Burma Statement

Yesterday, Mark issued an update to the House on the ongoing situation in Burma and the work the government continues to do in relation to the Rohingya crisis. You can find the entire transcript of the debate on Hansard by clicking here.

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The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to update the House on the desperate plight of Burma’s Rohingya in the week that the UN fact-finding mission on Burma has reported to the Human Rights Council with its interim findings.

The international community has repeatedly called on the Burmese authorities to allow the fact-finding mission to enter Burma. Regrettably, Burma continues to refuse access. Despite this, through interviewing Rohingya refugees in both Bangladesh and Malaysia, the interim report has revealed credible evidence of the widespread and systematic abuse, rape and murder of Rohingya people, and the destruction of their homes and villages, primarily by the Burmese military. This is not only a human tragedy; it is a humanitarian catastrophe. Since August 2017, nearly 680,000 Rohingya refugees have sought shelter in Bangladesh.

There have been some suggestions, including by the Foreign Affairs Committee, that the UK failed to see this crisis coming. With respect, I disagree with such a conclusion. Let us be clear about what has led to this current situation. The Rohingya have suffered persecution in Rakhine for decades. Such rights as they had have been progressively diminished under successive military Governments. They have been victims of systematic violence before, most recently in 2012 and in late 2016. On these more recent occasions, the Rohingya fled their homes—some to internally displaced person camps elsewhere in Rakhine, and some to other nations over land or sea. The outbreak of vicious hostility during the past six months is therefore only the latest episode in a long-lasting cycle of violence. We have been urging the Burmese civilian Government to take action to stop the situation deteriorating since they came to power two years ago. What was unprecedented and unforeseen about this most recent violence was its scale and intensity.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group has rightly noted that there is and can be no military solution alone to this crisis. The 25 August attack by Arakan Rohingya Salvation army militants on Burmese security forces, which triggered the latest phase, was clearly an unacceptable and deliberate provocation, but the Burmese military’s relentless response since then has been utterly appalling and entirely inexcusable. Its operations only last week on Burma’s border with Bangladesh were supposedly directed against another wave of ARSA militants. Whether or not that explanation is to be believed, the actual impact of the Burmese military’s actions was to terrorise thousands of Rohingya living in the area and to encourage ever more civilians to cross over into Bangladesh.

I once again commend the generosity of the Government and people of Bangladesh for opening their doors to these desperate refugees. The UK remains one of the largest bilateral aid donors to the crisis. We have committed some £59 million in the past six months to help ensure the refugees’ immediate wellbeing. This includes £5 million of matched funding for the very generous public donations by British citizens to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal.

My right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary visited Bangladesh last November and announced the latest UK package of support, including for survivors ​of sexual and other violence. We anticipate that the multi-agency plan for the next phase of humanitarian support, from March to the end of the year, will be published imminently. As the International Development Secretary confirmed during her Bangladesh visit, the UK is and will remain committed to the Rohingya now and, I suspect, for many years to come. At the end of last year, the UK Government deployed British doctors, nurses and firefighters from our emergency medical teams to Bangladesh to tackle an outbreak of deadly diphtheria in the refugee camps.

In northern Rakhine—within Burma’s borders—where humanitarian access remains severely restricted, the UK is providing £2 million of support via the World Food Programme and a further £1 million via the Red Cross, one of the few international organisations that has access to that part of Burma. We stand ready to do more as soon as we are permitted full access.

We continue to work tirelessly in co-operation with international partners to find a solution to this crisis, focusing international attention and pressure on the Burmese authorities and security forces. Since the final week of August, the UK has repeatedly raised the crisis as an issue for debate at the UN Security Council, most recently on 13 February. The existence of the UN fact-finding mission is in no small part due to British diplomacy, and I have engaged and will continue to engage with its members.

In November, the UK was instrumental in securing the first UN Security Council presidential statement on Burma for a decade, which delivered a very clear message that the Burmese authorities should protect all civilians within Burma, create the conditions for refugees to return and allow full humanitarian access in Rakhine state. Late last month, I was privileged to attend the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels, where a programme of sanctions against senior Burmese military figures was outlined. I am glad to say that this was approved unanimously, and we hope to bring this work to the attention of the UN Security Council soon.

