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Foreign Affairs Committee

Volume 633: debated on Thursday 14 December 2017

Select Committee statement

We now come to the Select Committee statement. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), will speak on his subject for up to 10 minutes, during which time no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and I shall, of course, call the hon. Gentleman to respond to those questions in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions, and should be brief. Those on the Front Bench may take part in questioning.

It is a great privilege and a huge pleasure to be able to give the first Select Committee statement in this Parliament. We are delegated by the House to investigate foreign affairs, and we are reporting back to the House on our findings.

It is worth noting that the Foreign Affairs Committee chose to publish its first report of this Parliament on the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population of northern Rakhine, in Burma, having heard some of the most harrowing testimony from witnesses. The situation has rightly drawn the attention of Members from all parts of the House. The hon. Members for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods), for Newport West (Paul Flynn), for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith), for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) and for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), as well as my hon. Friends the Members for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and for Colchester (Will Quince), have taken a very personal interest in the issue. I pay particular tribute to hon. Members who have visited Cox’s Bazar and other parts of the refugee community in Bangladesh to hear directly from the victims.

Because of the testimony that the Committee received, we were able to be clear that the violence against the Rohingya is ethnic cleansing, and that it may also constitute crimes against humanity and even genocide. We are pleased that the Government’s initial equivocation about the term has been clarified and that the Minister for Asia and the Pacific, the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) has been very clear that the almost 650,000 people who have crossed the border into Bangladesh since August were driven out by the Burmese authorities. The displacement of that great number is a compelling sign of a desperate population, and the traumatic experiences that they have described are reminiscent of infamous atrocities elsewhere.

In the face of such abuse, we must ask what the 2005 UN resolution on the responsibility to protect, which we agreed, requires of us. The first requirement must surely be that the UK Government conduct their own legal analysis. Such analysis from a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council—and, indeed, the penholder on Burma—would help to shape international understanding of the issue and structure a global response. That is needed today more than ever.

Research by Médecins sans Frontières found that at least 9,000 Rohingya died in Myanmar—or Burma—between 25 August and 24 September. The charity states that

“in the most conservative estimations”

at least 6,700 of those deaths, including those of at least 730 children under the age of five, were caused by violence. That suggests that the operation conducted by the Burmese military was brutal enough to raise the possibility of taking a case to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Along with such brutality, we heard reports of sexual violence being used, and we welcome the mission of Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Pramila Patten, who is expected to be in Naypyidaw and Yangon this week. We should welcome, too, the actions taken by the United Nations Human Rights Council, in holding a special session to hear about the degradation and treatment of minorities in Burma, and the words of Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein: that we could be witnessing a genocide. Those build on the achievements of our own representatives in the UN to secure a very strong presidential statement last month.

Burma’s response to this growing body of evidence— or, indeed, evidence of bodies—has been exceptionally poor. Setting up another commission when previous recommendations have been ignored is not good enough. The Annan commission was clear, and we call for its recommendations to be implemented in full. That is why the Committee calls on the UK to consider sanctions on individuals connected with the military regime and particularly on the commander-in-chief, General Min Aung Hlaing. Although sanctions are an imperfect tool, it is wrong for the UK to continue engagement with Burma with no demonstration of censure; General Min Aung Hlaing’s responsibility in particular cannot be ignored.

The UK, of course, bears some responsibility for seeking to turn international outrage into tangible action, and improvements on the ground should not be hamstrung by China’s veto in the Security Council; they should focus on regional forums and allies to achieve results. In seeking regional co-operation, the Committee recognised, supported and welcomed the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Minister, whom I am glad to see in his place on the Treasury Bench.

The Committee noted with sadness the echoing silence of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Although she is clearly constrained by a lack of control over the military and by strong domestic public opinion, to see a voice for freedom, democracy and the rule of law choose not to speak out in the face of such crimes does more than allow them to continue; it suggests acquiescence at some level and a failure of leadership at every level. She remains a better option than the alternatives, perhaps, and perhaps the only option for the future, but she is now deeply compromised.

Finally, Bangladesh deserves praise and material support for accommodating well over half a million new refugees this year. The British Government also deserve credit for their quick and generous provision of aid. Although return must be the ambition, we noted that that can happen only when humanitarian access is possible to Rakhine state. We are also concerned that the camps in Bangladesh should not become permanent, leaving people exposed to radicalisation and storing up problems for the future.

