On the 10th May 2018 the Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Alan Smith spoke in Baroness Anelay’s debate about recent developments in Myanmar. Bishop Alan spoke about the continued hostilities against minority communities in Myanmar and highlighted the importance of reconciliation work with young people to create a mutual commitment to peace and the cessation of violence. Lord Ahmad responded to the debate for the Government and his comments can be seen below.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, for her championing of this issue and for the way she has kept it in front of us. Her Majesty’s Government are to be applauded for their leadership on many aspects of this issue and in particular for their commitment to supporting refugees in Bangladesh as monsoon season approaches. However, as has already been pointed out, the scope of the crisis is enormous. The International Organization for Migration estimates that around 688,000 refugees have fled to Bangladesh since August last year. Cox’s Bazar is now, in effect, the world’s largest refugee camp. The implications of this for the host community and for refugees, in the light of the forthcoming monsoon season, are huge, even before one considers the root causes behind why these refugees have had to flee and the appalling treatment that many have suffered.
The statistics are so enormous that it is easy to forget that, behind each one, is the individual story of a person. One such person is Rajuma, a young mother who was beaten by a group of soldiers with their rifles, her baby snatched from her and thrown into a fire in front of her, before she was gang-raped. As well as losing her baby son, she has also lost her mother, her two sisters and her younger brother. There is no easy way to respond to that sort of suffering. She is going to need long-term, practical help but also support and counselling to rebuild her life.
As the Government support vital, urgent work to improve conditions for Rajuma and many other people with similar, equally appalling stories, I hope that more work will also be done to move towards long-term plans to secure the rights of all in Burma, particularly these minority groups. There have been reports, as we have heard, of continuing and escalating armed conflicts in Kachin, Shan and Kayin states. A ceasefire and access for humanitarian aid are urgently needed in these states, as well as in the west in Rakhine. Can Her Majesty’s Government assure us that they will make representations about the treatment of these minorities and other internally displaced people in these other states as well? Will they work with partners, through the United Nations, to ensure that the rights of these minorities are upheld and protected?
What is being done to get the appropriate levels of aid and medical relief into the more remote parts of the country, where people are in a desperate state?
In the long run, peaceful political solutions to these conflicts must be found. It is critical that the international community unites to engage with the Myanmar Government, to encourage, cajole and help this political compromise and discussion—to find a solution that can help, rather than have simply more armed conflict. I hope that as well as formulating long-term plans for this tragic situation Her Majesty’s Government will also consider how reconciliation work, particularly with young people, can be put in place to help foster a mutual commitment to peace and the cessation of violence.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con): My Lords, I join all noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lady Anelay for securing this debate. She is a well-known advocate for freedom, equality and human rights around the world. It is my pleasure to respond to her today and to welcome her pragmatic and expert advice and insight into this important issue. I also thank all noble Lords for their contributions.
I share the opinion of many noble Lords about the onset of democracy in Burma. To reiterate the important points made by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton, and the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, about the importance of trade, I remember, as a Minister for Transport at that time, that Britain extended an invitation very early on—I think I was the first Minister to visit to look at what opportunities for infrastructure development could be put forward to support the Government of the day. As several noble Lords have said, there has been great disappointment in the civilian Government, but we should not forget that they are much under of the influence and heavy hand of the military.
I will set out to answer most, if not all, noble Lords’ questions. I shall write to noble Lords about any that I am unable to answer in the limited time. Noble Lords will know that when violence broke out in Rakhine state in August 2017, it was the latest episode in the decades-long persecution suffered by the Rohingya community. We have been urging the Burmese civilian Government to take action since they took office two years ago. Yet, since August, thousands have been killed and many more remain unaccounted for. Anyone who has visited Cox’s Bazar has seen the human suffering. Around 700,000 people have fled. Sexual violence, particularly against women and children, has taken place. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans recounted the very personal story of Rajuma. When he spoke of her child being thrown into the fire, that is not an exceptional story; it is, regrettably and tragically, the human suffering of the Rohingya community.
I assure noble Lords that the UK has played a leading role in the robust international response. In November we secured the first UN Security Council presidential statement on Burma in almost a decade. It urged the Burmese authorities to stop the violence, to hold those responsible to account, and to create the conditions necessary for the safe return of refugees. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, other ministerial colleagues and I have kept international attention focused on the plight of the Rohingya community. Since making high-profile visits—including one by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary —we have maintained dialogue with international counterparts to continue to press for progress, most recently, as my noble friend Lady Anelay pointed out, at the Commonwealth summit and also at the G7 Foreign Ministers’ meeting in April.
The right reverend Prelate asked whether the UK will continue to work with partners at the UN; the short answer is yes. I was present at the debate in the Human Rights Council that was tabled by Burma and we have ensured that we have kept this issue right to the fore—including the situation that exists not just in Rakhine but in Kachin and Shan states, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, mentioned. I assure noble Lords that we will continue to ensure that the Human Rights Council continues to hold its intention and focus on these important areas.
The UK continues to be a generous contributor to the UN-led Joint Response Plan, and we recently announced additional funding of £70 million to support Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, among others, in paying tribute to the Bangladeshi Government. Bangladesh is a poor nation, yet it has opened up its borders as best it can to ensure that it provides the facilities. It is right that countries such as the UK and others provide the support that is necessary. I assure the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that following the UK’s announcement of a further £70 million, we are lobbying other countries to make further contributions of humanitarian aid. I also assure noble Lords that we have not reduced our embassy staff. The actual issue is that the Burmese authorities themselves are refusing to authorise embassy travel to Rakhine, which is the big challenge.
