marie-Claude also has her G7 meeting with international development ministers coming up next week. 

We and the international community have a grave responsibility to respond to the acute needs of the persecuted Rohingyas. We cannot be silent. We must hold perpetrators of violence to account and support all efforts toward building lasting peace and reconciliation in Myanmar. I believe very sincerely that history will judge what we do today, and history will record that Canada stood up today for these most persecuted people. 


Adam Austen
Press Secretary
Office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs

Media Relations Office
Global Affairs Canada
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