As the Committee noted, this crisis was sadly predictable—indeed, the Foreign Office did predict it. But the Foreign Office’s own warning system did not raise enough alarm; in recent years, there was too much focus from the United Kingdom and others on supporting the democratic transition and not enough on atrocity prevention, as was set out by former Foreign Secretary Lord Hague during his term of office.

A tough and unwelcome message to the Burmese Government about the Rohingya was not delivered early enough, although I welcome the fact that the Minister did send such a message recently. He was commendably candid about the Foreign Office’s need to reflect, and it must now learn lessons about atrocity prevention from the crisis, to apply not only in Burma but elsewhere.

Mr Speaker, I know of your long-standing interest in this issue, which you demonstrated when you were on the Back Benches.

The report is excellent. As it mentions, some of the refugees may be very reluctant to return to Burma given the treatment they have received. To what extent did the Foreign Affairs Committee consider alternatives to either Burma or Bangladesh? Did it feel that there was support from within the Rohingya community for being moved to somewhere else completely?

The Committee did look at alternatives, but it was very focused on the ability to return to Burma; we did not seek, of course, to allow the Burmese Government an opt-out through which they could permanently displace these people and force others to take responsibility for their brutality. Although the Committee was absolutely aware that return could happen only when it was properly supervised and when humanitarian access to Rakhine state was possible, we did not emphasise the point about third party displacement.

Does my hon. and gallant Friend agree that one of the main things that could be done would be to send the United Nations special envoy to Rakhine state to help those people who are still there and get back those who are displaced? Would that not be a really good move on the part of the UN?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I welcome her support on this. We looked at the UN action, and in welcoming the Annan commission we welcome that particular suggestion as well.

The hon. Gentleman is deeply grateful to his hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) that, by the form of her reference to him, she promoted him to the status of a military general.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for the way in which he has chaired the Committee in his first few months in that position, and, indeed, the Minister for the candid way in which he presented the case of the UK Government when he gave evidence to the Committee.

Does my hon. Friend the Chair of the Committee agree that this again shows the bluntness of the UN, and shows that it does not have enough tools available to it to deal with these kinds of international crises?

My hon. Friend—I do refer to him as a friend—and fellow Committee member speaks very clearly and identifies his own views on the UN. We have not yet looked into this subject, and as I am responding on a particular report it would not be appropriate for me to stray into the structure of the UN. However, I urge the Minister to work through the UN system to make sure that reports such as that of the Annan commission are fully implemented, which it will be remembered from our time in the Committee we all supported.

My right hon. Friend will recall that the evidence we took on the awful nature of the human rights abuses and humanitarian crisis was in stark contrast to the letter sent to the Committee by the Burmese embassy, which contradicted all the evidence we took. Does my right hon. Friend—[Interruption.]—or, rather, my hon. Friend, agree that the underlying problem is that the Burmese authorities and Aung San Suu Kyi have denied citizenship to the Rohingya, and we and our international partners must push them to make sure the Rohingya are given the right to remain in their homeland?

The hon. Gentleman has now been referred to as both a military general and a Privy Counsellor; his cup runneth over.

Today is indeed my lucky day—Christmas and Easter have come at once—but despite those promotions I will address my hon. Friend’s question, because it is extremely important. She is of course right to say that the refusal of citizenship to this population has been one of the great abuses. Although they were citizens, certainly in the 1950s and ’60s, their citizenship was effectively removed from them by the 1980s, and the Annan commission is very clear that citizenship must be restored. That is one of the reasons we were so clear—as my hon. Friend will remember from our discussions—in insisting that the Annan commission recommendations are implemented in full.

I, too, congratulate the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee; it has been a very interesting Committee to serve on, and I thank him for the way in which he has conducted this inquiry. I want to ask him in particular about the need to find a way to open access to Rakhine province, including in respect of any process of repatriation, because we must be very concerned about the lack of access and scrutiny, and the news of the arrests of two Reuters journalists believed to be attempting to report on the situation there. The UK Government and others in the international community must find a way to ensure that there is independent monitoring and oversight of what is happening in Rakhine province, especially in connection with repatriation.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend. As is being evidenced this morning, it is a pleasure to chair this Committee, with such experts and intelligent and supportive friends serving on it. My right hon. Friend is of course right that an essential part of the Government’s duty now is to make sure access is possible. I welcome the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Minister in seeking that when he has been working with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other regional organisations. I also welcome the support he has given to the United Nations, and we of course discussed in Committee making sure the UN had that access.

