Shirin Ebadi promotes human rights in Iran. She was the first Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Peace prize. Tawakkol Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for her work in non-violent struggle for the safety of women in Yemen.
“I can’t walk because of the pain in my leg. But I wanted to come to the women’s centre to talk to you. I was carried here on a blanket tied to bamboo sticks.”
These are the words of Nasua, a Rohingya woman we met in the Kutupalong refugee camp, in Bangladesh. “The military and local men came and [tied me] to my house. They tortured my husband. When we tried to escape, I was shot in the leg. I fell and was blindfolded. The men did what they did and then I was thrown into a field.”
Nasua is a survivor of sexual violence in Myanmar and, like nearly a million other Rohingya, she fled her home in Rakhine state soon after the Myanmar military attacked her village and raped her in August, 2017. One would expect, after surviving such horrors, that Nasua would be reluctant to tell her story. On the contrary, we found her and many other women, determined to bear witness, and hold their perpetrators accountable for their crimes.
In late February this year, we travelled to the refugee camps of Kutupalong and Thyankhali in Bangladesh, to witness firsthand the persecution faced by the Rohingya people. Nothing could have prepared us for what we saw and heard.
More than 100 women told us how the Myanmar security forces burned villages, tortured, killed and systematically raped women and girls. An alarming majority of the women identified their perpetrators as members of the Myanmar military. Most of them were raped openly, in broad daylight, by men in military apparel, often just outside their home.
“We are not afraid of anything. We want our stories to be told,” they insisted as they showed us marks of torture and violence on their bodies. Their resilience in the face of the worst human crimes was astounding. But, more than anything else, it was their hunger for justice that struck us.
Impunity for these crimes and particularly for sexual violence is rampant in Myanmar. As the women told us, the perpetrators showed no fear of reprisal by their superiors; it is their superiors who order systematic rape of women and girls and the murder of their families.
Today, eight months since the start of the crisis, the violence continues to unfold at an alarming rate. The Rohingya refugee crisis is the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world today.
Before our return, we visited the No Man’s Land, a strip of land between Myanmar and Bangladesh where approximately 6,000 Rohingya refugees remained stuck, awaiting refugee status. Two days after our departure, the Myanmar military positioned several heavily armored fighting vehicles on the site, terrorizing hundreds of Rohingya and forcing them to flee further into Bangladesh.
In his recently released report, Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar, Bob Rae, sagely noted: “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 policies of removal, and then finally to a sustained drive to physical extermination.”
We could not agree more. The systematic use of the most brutal and dehumanizing forms of violence that we witnessed in the Bangladesh camps should awaken us all to the fact that what is happening to the Rohingya has a name: It is genocide. Myanmar authorities, including Canadian honorary citizen Aung San Suu Kyi, bear the ultimate responsibility to stop these atrocities.
Canada has a long and historic commitment to accountability for international crimes. The women we met trust Canada to fulfill that commitment and gave us a clear mandate: to bring their demand for justice to the world. They want justice for the crimes committed against them and they want to return to their home safely, in dignity and without fear of persecution and with the full range of their rights fully respected by the Myanmar government.
A United Nations fact-finding mission has been mandated to investigate whether crimes against humanity are being committed in Myanmar. It presented its interim report and will release a final one in September, 2018.
However, the Rohingya women and their loved ones do not have until September.
It is well past time for Canada and the international community to act. We cannot afford to wait for the UN fact-finding mission final report to act on these crimes.
Although a strong international humanitarian response is urgently needed, it should not come at the expense of justice. This week, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland will visit the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh and address foreign ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries. It is a unique opportunity to build consensus around justice for the Rohingya.
Rohingya women and their families need a strong and committed champion on the international scene. As a host to the Group of Seven Summit, Canada should be unafraid to step into that role and explore all international avenues to ensure that the ongoing violence stops and crimes committed against the Rohingya do not go unpunished. Ending the genocide against the Rohingya is a global imperative, and urgently requires robust, concrete leadership from Canada.