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Volume 646: debated on Tuesday 4 September 2018

The situation in Burma/Myanmar remains of real concern. On 27 August, the United Nations fact-finding mission published a report that said that there were grounds for prosecution of members of the Burma military for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. In the face of such serious allegations, no country that considers itself humane can stand back and do nothing.

The UN’s report states that the violence against the Rohingya continues to bear “genocidal intent”. As the official UN penholder on Myanmar issues, the UK has so far failed to refer it to the International Criminal Court. Does the Secretary of State agree that ethnic cleansing must not go unpunished, and will he commit to pushing the UN to refer Myanmar to the ICC?

I very strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman that ethnic cleansing, in whatever shape or form, wherever it happens, should never go unpunished, and that the perpetrators of these appalling crimes must be brought to justice. He is right to say that the UK has a special responsibility as the penholder. I intend to convene a high-level meeting of Ministers in the margins of the UN General Assembly later this month. ICC referral, however, has to happen as a decision of the Security Council, and at the moment it is not clear that there would be consensus on the Security Council to deliver that. I want the hon. Gentleman to be comforted, however, that we will leave no stone unturned to make sure that the perpetrators are brought to justice.

There are chilling reports of sexual violence being inflicted on Rohingya people. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm how many experts employed by the Foreign Office under the preventing sexual violence initiative have been deployed to assist in this terrible situation?

I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that number, but I will happily write to him with the information. What I can tell him is that our aid to the Rohingya, which is £129 million so far, has helped counsel 2,000 victims of sexual violence. We consider that an extremely important part of our support for this people.

May I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to his new role? He has great relevant experience, and we all know he will carry out his role superbly. Will he ensure he uses all his considerable influence, and that of the British, at the United Nations to make it clear that there can be no impunity for crimes of genocide committed by the Burmese army, which have been so eloquently set out by the United Nations independent international fact-finding mission? Britain has an acute and important leadership role to discharge here, not least because of the tremendous amount of aid and support we have given to the poor Rohingya community over the many years of their suffering.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments and commend him for the leadership he showed on many humanitarian issues as International Development Secretary. He is absolutely right: the report said that in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states there was gang rape, assaults on children, villages razed, and, in northern Rakhine, mass extermination and mass deportations. This is the kind of issue where countries that believe in civilised values have to take a stand and make sure that justice is done.

I, too, warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to his new and vital role. While the Foreign Office is considering the damning UN report and deciding how most effectively Britain should respond, will he consider carefully the pros and cons of the current parliamentary engagement carried out by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which has done good work through the Officials of this House? We will need to weigh in the balance whether it is appropriate to continue such engagement.

I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s experience of the region. Obviously that would be a matter for Parliament to decide, but it is very important that in all our dealings with the Burmese regime they understand that a line has been crossed. It is also important to update the House on the fact that a great deal has happened over the summer months, including an EU decision, which the UK was instrumental in making happen, to impose sanctions on seven individuals in the Burmese military. Much more now needs to be done.

It was a shock to read reports of the jailing of two Reuters journalists in Burma who had been instrumental in reporting the Rohingya massacre. What representations has the Secretary of State made to the Burmese Government on the importance of press freedom?

The two journalists were doing what is in the very best traditions of all journalism: exposing evil and bad things that Governments do not want exposed. We are very concerned, and I want to visit Burma/Myanmar to talk about all these issues and will certainly raise the issue with the Burmese authorities.

My hon. Friend raises a very good question. My colleague in the other place, Lord Ahmad, hosted a Security Council meeting on 28 August to look at all these issues. I will be looking at that particular issue when we have a high-level meeting of Foreign Ministers at the UN General Assembly.

The United Nations panel of experts report is very powerful and is damning of the Burmese military and the Burmese regime more generally. May I urge the new Foreign Secretary to take a lead at the United Nations and build a coalition so that we can refer Burma to the International Criminal Court?

