Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they have taken to support the Rohingya refugees currently displaced in Bangladesh.
My Lords, I declare an interest as per the Register of Lords’ Interests.
More than 600,000 Rohingya refugees are sheltering in desperate conditions in Bangladesh. The numbers arriving since 25 August this year and the speed of their displacement are greater than the flow of refugees at the height of the Syria conflict. It is the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis.
We know that people only flee in such a manner—on foot, without food, injured, carrying their babies and braving landmines or the sea—because they are running for their lives. In this case, they are fleeing the reported razing of nearly 300 villages, the brutal execution of civilians and the rape of women and girls, all within an atmosphere of widespread public hatred towards a persecuted minority and, sadly, a muted response from Aung San Suu Kyi.
I was born in a country where, in the course of one weekend and under the noses of the UN peacekeepers, 8,500 men and boys were slaughtered in Srebrenica in 1995. The term “ethnic cleansing” was born in Bosnia to describe policies designed to purge a land of part of its population through murder, expulsion and rape, fuelled by an ideology of ethnic superiority and segregation. The failure to prevent ethnic cleansing and genocide in Bosnia led to one of the most intense periods of soul-searching in the history of the United Nations and to one paramount conclusion. The report commissioned by the then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, stated:
“The cardinal lesson of Srebrenica is that the deliberate and systematic attempt to terrorize, expel or murder an entire people must be met decisively with all necessary means”.
It is hard to argue that what has been happening in Myanmar for some time is anything other than that—a deliberate and systematic attempt to terrorize and expel an entire people—and as such, it demands a decisive international response. The basic needs, protection and right of return of the Rohingya refugees should of course be at the centre of that response.
Bangladesh has shown great generosity and I welcome our Government’s announcement of £47 million in humanitarian aid. I note, however, that the amount pledged in Geneva fell considerably short of the total requested by the UN. Will the Government urge other countries to do more, given that, for instance, less than one quarter of the sites hosting refugees in Bangladesh have access to clean water?
The reality is that humanitarian aid is essentially there to lessen the human suffering, but it cannot solve the crisis. The conflict in Syria is a sad example: the international community has spent more than $28 billion in aid so far, but 11 million Syrians are still displaced from their homes.
The Rohingya crisis is a man-made disaster which demands a political solution in Burma itself. I am therefore asking the Government about their policy in four areas. First, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has described the violence as,
“a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
The UN Secretary-General agrees with him, and so does our Foreign Secretary. If it is textbook ethnic cleansing, then it is, by definition, a textbook situation in which the UN Security Council should act to insist on full humanitarian access, on the right of refugees to return, on their human rights as citizens of Burma, and to open the way for sanctions if the Government and military do not comply.
I welcome reports that the UK and France have put forward a draft resolution. Can the Minister say what he expects, and when he expects it to be put to a vote? Can he confirm whether the UK is seeking a resolution under Chapter VII or Chapter VI of the UN charter?
Secondly, there are reports of large numbers of survivors of sexual violence among the refugee population. According to MSF, of those who have come to its clinic for treatment relating to rape,
“about 50% are aged 18 or under, including one girl who was nine years old and several others under the age of 10”.
The UK’s preventing sexual violence initiative was set up in 2012 for exactly this kind of situation—to prevent the use of rape as a weapon and tactic of war. It includes a team of more than 60 people, such as police and forensic experts, who can be deployed to help gather evidence of crimes and give support to survivors. Have any of the experts been deployed in Bangladesh? If not, will the Government undertake to send a team as a matter of urgency? Will they also urge the UN Secretary-General to deploy the UN team that exists for the same purpose? Can the Minister also say what action the UK is proposing internationally to ensure accountability for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity?
Thirdly, we all recognise the stranglehold that the military exerts on politics in Burma, their prime responsibility for what is happening and the multiple ethnic conflicts facing that country. However, it is shocking to hear statements such as that of Minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement, suggesting that,
“Muslim people killed their own Muslim people”,
in Rakhine state and that there is “no case” of the military killing civilians. I welcome our Government’s decision to suspend training for the Burmese army and the EU-wide suspension of visas for senior officers. Does the Minister agree that there is a compelling cases for asset freezes against the military leadership?