I know that many hon. Members remain very deeply committed to helping to resolve the appalling situation faced by the Rohingya community, and I welcome that continued engagement. I visited both countries in September, and I returned to Burma in November. During those visits, I met displaced Rohingya, but also Hindu and Buddhist communities in Rakhine, and heard harrowing accounts of human rights violations and abuses. It was clear that the communities remain very deeply divided, and there is still a palpable sense of mutual fear and mistrust. At that time, I met State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the Minster for Defence and the deputy Foreign Minister to reiterate the urgent need to take action to end the violence and allow a path for the safe return of the refugees.

During his visit to Burma last month, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, in a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, pressed for the necessary steps to be taken to create the conditions conducive for the return of the refugees. He flew over Rakhine, and saw for himself the scale of the destruction—the ongoing destruction—of land and property there. He also visited Bangladesh, where he met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Foreign Minister Ali, and visited the camps in Cox’s Bazar, where he heard distressing accounts from survivors, as ​well as their heartfelt hopes for a better future and their desire to return safely to Burma. Our visits have reinforced our determination to help resolve this appalling crisis.

I recognise that the House remains deeply committed to ensuring that the human rights of refugees, but particularly of the Rohingya, are protected, and we welcome the House’s resolution to that effect as recently as 24 January. Let me outline, if I may, some of the next steps. We believe that there are four immediate priorities. First, we must continue to address the humanitarian needs, especially the needs of victims of sexual violence, in both northern Rakhine and in Bangladesh. This includes assisting, as a matter of urgency, the humanitarian agencies working in the vicinity of Cox’s Bazar to help prepare for the approaching monsoon and cyclone season, which commences in a matter of weeks. We shall continue to work with international humanitarian agencies delivering aid in Rakhine state, and to support Bangladesh in its efforts to help those fleeing the violence.

Secondly, we must continue the patient work towards achieving a safe, voluntary and dignified return of refugees. We shall press for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to oversee this process and ensure full verification of any returns on both sides of the border. As the globally mandated body, we believe the UNHCR remains the best equipped and most credible agency to oversee this very difficult process.

Thirdly, we must continue international progress towards bringing to justice the perpetrators of human rights violations, including sexual violence, in Rakhine. The international community has agreed to make the case to the Burmese authorities for a credible, transparent and independent inquiry. In my view, united international pressure will be essential in achieving that aim.

The UN fact-finding mission is a first and important step in what is likely to be a long road ahead. It produced its interim report on Monday, reflecting the violent, military-led, abhorrent actions against the Rohingya and other communities in Burma. We shall continue to support the mission’s important work, including urging Burma to allow it unrestricted access. We will also continue to provide support to build the capacity of the National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh to investigate properly and document sexual violence among Rohingya refugees.

As Canada’s special envoy to Burma, Bob Rae—I saw him at the Foreign Office only a few weeks ago—said,

“those responsible for breaches of international law and crimes against humanity must be brought to justice”.

In my view, that applies to all involved: state and non-state actors, senior military personnel, and all individuals in authority. Yanghee Lee, The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, recently stated that the conflict had the “hallmarks of genocide”.

I must tell the House, however, that the only path to prosecution for genocide or crimes against humanity is via the International Criminal Court. It is a legal process. Burma is not a party to the Rome statute, and must therefore either refer itself to the Court, or be referred by the UN Security Council. I fear that neither eventuality is likely in the short term, but that should not stop us supporting those who continue to collate and collect evidence for use in any future prosecution.

Finally, to achieve a long-term resolution to the crisis in Burma, even in these desperate circumstances, the UK should play a leading role in trying to support a ​democratic transition and the promotion of freedom, tolerance and diversity. To do that, we will continue to engage, and support attempts peacefully to resolve many of Burma’s internal conflicts, and to bring all parts of state apparatus under democratic, civilian control. We stand ready to lead the international community in ensuring the implementation of Kofi Annan’s report from the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. That crucial programme is designed to deliver development for the benefit of all the people of Rakhine state, including the Rohingya, and address the underlying causes of the current crisis. Above all, that includes reviewing the punitive 1982 citizenship law, and making progress on ensuring citizenship for the Rohingya, who are otherwise regarded by many as stateless. We must give them confidence that they have a future as fully-fledged citizens of Burma.

The situation in Burma serves as the clearest possible example of why our Government will continue to uphold their commitments to early warning and preventing the risk of atrocity crimes, in the context of broader conflict-prevention and peacebuilding work. It is vital that lessons from this human tragedy are used to prevent similar situations from developing in the future. I stand ready to work with Members from across the House, and with NGOs that have a real passion in this area, on getting a framework in place for the future.

