As the humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh continues unabated, and as Rohingyas face a precarious future in Myanmar, in the lead-up to the federal election, Canadian foreign policy becomes even more critical for concerned observers. On October 7th, the first official English-language leaders’ debate focused on five themes: affordability and economic security; environment and energy; Indigenous “issues”; national and global leadership; and polarization, human rights and immigration. However, there was little debate around national and global leadership. As our international political order stands in a delicate balance while global human rights atrocities continue with impunity, it is remarkable that the debate was particularly inward-focused and did not attend to foreign policy positions in any substantial manner.

This gap begs the question: what will happen to the position of the Rohingya crisis on the federal policy agenda? Over the course of the past two years, the incumbent Liberal government has put a strategy in place in reaction to the Rohingya crisis. Although Canada had applied some political pressure on the government of Myanmar prior to 2017, the escalation of genocidal violence in August 2017, and the consequent exodus of over 750 000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh, made stronger action on behalf of the Canadian government abundantly urgent. Just over a year ago, parliament endorsed the findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar which called the Myanmar government’s actions a genocide, and unanimously stripped Aung San Suu Kyi of her honourary Canadian citizenship. The timeline below indicates other key events in the Canadian government’s response to the refugee crisis in Bangladesh and the genocide in Myanmar.

Canadian Government Timeline
September 26, 2017 – House of Commons holds an emergency debate on the situation in Myanmar
October 23, 2017 – Prime Minister appoints the Hon. Bob Rae as Special Envoy to Myanmar and announces $12 million in funding for ongoing crisis
October 23, 2017- Canada announces $12 million in additional funding for ongoing crisis
October 31, 2017 – Hon. Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of International Development and La Francophonie launches Myanmar Crisis Relief Fund
November 17, 2017 – Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau travels to Bangladesh
November 23, 2017 – Government of Canada announces health initiative to empower women and girls in Bangladesh
December 13, 2017 – Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announces final tally for Myanmar Crisis Relief Fund
December 21, 2017 – Government releases Interim Report of Special Envoy to Myanmar, Hon. Bob Rae
February 15, 2018 – Canada’s Special Envoy to Myanmar releases update on Rohingya crisis
February 16, 2018 – Canada imposes targeted sanctions in response to human rights violations in Myanmar
March 16, 2018 – Canada announces new funding for emergency preparedness and assistance for Rohingya refugees and host communities
April 3, 2018 – Special Envoy to Myanmar, Hon. Bob Rae releases final report: “Tell them we’re human: What Canada and the world can do about the Rohingya crisis”
April 26, 2018 – Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland attends meetings in Bangladesh
May 23, 2018 – Canada’s Strategy on the Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh released
June 25, 2018 – Canada imposes further sanctions in response to ongoing crisis in Myanmar
October 2, 2018 – Canada endorses the findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar which calls the crisis a genocide
October 2, 2018 – Canada strips Aung San Suu Kyi of her honorary Canadian citizenship
April 11, 2019 – Senator Marilou McPhedran introduces motion in the Senate to invoke the Genocide Convention
April 16, 2019 – City Councillors in Toronto and Montreal introduce motion on International Accountability for Crimes of Genocide Against the Rohingya and Other Minorities
June 2019 – MP Kamal Khera, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Development visits Cox’s Bazar and commits $100 million dollars in investment in the camps on behalf of the Hon. Maryam Monsef, Minister of International Development and Minister for Women and Gender Equality

As Canadians gear up to go to the polls, the question of what will happen in terms of Canadian foreign policy on the Rohingya crisis also arises. Two Rohingya activists from Ontario weigh in with their perspectives.

1) How has the governing party, the Liberal government, committed to the Rohingya cause over the past four years? Are there politicians from other parties that have worked on your behalf?

  • Saifullah Rohin: In responding to our crisis, all of the political parties in Canada have supported and played a leadership role, which has had a real and positive effect. They equally called the Rohingya atrocity a genocide. But we know that the current situation does not have an immediate solution. We believe that any party that comes to power will need to develop a long-term strategy for a sustainable solution.  We hope that Canada’s continued leadership will ensure that the humanitarian needs and protection of Rohingyas in Bangladesh and Myanmar are met, and that Canada can become an example for the rest of the international community to follow. Every party is supportive of us and guides us in terms of our advocacy work. In the future, we will continue to work together to bring sustainable solutions to the crisis.
  • Jaivet Ealom: In my opinion, among all the Western countries, Canada has taken the lead to declare the atrocities committed by the Burmese military as a genocide. This political step has set a precedent for other countries to follow suit, as we have seen with the Netherlands and the United States. In terms of the Canadian government’s humanitarian support, I am not sure how much impact they have had, and in what ways it has had on-the-ground effects. Nevertheless, Canada had persuaded a few like-minded countries to also take action.

2) If the government changes in the October 2019 federal election, what do you expect will happen in terms of the political gains Rohingya-Canadians have made over the past two years? If the government doesn’t change, do you think that Rohingya advocacy will continue as it currently has been?

  • Saifullah Rohin: Canada has also made an attempt to welcome the more vulnerable Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh, but this proposal was denied by the Bangladeshi government. We hope that the new government, whoever they are, will convince Bangladesh to allow for resettlement of some vulnerable Rohingyas from the camps in Cox’s Bazar.
  • Jaivet Ealom: If the government changes in the fall, I don’t think the support will die overnight. Rather, things will slow down. The lack of political will among parties may mean that there will not be a renewal of old commitments. As the pendulum of the political spectrum is swaying in a different direction, if elected, I think a Conservative government will likely withdraw from the Rohingya issue and focus more on national and domestic political issues. Either way, I think if the Canadian government wants to secure the United Nations Security Council seat it has been eyeing, the Rohingya cause could once again be a chance to show their commitment to human rights.

Foreign policy should and does matter to Canadians. The Rohingya genocide in Myanmar and the humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh are far from being resolved; in fact, things seem to be getting worse. With this election, let’s ensure that political focus is not lost. We, as voters, can demand more of our political parties by pressing our candidates about their foreign policy positions. Recently, The Gambia has shown considerable political leadership by starting the process to bring a case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). It is in Canada’s power, whichever party wins, to support The Gambia or to independently bring the matter to the ICJ. Let’s make sure our politicians don’t forget this important moral imperative.