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How Canada can respond to the carnage in Myanmar

Lloyd Axworthy, a former foreign affairs minister, is chair of the board of Cuso International. Allan Rock, a former ambassador to the United Nations, is president emeritus and a professor of law, University of Ottawa.

With nuclear threats in North Korea and climate crises on our continent, too little attention is being paid to the catastrophe unfolding in Myanmar.

In its western state of Rakhine, one million Rohingya Muslims have endured for decades what former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan has recently called "severe restrictions on their basic rights." Many are denied Myanmar citizenship, despite deep roots in the country. Most are without access to basic sanitation, health care and education, and are denied mobility rights and humanitarian assistance. That is especially so for the 140,000 Muslims who have been confined to the squalid conditions of camps for internally displaced people since 2012. In that year, frustration and anger at their continued persecution resulted in a Muslim uprising, which the Myanmar government put down with military force. And when Muslim activists, driven to despair, launched attacks on military installations in Rakhine last year, the government lashed out at its Muslim population with unrestrained brutality.

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Independent human rights observers have reported widespread rapes, killings and house burnings carried out by the Myanmar military. While the Myanmar government denies those claims, eyewitness accounts, supported by video recordings, have seriously undermined the government's credibility. The Myanmar military's murderous campaign, described by some as attempted genocide, has caused more than 120,000 Muslims to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh as refugees, where they have been received with reluctance and frequently with hostility. Many have perished making the perilous journey by makeshift rafts across the river between the two countries.

Related: Canada faults Myanmar government for failing to end violence

Globe editorial: What has happened to Aung San Suu Kyi?

The violent and vengeful conduct of the Myanmar government toward the Rohingya Muslims is all the more shocking because its de facto leader is Aung San Suu Kyi, recipient of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. But now that she is in power, Ms. Suu Kyi appears to scorn the "non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights" that won her the prize and international acclaim so many years ago.

The origins of intercommunal animosity and violence in Rakhine state are complex and contested, but two things are clear. First, the solution lies not in ethnic cleansing, but in finding political solutions. Mr. Annan recently chaired a government-appointed Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. Its recommendations, including citizenship, mobility and social justice for the Muslim population, provide a good starting point toward reconciliation. But Ms. Suu Kyi has given no sign that she will accept the report's proposals.

The second thing that is crystal clear is that the international community cannot simply be a bystander to the mass atrocity that is occurring day by day in Myanmar. We must accept and act on our shared responsibility to protect the vulnerable Muslim population that is being preyed upon by its own government.

And what does that mean for Canada in concrete terms? It means forming a coalition of like-minded states drawn from all the world's regions to demand that Ms. Suu Kyi end the Myanmar military's rampage. It means calling for accountability for those in Myanmar who have committed crimes against humanity. It means mobilizing global public opinion to put pressure on the UN Security Council, where China and Russia are already standing in the way of any sensible discussion, to take measures that will end the violence.

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Two decades ago, similar crimes of ethnic cleansing and extermination took place against Muslims in Kosovo. At that time, the international community acted to bring the killing to an end. Faced with a Security Council stalemate, NATO took the initiative with its own air campaign and established a precedent for intervention to protect innocent populations.

That ultimately led to the adoption by UN member states in 2005 of the Responsibility to Protect principle, or R2P, which now applies in Myanmar. The Security Council must be reminded that when R2P was unanimously adopted, UN member states made a solemn commitment to prevent or stop mass atrocities, such as those taking place today in Myanmar. The council urgently needs to consider sanctions, embargoes and other measures that will bring pressure to bear on its government to stop the violence.

Finally, we urge Canada to submit a request to the Nobel Committee in Oslo to strip Ms. Suu Kyi of her Nobel Peace Prize. To allow her to retain that unique honour in light of her shameful conduct would demean the distinction and diminish its lustre.

Video: Suu Kyi under growing pressure to protect Rohingya (Reuters)
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