Address by Minister Freeland to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation Council of Foreign Ministers


May 5, 2018 - Dhaka, Bangladesh

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.

Assalam Aleikum.

Thank you to Her Excellency Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and my friend, Foreign Minister [Abul Hassan Mahmood] Ali.

It is a great honour for me to join you at this 45th session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation [OIC].

I am particularly grateful to the OIC, and to Secretary General Dr. [Yousef bin Ahmad] Al-Othaimeen, for this opportunity to speak at this session as a non-member minister.

As members of the OIC, you come from different backgrounds, from different realities, and you face different issues as well. However, your presence within the OIC, cemented by a strong bond that unites you, is remarkable. The OIC is an organization that evolves over time, and Canada is proud to be with you, and to stand by your side.

Canada deeply values its relationships with the various countries and diverse peoples represented in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

Canada is home to more than one million Muslims of diverse ethnic backgrounds. 

Interestingly, the first mosque in Canada, the Al Rashid Mosque, was built in 1938 in Edmonton, Alberta, not far from my birthplace of Peace River.

Since the arrival of the first Muslims in Canada, the Muslim community has contributed greatly to Canadian society.

Two of my fellow Cabinet ministers are Muslim: Ahmed Hussen, our Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, and Maryam Monsef, our Minister of Status of Women. Both came to Canada as refugees.

Ahmed was the first refugee to become minister responsible for refugees, and Maryam was the first Muslim Cabinet minister in Canadian history.

That a Muslim who fled Somalia in his teens could become the minister in charge of the department that oversees citizenship and immigration in Canada sends a powerful and concrete message about Canada’s openness to people of the Muslim faith.

Since our government was elected in 2015, we have welcomed close to 50,000 Syrian refugees.

While this does not come close to the numbers that Syria’s neighbours and some European countries have taken in, Canadians feel proud of their contribution, and we know there is a bright future ahead for these new Canadians.

That being said, I should also acknowledge that Canada is far from perfect.

Discrimination and hatred still exist in our society.

Last year’s terrible attack in a mosque in the city of Québec is a serious and tragic reminder of this reality.

In the wake of that terrible incident, our government supported a motion, led by my colleague, [Member of Parliament] Iqra Khalid, condemning Islamophobia and committing Parliament to undertake a study, by parliamentary committee, to assess how Canada can best combat racism and religious discrimination.

Friends of the Muslim faith: our government, and our country, stand with you.

That brings me to the plight of the Rohingya.

I agree with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who has described the campaign against the Rohingya as a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing” and who has stated that he “has strong suspicions that acts of genocide may have taken place in Rakhine State since August.”

As an international community we must pledge to hold the perpetrators of these crimes to account.

We must work to establish a clear pathway towards accountability for the atrocities and human rights violations committed in Rakhine state, and coordinate efforts to build lasting peace in Myanmar. We hope OIC members will continue to demonstrate clear leadership on this and we hope to work closely with you.

We support the ongoing work of the UN Human Rights Council’s Fact-finding Mission on Myanmar, which will report back to the Council this September.

Canada has already sanctioned Major General Maung Maung Soe under Canada’s Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act for his role in the oppression, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar.

It is also paramount that the international community come together to support urgent humanitarian efforts.

On behalf of my government, of all Canadians, and particularly of the Rohingya community in Canada, I want to take this opportunity to commend Bangladesh and the host communities that many of us visited yesterday for opening their arms to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya seeking refuge, and for the delivery of life-saving assistance.

Yesterday, in the camps, we heard the story of a child who had been killed that very day in a landslide that left two other children gravely injured.

This tragic event highlights the importance of efforts to accommodate the most vulnerable who face grave and immediate danger from landslides and flooding during monsoon season.

Over the past six months, Canada’s Special Envoy to Myanmar—my friend, the Honourable Bob Rae—has engaged in extensive research, travel and meetings with key interlocutors to assess the violent events that have occurred since last August and that have led so many to flee.

We are currently assessing the recommendations Mr. Rae made in his report, and will soon outline the further measures Canada intends to take to help meet the needs of the Rohingya and those working to assist them.

History tells us what happens when we don’t take a stand against the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities. In the first half of the 20th century, we allowed hatred and anti-Semitism to fester in Europe, which led to the Holocaust. In Africa, 24 years ago, this evil produced the Rwandan genocide.

It is imperative that you, the Muslim-majority countries gathered here today, take concrete action. Your countries can band together. You can be at the forefront of those countries who say that those who incite hate, those who persecute minorities and fan the flames of discrimination—those who commit crimes against humanity—will be held to account within the rule of law.

Canada will be there to support you.

Indeed, we believe it is essential that countries home to a Muslim minority, like mine, stand up for this terribly persecuted Muslim minority.

As Mr. Rae wrote in his report: “The lesson of history is that genocide is not an event like a bolt of lightning. It is a process, one that starts with hate speech and the politics of exclusion, then moves to legal discrimination, then the policies of removal and finally to a sustained drive to physical extermination.”

We can, and must, act to protect the Rohingya who are facing this very fate.

Hannah Arendt, the renowned political philosopher, reflected extensively on the roots of genocide. Stripped of her citizenship by the Nazis, she wrote that the deprivation of citizenship should be classified as a crime against humanity. Expatriation is a terrible thing, she argued, because it places its subjects beyond the protection of law.

Indeed, that is exactly what has happened to the Rohingya.

Muslims, including Rohingya Muslims, were once well integrated into the social fabric of Myanmar.

In fact, Alia Hogben, the Executive Director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, was born in what was then known as Burma. Her uncle was a minister in Aung San’s Cabinet, as she movingly recounted in a recent meeting.

Today, things are very different.

Yesterday, in the camps, refugees described the brutality of the expatriation and dehumanization of the Rohingya.

We heard of families ripped apart, of husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, cousins, 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. Women told us that their toilets were destroyed, forcing them to use outdoor latrines where they would be an easier target for their attackers. They described covering their faces in mud to be less attractive as prey.

We call on the Security Council to systematically incorporate sexual violence as a specific designation criterion in UN sanctions regimes.

Although the exodus of Rohingya has slowed, many are still being forced to flee every day.

The stories of people who had arrived in the last two weeks are much the same as those who have arrived since August.

The atrocities must end. Justice must be done. And it depends on us.

Thank you.


Adam Austen
Press Secretary
Office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs

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Global Affairs Canada
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