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Armed Conflicts: Heritage, Minorities and Human Rights

Volume 634: debated on Tuesday 9 January 2018

9. What steps the Government are taking to support the protection of cultural heritage, religious minorities and human rights in armed conflicts overseas. (903134)

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that the UK strives to protect cultural heritage and human rights, including religious freedom, whenever they are threatened by conflict, which sadly they so regularly are. As recently as September, the UK was instrumental in the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 2379 calling for an investigative team to collect evidence of crimes committed by Daesh. More recently, in December, the UK ratified The Hague convention for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict and acceded to its protocols.

We rightly focus much attention on the persecution of Christians in the middle east, but will the Minister assure us that he will raise with his counterparts in African nations such as Nigeria and Kenya the persecution of Christians in those countries, which is on an even larger scale?

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that I represent the FCO in Asia and the Pacific, but he is absolutely right that these issues are prevalent in places such as Nigeria and Kenya. In the part of the world where I represent the FCO, I do my best at every opportunity to represent the interests of Christians. I recently wrote a letter to all our high commissioners and ambassadors there asking for their own plans for ensuring that minorities from Nepal to India and elsewhere can be properly protected.

The crackdown by the Myanmar military continues to have dire consequences for the human rights of the Rohingya population, and Myanmar has now cut off all co-operation with the United Nations special rapporteur. While the strong stance taken by the General Assembly is a positive development, dissent from China, Russia and some other countries is preventing the adoption of a united international approach. What influence can the Minister use to convince China in particular of the need for diplomatic action to solve the crisis?

The hon. Lady has identified the hub of the matter, which is the fact that we cannot get a UN Security Council resolution through because it would be vetoed by China and Russia. However, she should rest assured that we are doing our level best to engage constantly in conversations with our Chinese and Russian counterparts in the Security Council. There was a presidential statement for the first time in 10 years just before Christmas, and I repeatedly raised the appalling treatment of the Rohingya with both the Burmese Defence Minister and the Minister for the Office of the State Counsellor in Nay Pyi Taw recently when I was attending the conference of the Asia-Europe Foreign Ministers.

21. As the Minister’s remit covers Asia, may I ask how he is addressing a very serious issue? The Bangladesh and Myanmar authorities are pressing forward with plans to repatriate the displaced Rohingya population despite the evidence that most Rohingya are concerned about further persecution. What is the Government’s position on the repatriation of Rohingya to Rakhine state in those circumstances? (903147)

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There can be no question at the moment of a safe and dignified return for Rohingya from Bangladesh to Burma. When I was in Thailand last week, I spoke to the chairman of the new standing committee that will oversee the memorandum of understanding between the two countries in order to look at the whole issue of returns. We want people to be able to return. That is currently not possible, but we want to maintain pressure on both sides.

As the Minister has acknowledged, the terrible human rights abuses of the Rohingya refugees are continuing. He knows that the Myanmar Government have banned the special rapporteur and that the fact-finding mission is impossible. He has said previously that any return of refugees must be “safe, voluntary and dignified”. Does he think there is any action that the British Government can take to prevent the return of the refugees until those conditions are fulfilled?

Very little can be done without international co-operation. As the hon. Lady will know, Lord Darzi is part of the committee that is trying to oversee the situation, and the committee will have meetings in Nai Pyi Taw within the next week to consider what practical steps can be taken to try to ease the path. However, as the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) pointed out, these are massive international problems. We have tried to do as much as we can through the United Nations, but—

I think that all of us, with the benefit of hindsight, could rightly say that the sanctions were lifted too early, with the hope—and only the hope—of democracy there. As I have said, we would need to get a resolution through the United Nations, and it would almost certainly be vetoed. [Interruption.] Of course we are trying: in New York we are constantly having conversations with our Chinese and Russian counterparts about precisely these matters.

I am immensely grateful to colleagues. Ministers are not helped if Opposition Front Benchers chunter from a sedentary position on a protracted basis. We need to try to speed up.