Mr Speaker thank you 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 updated the Human Rights Council with 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 Bangladesh and Malaysia, the interim report revealed credible evidence of widespread and systematic abuse, rape and murder of Rohingya people, and destruction of their homes and villages, primarily by the Burmese military.
Mr Speaker, 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. Let us be clear 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 2016. On these more recent occasions, Rohingya fled their homes, some to internally displaced person camps elsewhere in Rakhine; some to other nations, over land or sea.
So the outbreak of vicious hostility these past six months is 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 it came into power two years ago. What was unprecedented and unforeseen about this most recent violence was its scale and intensity.
As a recent report by the International Crisis Group rightly noted, there is no military solution to this crisis. The August 25 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 has been utterly appalling and completely 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 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 £59 million in the last 6 months to help ensure the refugees’ immediate wellbeing. This includes £5 million of matched funding for generous public donations to the Disasters Emergencies Committee (DEC) appeal. My Right Honourable Friend, the International Development Secretary (Penny Mordaunt) visited Bangladesh last November and announced the latest UK package of support, including for survivors of sexual and other violence.
We anticipate the multi-agency plan for the next phase of humanitarian support, from March to the end of the year, to be published imminently. As the International Development Secretary confirmed during her Bangladesh visit, the UK remains committed to supporting the Rohingya, now and in 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 where humanitarian access is severely restricted, the UK is providing £2 million of support via the World Food Programme and £1 million via the Red Cross. We stand ready to do more as soon as we are permitted access.
We continue tirelessly to work in co-operation with international partners to find a solution to this crisis, focussing international attention and pressure on the Burmese authorities and security forces.
At the UN Security Council, the UK has since last August repeatedly raised the crisis as an issue for debate, 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 personally engaged with its members.
Last November it was the UK that was instrumental in securing the first UNSC Presidential Statement on Burma for a decade, which delivered a clear message that the Burmese authorities should: protect all civilians in 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 were outlined. This was approved unanimously and we hope to bring this work soon to the attention of the UN Security Council.
I know that many Honourable members remain deeply committed to helping to resolve the appalling situation faced by the Rohingya community. I welcome their continued engagement.
I visited both countries in September and returned to Burma in November. During my visits I met displaced Rohingya, Hindu and Buddhist communities in Rakhine and heard harrowing accounts of human rights violations and abuses. It was clear that communities remain deeply divided, and there is still a palpable sense of mutual fear and mistrust.
I also met State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the Minster for Defence, and deputy Foreign Minister, to reiterate the urgent need to take action to end the violence, and allow the safe return of all refugees.
During his visit to Burma last month, my Right Honourable Friend the Foreign Secretary also pressed Aung San Suu Kyi to take the necessary steps to create the conditions conducive for the return of the refugees.
He flew over Rakhine and saw for himself the scale of the destruction of land and property that has taken place there.
He also visited Bangladesh, where he met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Foreign Minister Ali, and visited the camps in Cox’s Bazar, hearing distressing accounts from survivors, as well as their hopes for the 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 is deeply committed to ensuring that the human rights of refugees are protected, and we welcome the resolution of the House on 24 January 2018.
There are 4 immediate priorities:
First, we must address the humanitarian needs, especially the needs of victims of sexual violence, in 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 safe, voluntary, and dignified returns of refugees. We shall press for UNHCR to oversee and verify any returns on both sides of the border. As the globally mandated body, UNHCR remain the best equipped and most credible agency to oversee this 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. United international pressure will be essential in achieving this aim.
The UN Fact Finding Mission is just the first, important, step in what is likely to be a long road. It gave its interim report on 12 March, reflecting the violent, military led, abhorrent actions against the Rohingya and other communities in Burma. We will continue to support its important work, including urging Burma to allow the Mission unrestricted access.
We will also continue to provide support to build the capacity of the Bangladesh National Human Rights Commission to investigate and document sexual violence among Rohingya refugees.
As Canada’s Special Envoy to Burma, Bob Rae, has said, “those responsible for breaches of international law and crimes against humanity must be brought to justice”. This applies to all those involved: state and non-state actors, senior military personnel, and individuals in authority. Yanghee Lee, The UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, recently stated that the conflict had the ‘hallmarks of genocide’.
However, I must tell the House that the path to prosecution for genocide or crimes against humanity is via the International Criminal Court. 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. While neither eventuality is likely in the short term, this should not stop us supporting those who are collecting evidence for use in any such future prosecution.
Finally, to achieve a long term resolution to the crisis in Burma, I believe that even in these desperate circumstances the UK must continue to support democratic transition and the promotion of freedom, tolerance and diversity. To do this we must continue to engage, to support attempts to peacefully resolve its many internal conflicts, and bring all parts of the state apparatus under democratic, civilian control. We stand ready to lead the international community in ensuring implementation of Kofi Annan’s Rakhine Advisory Commission Report.
This 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. This includes reviewing the punitive 1982 Citizenship law and making progress on citizenship for the Rohingya, giving confidence that they have a future as citizens of Burma.
Furthermore, the situation in Burma serves as a clear example of why our government will continue to uphold its commitments to early warning and preventing the risk of atrocity crimes, in the context of its broader conflict-prevention and peacebuilding work. It is vital that lessons from this human tragedy are used to prevent similar situations developing in the future.
Mr Speaker, the UK government intends to remain at the vanguard of international action to support a full range of humanitarian, political and diplomatic efforts to help resolve this appalling situation. We will continue to press Burma to facilitate safe, voluntary and dignified returns of the Rohingya Muslims under UNHCR oversight – and also properly, fully to address the underlying causes of the violence.
We shall not and we must not lose sight of the fact that the Rohingya community have suffered for generations and need our continued support to live the lives they choose. Nor 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 this statement to the House.