The UK Government intend to remain in the vanguard of international action and to support a full range of humanitarian, political and diplomatic efforts to help resolve this appalling situation. We shall continue to press Burma to facilitate the safe, voluntary and dignified return of the Rohingya Muslims under UNHCR oversight, and also to address, properly and fully, the underlying causes of the violence. We shall not and must not lose sight of the fact that the Rohingya community have suffered for generations and will need our continued support to live the lives they choose. Neither will we fail to take account of the wider picture in Burma and the potential that sustained movement towards an open, democratic society offers to all its people. We shall push forward with persistence, focus and energy—it is our international and moral duty to do so. I commend the statement to the House.

 

 Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)

I thank the Minister for that clear and comprehensive update on the situation of the Rohingya, and for giving me advance sight of his statement. No one can doubt the effort and commitment that he and his officials in the Foreign Office and on the ground are putting into resolving this issue.

I also welcome several specific aspects of the Minister’s update. First, the interim report of the UN fact-finding mission—both in its level of detail about the atrocities suffered by the Rohingya and in the unflinching language it uses to describe those genocidal acts—is a vital first step in building a case against the individuals responsible. Secondly, I welcome the public’s generosity, and the Government’s continued commitment to providing humanitarian relief to the Rohingya refugees trapped in Cox’s Bazar and elsewhere. I applaud the tireless work of British medical professionals seeking to stop the spread of disease in the camps.​

Thirdly, I welcome the Minister’s words on the role of UNHCR in ensuring a safe, dignified and voluntary return, and a sustainable future for those refugees. The international community must continue to put pressure on the Government in Myanmar to allow UNHCR to dictate when and how it will be appropriate to begin that repatriation process. Fourthly, I welcome the Minister’s continued support for the Kofi Annan report, and the vital long-term reforms it sets out to give full rights and lasting protection to the Rohingya community in Myanmar. Democratic and civil society development did not improve as we hoped two years ago, and only this week I heard also about 100,000 displaced people in Kachin state.

I welcome the progress that the Minister mentioned on agreeing EU-wide sanctions against leading Myanmar generals. Only two weeks ago, Foreign Office Ministers were avoiding a debate and voting down Labour’s Magnitsky amendments. I was therefore pleased that the Prime Minister expressed a change of heart yesterday, not least because we noticed that the United States used Magnitsky provisions to sanction one of the generals, Maung Maung Soe.

The Minister spoke about the importance of providing support for the victims of sexual violence, and documenting the abuses that they have suffered, with a view to bringing prosecutions against those responsible at some future date. He will know the concern across the House that when we last received an update on Myanmar, it was confirmed that only two of the 70 sexual violence experts employed as part of the Government’s preventing sexual violence initiative in 2012 had been deployed to work on those cases. Have more of those staff now been deployed in the refugee camps? Are those two experts still there? How many people are now working to support victims and document their evidence? What percentage of the victims of sexual violence does he estimate have now received support and had their cases documented, whether by UK experts or other agencies working on this issue?

The Minister noted the impending monsoon season, and we are all aware of the risk that those heavy rains could turn the existing humanitarian crisis in the refugee camps into something even more catastrophic, including through the spread of waterborne disease. What assessment have the Minister’s officials, and their counterparts in the United Nations, made of the current shortfall in humanitarian funding to support the refugees, and of the expected shortfall if the monsoon season makes the crisis worse? If those numbers are as high as many of us fear, what emergency action will the Government take with our international partners to try to plug those gaps?

Finally, we must return to how we can best ensure the safe, voluntary and dignified repatriation of and a sustainable future for the Rohingya refugees, and how we can ensure that those responsible for the atrocities against them are brought to justice. I appreciate what the Minister has said about the pressure the United Kingdom has exerted behind the scenes at the United Nations in terms of setting up the fact-finding mission and obtaining the Security Council presidential statement. However, he will understand the long-standing view on the Labour Benches that it is time to go further and be more public in using the UK’s formal role as penholder on Myanmar on the United Nations Security Council to table resolutions on these vital issues: first, to table a resolution setting out the terms under which the repatriation ​process should proceed, and the future rights and protections that must be accorded to the Rohingya refugees, obliging the Myanmar authorities to accede to those terms. Secondly, at the appropriate time, a resolution should be tabled referring Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, so that the generals, who this week scandalously dismissed the UN’s claims of ethnic cleansing and genocide by saying the Rohingya had burned down their own houses, can be brought to account

The Minister spoke with candour on that second point, admitting that such a resolution would be difficult to get past the Security Council. I ask him to expand on that. What steps have the Government taken to engage with Myanmar’s near neighbour China and did the Prime Minister raise this issue with the Chinese on her recent trip?