I visited the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar last month. It is now equivalent in size to the city of Bristol, but it has no hospital and has inadequate roads and very few schools. It was described by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as the most congested camp it had experienced anywhere in the world in the past 15 years. Page 32 of my hon. Friend’s report highlights the fact that ethnic cleansing has not been recognised as an independent crime under international law. Is he, like me, surprised and disappointed by that? Will he encourage Her Majesty’s Government to change that situation?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I welcome his call for ethnic cleansing to be defined as a separate crime. The approximately 550,000 people in Kutupalong demonstrate that this is not only a crime of the past, but that it is very much having an effect in the present. I welcome his efforts and personal courage in going there, which has enabled him to report back to the House.

I returned from Cox’s Bazar on Monday. I commend what is generally an excellent report: every word of it has value. The real issue concerns the return of refugees to Myanmar-Burma. That is not possible under present circumstances. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the need now is for genuine humanitarian assistance, not just from the Department for International Development but by mobilising the whole world to make sure we are treating the situation with the gravity it deserves?

I hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments on a regional response, because that is an essential part of this. The work of Her Majesty’s Government in putting up money initially will only go so far and it is unreasonable to expect that they could bear the entire burden. The work the Minister is doing regionally should be welcomed. He has been visiting partners and neighbours to make sure there is a regional response to what is, frankly, a regional problem.

Visiting the camp was an overwhelming and heartbreaking experience. I believe that, having met the refugees who have suffered the worst experiences life has to offer, all of us have a sense of duty to make sure they do not become invisible. I congratulate the Chairman on a very good report. It is realistic and does not offer any facile solutions. May I suggest that the only long-term answer to their problems—certainly more aid is needed; the situation is pitiful at the moment even though a great deal is being done—is for them to return to their lands in Myanmar? The only way to do that is to give an absolutely cast-iron guarantee of having armed forces with them. The British Army has a fine record in operations of this kind.

The hon. Gentleman—my hon. Friend; he has been a dear friend for many years—makes some very good points. I certainly welcome his call that we must support the returning refugees. The Committee makes the clear case for humanitarian access being essential before any refugees can return. We were very cautious, for various historical legacy reasons and the misunderstandings that could arise, about recommending that Her Majesty’s Government send British soldiers. However, we raised with the Minister—he was extremely receptive to it—the idea of regional support, whether under the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or the United Nations, and some sort of alert force or even support force to be there with the refugees as they return.

I congratulate my plainly hon. Friend on this excellent report. Further to that question, Myanmar is not a member of the Commonwealth, but does he think there is a role for Commonwealth countries, not least those close to Myanmar, to advise, help and support, so that these instances do not happen in the future and that we can get over the current tragedy soon?

I am sure my hon. Friend joins me in the sadness we feel that Burma is not currently able to seek re-admittance to the Commonwealth because of these very tragic events that, sadly, she has done nothing to prevent. There is of course a role for the Commonwealth in the region and more widely. We should also welcome the words of Archbishop Tutu in condemning the silence of the State Counsellor. Frankly, it is only voices like his that carry a weight that is equal to hers.

We welcome the report from the Foreign Affairs Committee and agree with the conclusion that any repatriation must be safe and voluntary. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, to ensure that there is no repatriation that does not meet these conditions, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees must have access on both sides of the border?

The hon. Lady makes an extremely valid point. Of course, we called in this report for absolute access in various areas, and for the special representative of the Secretary-General—Special Representative Patten—to have access, as she is expected to do this week, to the capital. But that needs to go further. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees need access on the ground, not just with the Government.

I commend the hon. Gentleman and his Committee for the excellent report. My Scottish National party colleagues and I agree with the Committee that the UK bears significant responsibility for the international failure effectively to respond to the crisis, considering the UK’s role on the UN Security Council. Does he agree that the UK Government need to suspend their military assistance programme to end their military ties to the Burmese region?

I not only agree with the hon. Lady; I welcome the fact that the Government have already done so.

I think that I speak for the House in thanking the hon. Gentleman and his Committee very warmly for their ongoing work, for this report, for the hon. Gentleman’s statement to the House today and for his courteous and comprehensive responses to questions.