My noble friend Lady Anelay raised the recent visit by the UN Security Council and follow-up action in that regard. Last night the UK secured a UN Security Council statement, reiterating the council’s calls for Burmese action in ensuring a safe, voluntary and dignified return for refugees, and also stressing the importance of accountability. The UN Security Council is due to convene on Monday and the UK will use that meeting to ensure that the council again sends a clear message about the need for progress in Burma in the coming weeks.
We see the sight of refugee tents stretching to the horizon, in the knowledge that the cyclone season is fast approaching, which the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, talked about. She mentioned the spread of malaria. In all our conversations with the Bangladeshi authorities, including with the Prime Minister— most recently, my right honourable friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development wrote to the Prime Minister in March—we have emphasised the importance of ensuring expert input into this. Again, that issue was raised at the Commonwealth summit, working with the charity Malaria No More for the eradication of malaria across all countries, not just Bangladesh, and we will continue to work in that respect.
The scale and nature of the human rights violations and abuses, including sexual violence, perpetrated against the Rohingya in Rakhine state in particular have horrified and appalled all right-thinking people. The UK believes that it amounts to ethnic cleansing. The issue of the International Criminal Court was raised by several noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Nye. We await the International Criminal Court’s ruling on whether it has jurisdiction over the forced displacement of Rohingya from Burma to Bangladesh. If proven, this would constitute a crime against humanity and we will support the court, should it judge that it has jurisdiction. Of course, I will keep noble Lords informed of this.
The perpetrators of human rights violations must be held to account. The Burmese authorities have yet to begin a credible domestic investigation. I assure noble Lords that in all bilateral communication, and indeed at the last Human Rights Council, I met Burmese Ministers directly. We continue to raise important issues about access, international supervision and holding to account the perpetrators of these crimes. There should be no doubt that international attention will not cease until a credible mechanism is in place for accountability. Preserving and documenting evidence is vital for effective accountability. That is why we are leading efforts to ensure this evidence is documented appropriately and that this is done in a way that does not further traumatise victims.
Following on from my noble friend’s role as the Prime Minister’s special representative on PSVI, I assure noble Lords that UK-funded training in March by the PSVI team of experts identified just how much capacity building still needs to be done. We will continue to lead on this, ideally with UN and donor support, and we are working closely with the UN in this respect to ensure that Bangladeshi evidence-gatherers are given the skills they need. We have also funded a practical guide, specific to Burma, to help NGOs and other documenters of conflict related to sexual violence, and this was published earlier this month.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nye, also talked about sanctions. I assure the noble Baroness that the Government have pushed successfully in the EU to impose new sanctions that will restrict the finances and freedom of movement of senior military commanders who were directly involved in the atrocities in Rakhine last year. With our EU partners we are drawing up a list of named individuals and we hope to make an announcement very soon. We have also moved to strengthen the EU arms embargo, which the noble Baroness referred to and which now prohibits the export of dual-use goods and equipment that could be used for monitoring communications.
Ultimately, as all noble Lords have expressed, we want to see the voluntary, safe and dignified return of the Rohingya community to Rakhine—a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. For this to happen, it requires, as noble Lords have said, independent monitoring, ideally by the UN High Commission for Refugees.
Questions were asked about direct representations made by Her Majesty’s Government to the Burmese State Counsellor. The Foreign Secretary pressed State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi when he met her in February. The sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, in this respect, particularly about the hopes that were held out, were perhaps shared by many when the civilian Government was first formed—and we have since seen the disappointment of and tragic consequences for the Rohingya community. While we welcome moves by both Burma and Bangladesh to agree a memorandum of understanding to manage repatriations, much remains to be done. Returns can happen only when conditions in Rakhine improve and safety can be guaranteed. We will continue to demand that all the concerns of the UN High Commission for Refugees are met, and that the recommendations of the report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, which were raised, are also implemented.
I also assure noble Lords that the British Government’s support for transition from conflict to peace will continue, not just in Rakhine but, as has been pointed out by noble Lords, in other states—Kayin, Kachin and Shan. Indeed, I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that the British ambassador visited Kachin state in January and met political and religious leaders. I will write to them with the details of that meeting.
In the short time that I have left, I assure noble Lords that we continue to press in our project work to ensure that humanitarian support—which was worth over £4 million in the last financial year—continues to all regions. Our project work particularly emphasises the importance of inclusion of all communities in Burma and of working in areas of the country affected by conflict, including those that my noble friend pointed out near the border with China. However, as my noble friend and other noble Lords have pointed out, it is important that we continue to press the Burmese authorities to give urgent access to allow much-needed aid to be delivered across Burma. We are also continuing to support grass-roots peace-building projects, providing access to the peace-building process. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and others asked specifically about lead NGOs. I will write about our policy in that respect. I assure the right reverend prelate that we will continue to support agencies on the ground.
I am running very short of time. I assure noble Lords that the Government—politically, diplomatically and in terms of humanitarian and development support—will continue to work. Ultimately, we hold on to the hope of building a bright future for all Burmese communities, and the return of the Rohingya community to their homes, but only in a safe and responsible manner.