Many of us fear that, if we do not act quickly to break the stalemate, especially with the monsoon season coming, we will have these types of updates for too many months to come, and the humanitarian crisis the Minister described will only get worse.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Lindsay Hoyle)

May I just give a little bit of advice to both Front Benchers? The speeches are meant to be 10 and five minutes. I think one was nearly 16 and the other was seven. I did not want to stop them, because this is a very important subject, but I would like us to keep to that in future.

Mark Field

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I think that the Speaker’s Office was made aware that we wanted to have a slightly longer statement.

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s kind words, which were broadly supportive of what we are trying to do. I am very keen, as far as we can, to work together on this issue. I appreciate that, inevitably, these issues can be partisan, but I think there is a way in which this House can express its strong views, not least given our penholder status. Let me touch, if I may, on some of the broader issues she raised.

On sexual violence, I will come back to the hon. Lady with details of how many civilian experts we have on the ground, what their situation is and what work is being done. We are confident that significant progress has been made. As she will be aware, Rohingya women and children remain very vulnerable to gender-based violence and sexual exploitation. The Department for International Development is to a large extent leading the way in supporting and working very closely with a range of organisations, even if they are not necessarily from the UK, to provide specialist help for survivors of sexual violence. This help includes some 30 child friendly spaces to support children with protective services, psychological and physiological support, 25 women’s centres, which are offering safe space and support to the activities of women and girls, and case management for the 2,190 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. Some 53,510 women are being provided with midwifery care and we are helping to fund the provision of medical services, counselling and psychological support. If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will come back to her in writing with further details of the issues she raised on that point.

The impending cyclone and monsoon season is a matter of grave concern. Working with international partners, the UK has already done a huge amount with ​agencies to ensure that a quarter of a million people will continue to have access to safe drinking water throughout the rainy season. We have also supported cholera, measles and diphtheria vaccination campaigns. We are putting some pressure on the Bangladeshi authorities to try to ensure that a little more space is cleared for further camps, if existing camps become uninhabitable. I should perhaps also say that, along with my colleague in the House of Lords, Lord Ahmad, I hope to meet the Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary immediately after this statement. He is the most senior civil servant, as the hon. Lady will understand, with foreign affairs responsibilities. I have met him on a couple of occasions, both in Dhaka and here in London. I will be meeting him at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and I undertake to discuss these urgent concerns about cyclone-related issues.

On returns, let me first confirm that at a meeting in China in February the Prime Minister made it very clear in private session with her counterparts the concerns we feel about this issue and have tried to get through the UN process. I am hopeful that we will be able to continue to put pressure on—unfortunately, the veto is an issue in relation to not just China but Russia—not least with the interim report being finalised as this sad situation remains high profile. I had hoped to come to the House on Monday immediately after the interim report, but with all the other business, this has been the first available opportunity to be able to speak to the House. One of the biggest fears I think all of us have had—certainly, it is a fear shared by the Bangladeshi authorities—is that the eyes of the world will move away from the Rohingya and on to other issues. I believe they will return if things go as dismally as we fear they might during the cyclone season. We will keep the pressure on. I do not rule out the idea that we will work towards preparing a UN Security Council resolution to call the Burmese authorities to account.

The hon. Lady mentions Magnitsky. She is absolutely right that that provides an opportunity. However, it is probably fair to say that, unlike many former Russian citizens who are in this country, many senior Burmese figures do not have huge financial interests in this country in either assets, wanting to arrive here for a visa or having children in schools. I do not think that if the Magnitsky amendment is passed into law it will be a silver bullet. I do not think it will make a massive difference in terms of sanctions against senior Burmese figures, but we will continue to work on it.

Finally, on the returns process, which other Members may wish to raise, the hon. Lady will be aware that the Governments of Bangladesh and Burma signed a repatriation agreement as long ago as 23 November. To be absolutely honest, it is not just the UK that thinks that northern Rakhine is simply not safe for returns. I think everybody shares that assessment. I spoke at great length with Lord Darzi, who is on the advisory commission, at the Foreign Office last week. He had been on the ground and spoke to people there. It is clear that we are, I fear, a considerable way from there being any possibility of safe, voluntary or dignified returns to Rakhine state.