Five questions with… Bob Rae, Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar

After three days of hearings in The Hague over Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, Rae shares his thoughts on what comes next.

By: /
December 13, 2019
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Canada's Special Envoy to Myanmar Bob Rae (in Ottawa, April 3, 2018). REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Gambia’s case against Myanmar began at the United Nations’ International Court of Justice in The Hague this week, with three days of hearings that allowed representatives of both countries, and Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority group, to speak to the court.

The case was filed by Gambia, the Muslim-majority West African nation, in November over crimes committed by Myanmar’s armed forces against the Rohingya, which Gambia argues amount to genocide under the Genocide Convention. The goal of this week’s hearings was to persuade the court to enforce “provisional measures” to ensure the protection and safety of the Rohingya, which would essentially pressure the UN Security Council to take concrete steps such as the elimination restrictions on humanitarian aid to Rakhine State, where the Rohingya are from, or the banning of any discriminatory practices in Myanmar against the group. While the decision over provisional measures is expected in a matter of weeks, the entire case could take years.

Thousands of Rohingya were killed in August and September 2017, prompting an estimated 700,000 to flee Rakhine state for Bangladesh. The majority remain there, more than two years on.

“Entire Rohingya villages have been destroyed. Such destruction of an entire community in a limited area on the grounds of ethnicity or religion can properly be characterized as acts of genocide,” Philippe Sands, one of the lawyers representing Gambia, told the court, according to The Guardian.

Aung San Suu Kyi, once a beloved human rights champion and the leader of Myanmar since 2016, attended the hearings, arguing the case was “incomplete,” that any crimes should be tried at home in Myanmar and that the ICJ case could “undermine reconciliation” efforts there. Meanwhile, another lawyer for Gambia, Paul Reichler, asked how it would be possible for the country’s armed forces to hold themselves accountable “when six of its top generals including the commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, have all been accused of genocide?”

As Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar, Bob Rae attended the hearings and several side events throughout the week. Since late 2017 Rae has been a vocal advocate for the rights and protection of the Rohingya. He has conducted his own investigation, which has included visits to Bangladesh, to assess the events that took place in Myanmar. His 2018 report on the topic made 17 recommendations for the Canadian government, including support for dialogue between Myanmar and Bangladesh, the request that Rohingya voices guide all actions and the suggestion that Canada increase humanitarian aid to organizations supporting the group. (According to The Globe and Mail, Canada and the Netherland also shared the travel costs for several Rohingya refugees to attend the hearings.)

Two other Canadians played key roles this week as well — former UN prosecutor Payam Akhavan is serving as counsel to Gambia, and William Schabas, a former UN investigator in Israel and Palestine, is legal counsel to Myanmar.

OpenCanada caught up with Rae as the hearings concluded on Thursday. By email, he shared what he is hoping to see next from Canada to support the case and what he thought of Suu Kyi’s statements.

1. What was the significance of this week’s events in The Hague?

The importance of this hearing on provisional measures is that it gives the opportunity to ask the court to take certain steps to protect the Rohingya population still living in northern Rakhine. These three days have also given the opportunity to the Rohingya to tell their story, and to let the world know more about the violence and discrimination they have been facing for many years in Myanmar.

2. You are hoping Canada will find an opportunity to support the ICJ case. Were there steps forward on that this week? What did your attendance there involved?

Over the last few days I have met with officials from the Gambia, the Netherlands, and Bangladesh. We shall meet again in the time ahead — Canada wants to work with others to bring focus to our efforts on both the ICJ case and the [International Criminal Court] case on forcible deportation, as well as the humanitarian challenges facing the Rohingya in both Myanmar and Bangladesh.

3. Have you spoken with Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne about the case? What is your view on the Canadian government’s response to the Rohingya crisis up until now?

I have not yet spoken with Minister Champagne, but I hope to do so soon. He has been travelling a lot and so have I! He has made supportive decisions about our working together with the Netherlands, and Global Affairs Canada officials continue to be fully engaged on this issue in Ottawa and in many posts abroad.

4. What did you think of Aung San Suu Kyi’s testimony Wednesday that Myanmar’s armed forces have not committed genocide?

The issue of genocide in Rakhine state and who can and should be held responsible will ultimately be decided by the International Court of Justice, and in other future proceedings. Aung San Suu Kyi did not give testimony — as the agent of her government in front of the court she made broad submissions from her point of view about what happened in Rakhine, and why no provisional orders should be made by the court. I do not believe her submissions reflected the violence and trauma suffered by the Rohingya at the hands of the Myanmar army.

5. What are you hoping will happen next on this issue: with the ICJ case, with Canada, and with the Rohingya still in camps?

I hope the court will agree to some provisional measures that will provide assurances to the Rohingya people that the law is there for them. I hope Canada can continue to play a constructive role on the full range of issues facing the Rohingya population — the precariousness of their lives in Myanmar, the challenge facing the camps, the need for better education and training, and their conditions of life in Bangladesh. The international community needs to do more, and so does Canada!