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Revoke Suu Kyi’s honorary Canadian citizenship, human-rights lawyer Cotler urges

Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, speaks during an even at Yangon University on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018.

ANN WANG

Renowned international human-rights lawyer and former Liberal cabinet minister Irwin Cotler is calling on the government to revoke Aung San Suu Kyi’s honorary Canadian citizenship amid mounting criticism of Myanmar’s de facto leader for her failure to prevent the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims.

Mr. Cotler said a scathing United Nations report proves that Ms. Suu Kyi does not belong in the exclusive group of only six honorary Canadian citizens, which includes Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai and the Dalai Lama. The report, released on Monday, faulted Ms. Suu Kyi – a Nobel Peace Prize laureate – for failing to use her “moral authority” to prevent the violence that has forced nearly 725,000 Rohingya, an ethnic minority in Myanmar, to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. With the world awaiting her response, the Guardian reported that Ms. Suu Kyi was silent on the allegations during a public appearance in Myanmar on Tuesday, choosing to talk about poetry and literature instead.

“In my view, as a result of this report, she does not belong in that pantheon of heroes,” Mr. Cotler said.

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“Would we have appointed her to be an honorary citizen if that issue were now to arise? I am sure the answer would be no. In fact, I don’t believe there could now be a nomination for an honorary citizenship.”

Amnesty International Canada also said it is time for the government to rethink Ms. Suu Kyi’s honorary citizenship.

“It is likely time for the Canadian government to consider whether her honorary Canadian citizenship can in any way be leveraged to increase the pressure on her to assert sorely needed human-rights leadership or whether it is time to consider revoking that honour,” said Alex Neve, Amnesty International Canada’s secretary-general.

Ms. Suu Kyi continues to be stripped of other honours in Canada and around the world. Earlier this month, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg removed a reference to Ms. Suu Kyi in one of its exhibits.

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Mr. Cotler said Parliament should be given the opportunity to reconsider whether Ms. Suu Kyi is still deserving of her honorary citizenship. While there is no precedent for revoking the honour, the procedure would be the same as awarding it.

In 2007, the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion, tabled by then-prime minister Stephen Harper, to grant Ms. Suu Kyi honorary citizenship. That means the honour would have to be revoked through a similar motion tabled by an MP.

However, none of the major federal political parties have stepped up and called for the stripping of Ms. Suu Kyi’s honorary citizenship.

Would we have appointed her to be an honorary citizen if that issue were now to arise? I am sure the answer would be no. In fact, I don’t believe there could now be a nomination for an honorary citizenship.

— Irwin Cotler, international human-rights lawyer

A senior government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said the revocation of Ms. Suu Kyi’s honorary citizenship would not help diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis or the well-being of Rohingya refugees. They also said it would fly in the face of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s famous 2015 federal-election line – “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.” Mr. Trudeau made the comment during a fiery debate with Mr. Harper about citizenship revocation for convicted terrorists, arguing that doing so devalues the citizenship of every Canadian.

The Conservatives and the NDP did not respond to repeated requests for comment about their position on Ms. Suu Kyi’s honorary citizenship.

John Packer, former assistant to the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said the debate around citizenship revocation is an “extremely touchy and divisive issue” in Canadian politics.

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“My supposition is that the politicians are simply wary to go down that path and that they perhaps don’t have confidence that the people of Canada can distinguish between real citizenship and honorary citizenship,” said Mr. Packer, now a law professor at the University of Ottawa.

Honorary citizens do not have any Canadian rights or privileges, according to the Immigration Department. Pakistani girls’ education advocate Malala Yousafzai – Canada’s newest honorary citizen – even joked about the limitation of the honour during her speech to the House of Commons last year.

“I am grateful to be an honorary member of your nation of heroes, though I still require a visa,” Ms. Yousafzai said as the House burst into laughter.

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