I recognise the enormous amount that the hon. Gentleman has done on this issue as Chair of the Select Committee on International Development. I think we have two priorities in this situation, which is both a humanitarian catastrophe and a justice issue. The first is to enable the safe return of the Rohingya to their home. That is not unproblematic, but it is very, very important because of the humanitarian situation across the border. The second is to ensure that the perpetrators face justice. That will be a long, hard road, but he should rest assured that we are committed to going on that journey.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new role, and I welcome his words of assurance that war crimes will not go unpunished in Myanmar, or indeed anywhere in the world. On the latter point, will he do the same for the Syrian and Russian regimes, which according to Syrian doctors are currently bombing hospitals as priority and primary targets, and will he update me on how we are going to take the Russian and Syrian regimes to the ICC?

Order. That is audacious to the point of extreme chutzpah. Much as I admire the hon. Gentleman’s ingenuity, I am not sure that I altogether salute his cheekiness. [Interruption.] “Go on”, says the hon. Gentleman from a sedentary position. If the Secretary of State wants to issue one of his brief but eloquent replies, we are happy to hear it.

My hon. Friend should rest assured that we will deal with crimes against humanity wherever in the world they happen.

A year ago, we began hearing first-hand accounts of the horrors taking place in Rakhine state. I travelled to the region as a doctor and am still haunted by my meetings with mothers who had to choose between rescuing their children from fires and running with the ones who were still alive. The military have now focused their attention on the Kachin in Myanmar. Can the Secretary of State tell me how many more minority groups in the country will be persecuted before the UK Government hold Aung San Suu Kyi and her military to account?

The hon. Lady should rest assured that we absolutely believe that everyone responsible for these atrocities must be held to account. I hope to meet Aung San Suu Kyi; I think I have probably expressed the disappointment felt on both sides of the House that she has not taken the stand that many of us who have admired her for many years had hoped she might. The key issue is whether she chooses to go down the path of Burmese nationalism or whether she recognises that all citizens of her country are entitled to high standards of treatment.

My constituent Mr Rasalingam has been in prison for four years in Myanmar, having been sentenced to 17 years on a fraud conviction. There is evidence that his conviction represents a major miscarriage of justice. Next Wednesday, the facts of his case will be reviewed by a judge to assess whether Mr Rasalingam can appeal. Will the Secretary of State look into his case and see whether action from the UK Government might help with the appeal?

I join Members from throughout the House in welcoming the new Foreign Secretary to his place; I genuinely hope that he will bring a more constructive tone in debating foreign policy challenges around the world and a more proactive attitude when it comes to resolving them. With that in mind, I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has shown such strong concern over last week’s United Nations report on the actions of the Myanmar military against the Rohingya. I hear that he will be visiting Myanmar at the earliest opportunity to seek answers, but I am not sure what he means by that. The evidence is damning and the conclusions obvious, so what questions does he believe still need to be asked?

First, I should say that it is a great pleasure to have the right hon. Lady shadowing me. As Health Secretary, I was shadowed by four different shadow Secretaries of State; I hope the right hon. Lady will stay long enough for us to really get to know each other.

Things need to happen if we are to deal with these very serious issues. It is important that I visit Burma/Myanmar to meet the military and Aung San Suu Kyi and see for myself the situation on the ground. But there are things that we can do only in concert with other countries: one is referral to the International Criminal Court, which can come only if there is a consensus on the Security Council. There is a huge amount of work for Britain to do—both individually, as we are doing with our aid support, and with other countries.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that answer. I listened carefully to his earlier explanation of the long, hard road to a referral to the International Criminal Court, but we have not been afraid in the past to support resolutions to refer Syria to the ICC and expose Russia in the court of public opinion when it vetoes them. Why are we not prepared to do the same with China? In 2005, China and the United States abstained on Darfur rather than using their vetoes—the weight of public opinion can be a powerful tool.

With all due respect to the Foreign Secretary, if he wants to mark a genuine break with his predecessor, instead of travelling to Myanmar to ask more questions to which we already have the answers, why does he not just travel to New York and demand justice through the United Nations?

With the greatest respect to my new shadow, that is exactly what I am going to do and what I have said I will do. I will be in the margins of the UN General Assembly raising the issue with my counterparts from the other permanent members of the Security Council. But I also want to visit Burma/Myanmar, and I think I will be able to make a stronger case if I do.