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The House of Commons unanimously adopted a motion Thursday to recognize the crimes against the Rohingya as a genocide. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland calls the move a very important step for Canada. The Canadian Press

The House of Commons unanimously agreed Thursday to declare the violent campaign against Rohingya Muslims a genocide and to call on the International Criminal Court to prosecute senior Myanmar military officials for their role in the atrocities against the ethnic minority group.

Andrew Leslie, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, sought unanimous consent from MPs to endorse the recent conclusions of a United Nations fact-finding mission detailing crimes against the Rohingya, including killings, mass rape and burning of homes.

The motion called on the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Myanmar to the ICC and for senior military officials in Myanmar to be investigated and prosecuted. It also welcomed the recent decision by the ICC that it has jurisdiction over the forced deportation of Rohingya from Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh. About 725,000 Rohingya, an ethnic minority largely denied citizenship in Myanmar, have fled to Bangladesh over the past year.

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However, the motion made no mention of Myanmar’s de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s honorary Canadian citizenship. Despite growing pressure, including a petition from Canadians, to revoke Ms. Suu Kyi’s honour for failing to protect the Rohingya, none of the major federal political parties has publicly expressed support for doing so.

Speaking to reporters in Washington, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland commended her colleagues for supporting the motion.

“It’s a very important step for Canada to recognize that the crimes against the Rohingya constitute a genocide,” Ms. Freeland said on the sidelines of NAFTA talks in the U.S. capital.

“We are leading an international effort for justice and accountability for the Rohingya.”

The declaration from the House comes on the heels of a 400-page report from the UN fact-finding mission, released Tuesday.

Earlier this week, more than 100 legal experts, civil-society organizations and human-rights advocates from across Canada wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urging him to declare the violent campaign against Rohingya genocide. Raiss Tinmaung, a Rohingya-Canadian who signed the letter, said Thursday’s motion is a “big milestone” but long overdue.

Meanwhile, experts are concerned Canada’s plan to call on the UN Security Council to refer the case to the ICC may fail. Kyle Matthews, executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University, said Russia and China will probably block a referral to the court. Despite this reality, he said the international community still has to pursue this route.

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“It’s true that China and Russia will most likely block it with their veto, but it still is going to be another damaging PR move for both those countries. But that’s the game. You have to do it."

He said Canada could also initiate a genocide case through the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the UN. Unlike the ICC, which prosecutes individuals, the ICJ settles disputes between member states.

Canada could mobilize like-minded countries to open a genocide case against Myanmar at the ICJ, which would issue a binding decision. It could also take the less confrontational approach of working with the UN General Assembly or another UN body to request an “advisory opinion” from the ICJ on genocide in Myanmar, which would put the burden of building a case on the court – not Canada; that decision would not be binding.

The Conservatives have long been urging the Liberal government to declare the Rohingya crisis a genocide. Conservative MP Garnett Genuis welcomed the motion Thursday, but said the government needs to ensure that members of Myanmar’s civilian government, including Ms. Suu Kyi, are held accountable, in addition to military officials.

“This motion speaks to the activities of the Burmese military but the complicity and the lack of action by the Burmese civilian government also needs to be recognized," Mr. Genuis said, referring to Myanmar by a former name.

The Tories also called on the government to levy more sanctions against those responsible for atrocities against the Rohingya. In June, Canada issued sanctions against seven senior Myanmar military officials over their involvement in the persecution of the Rohingya.

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NDP international human-rights critic, Cheryl Hardcastle, said the government needs to back up Thursday’s motion with more resources for the Rohingya. Canada has already committed $300-million in foreign aid to help respond to the crisis over the next three years.

Mr. Tinmaung, who still has family living in Myanmar, said the international community also needs to think about a long-term strategy for Rohingya hoping to return to Myanmar. He said the situation is dire.

“They are living in an open prison. People living in apartheid. That’s what it is."

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