Canada needs to up its game to ensure sustainable solution to Rohingya crisis

Bob Rae’s final report on the Rohingya crisis is more than a call for immediate action to protect refugees from on-going violence. It's a long-term plan to ensure the persecuted ethnic minority survives in a country hostile to its very presence.

Doing that, says Bob Rae, means engaging with a global pariah government

People stand outside their shelters in Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. (Allison Joyce/Getty Images))

Bob Rae's final report on the Rohingya crisis got a lot of attention this week — most of it focused on his call for Canada to increase humanitarian and development aid to the nearly one million refugees who have fled violence and persecution in Myanmar.

There's good reason for that.

The monsoon season approaches. The camps inside the border of neighbouring Bangladesh, now home to hundreds of thousands of people, are squalid as it is. Aid workers say the bamboo-and-plastic shelters aren't built to withstand torrential rains. They warn disease — already a constant presence in the camps — will claim more and more lives.

"All I know is, and I say this in the report, if we don't make the effort things will be even worse," Rae said in an interview for the podcast edition of CBC Radio's The House. "So let's get at it."

But Rae's report, which culminates his work as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's special envoy to Myanmar, is more than a call for immediate action.

It's also a long-term plan. The goal is to ensure a persecuted minority survives in a country hostile to its very presence, to ensure that those responsible for what Rae bluntly calls crimes against humanity are held to account — and to create the conditions that would allow the Rohingya to return home.

To help fulfil that goal, Rae said, Canada must continue to engage with a government that is unlike almost any other in the world. A government that is part civilian, part military and (so far) wholly immune to the global torrent of condemnation directed against its actions.

Bob Rae made 17 recommendations to the federal government on what must be done to address the ongoing plight of Rohingya refugees THE CANADIAN PRESS/ (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"If we want to have influence, we need to engage more effectively with the government. With the military side of the government as well as with the civilian side," Rae said.

"It doesn't mean we go on training exercises. It doesn't mean we fall all over ourselves in praising anybody. But it means this process of engagement has to be broad-based and reasonably well-financed."

Rae is adamant that the Trudeau government must address both the immediate and long-term challenges set out in his recommendations. Those include spending $150 million a year over the next four years on such disparate goals as improving education services and gathering evidence of genocide.

Canada can't afford to pick the easy route, he said, or cherry-pick from his 17 recommendations.

"The reason I didn't make 95 recommendations — I made a relative small number of them — is to say they all go in a group here. It's all part of a strategy. And the strategy is to be principled and pragmatic. To be present. To preserve and be patient," he said.

I do think if Canada wants to play a role we gotta up our game a bit.- Bob Rae - Canada's special envoy on Myanmar

"And the prime minister quoted that back to me when I spoke to him last week. They may argue about the money. They may say it's too much. But I do think if Canada wants to play a role we gotta up our game a bit. And I think that's just the way it is."

Trudeau didn't indicate publicly this week how Canada might step up in responding to Rae's report. He promised Canada would continue to work with the UN and other countries on a path forward.

"We share a global responsibility to respond to this crisis and meet the needs of those displaced and most vulnerable," Trudeau said.

But 'sharing' responsibility is not the same as filling the kind of leadership role Rae wants Canada to take on.

A government official, speaking on background, said meetings began Wednesday to discuss Rae's report and to consider what is "feasible and realistic" for Canada to do.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland also plans to meet with stakeholders on Tuesday, followed by a roundtable with non-government groups active on the file.

Increasing aid is one of the easier recommendations to follow, the official suggested. Continuing a direct engagement with both the military and civilian wings of the Myanmar government is another.

The more difficult tasks are deciding how many refugees Canada and other countries could or should take — and following through on Rae's call for Canada to take a leadership role in gathering evidence of crimes against humanity and genocide. Both will require more analysis and consultations with other countries in the region.

Canada, of course, has a long history of taking in refugees from conflict zones, most recently from Syria.

Justin Trudeau's special envoy to Myanmar, Bob Rae, talks about his recommendations when it comes to Canada's response to the Rohingya crisis. 9:33

Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, said it will be deeply disappointing if the Trudeau government fails to act on all of Rae's recommendations.

"They all are what is feasible and realistic. He's done the hard work for them."

Neve added the recommendations on accountability build on areas where Canada has established its expertise and has built an international reputation as a driving force behind the International Criminal Court. Prosecuting those behind the atrocities in Myanmar, Neve said, is an essential task.

"Too often we see the international community taking a piecemeal approach that addresses only the short-term needs … that doesn't make a meaningful contribution to a sustainable solution."

Amnesty reported last year that burned Rohingya villages in Myanmar's Rakhine State are being bulldozed daily, potentially destroying evidence of crimes.

Satellite images show security bases are being built in the region, along with new villages where the Rohingya settlements used to be. Amnesty said the scale of the change is matched only by the speed with which it is taking pace.

While it's still too early for the government to set a timeline for responding to the report, Freeland is expected to discuss next steps with Boris Johnson, the U.K. minister for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, two weeks from now when the leaders of the 53 Commonwealth nations (including Bangladesh) meet in London.

If Canada is going to take on the leadership role Rae envisions, that seems like as good a place to start as any.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.


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