Given that it appears that there is some level of political-military collusion in the so-called “clearance operations”, will the Government consider whether measures may be needed if members of the Myanmar Government or government officials make statements inciting hatred against the Rohingya population or block the return of refugees? Will the Government be prepared to make the case for this at EU level?
Fourthly, recent reports suggest that the Rohingya militants responsible for attacks in Rakhine state receive funding from groups in Saudi Arabia. Do the Government share this assessment and if so, what actions will be taken to raise this with the Saudi Government?
My hope after the war in Bosnia was that technology would make atrocities like Srebrenica impossible because people and leaders would see, and act. That hope was sadly misplaced. There seems to be a widening gap between what we stand for as democracies and how we react collectively to crises—from Syria to Sudan, from Burma to Yemen. On our watch, we are permitting the rapid erosion of fundamental laws and standards designed to protect civilian life against, for instance, the use of chemical weapons, barrel bombs, the bombing of schools and hospitals, and, now, ethnic cleansing. It comes at a time when international institutions themselves are under huge pressure from the threat of mass withdrawals from the International Criminal Court, for example, and to cut UN funding.
I hope that our response to the Rohingya crisis can mark a turning point, not a further erosion of our collective will. I hope too that the Government will make every diplomatic effort in the coming months to defend the rights of the Rohingya people and, in doing so, defend international peace and security and our own interests and moral authority as a country and as a society.
My Lords, at the outset, I thank the noble Baroness very much for drawing attention to a very serious and deeply depressing situation.
I have followed what has happened in Burma for decades and never in all that time has there been anything as horrifying as the current crisis. It has been building since October last year and has intensified since August, but the response from the international community, including, sadly, our Government, has been ineffective. Humanitarian aid is welcome and vital, but in Burma it is seriously impeded by the ruling regime. In impoverished Bangladesh, now providing refuge to over 800,000 Rohingya, it has to be increased and accelerated if we are to have a proper response to the situation analysed so well by the noble Baroness.
Hundreds of thousands of people are starving, malnourished and threatened by lethal diseases, including cholera. In just two months, more than 600,000 Rohingya —over 60% of whom are children—have been forced to flee by the genocidal determination of the Burmese Government to expel them from that country. No one will ever know how many have died in the relentless exodus by land and sea. The human rights violations perpetrated against the Rohingya include mass executions, systematic rape and torture, countless child murders, forced labour, extortion, looting and the destruction by fire of over 200 villages. The United Nations Human Rights Commissioner has justifiably called it,
“a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
Too often we have heard the declaration “never again” and then mourned repeated genocides. That is happening now and the powerless Rohingya people can do nothing to protect themselves. Tragically, as we heard, they get no support from Aung San Suu Kyi, and repatriation is not feasible: it would simply mean a return to internment camps. Relief and rescue must now urgently be provided from outside Burma. That means putting pressure on the UN to restore the measures that helped to propel change in 2012. It must also mean that the UK now imposes targeted sanctions against military officials and army-owned companies, and that the existing EU arms embargo must be extended to all supplies that could be used by the military. We should do everything in our power—political, diplomatic, economic and legal—to stop the terrible genocide in Burma. I urge the Minister to announce a new approach and add action to aid and words.
My Lords, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, in welcoming the powerful and eloquent introduction to our debate of the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, and thank her for that. I am vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Burma, of which the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, is chairman.
Two months ago, the Rakhine advisory commission established by Aung San Suu Kyi, and chaired by the former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, published a report that offered a way out of this morass. However, within hours of its publication, a small militant group attacked police posts, precipitating a grossly disproportionate response by the Tatmadaw, the Burmese army, leading to this current crisis.
In condemning the initial attacks, we should concur with the United Nations and be equally clear that the Burmese army’s response to those attacks amounts to crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. As one journalist put it, the Burmese army,
“wants to destroy an ethnicity, not end an insurgency”.
When more than 600,000 Rohingya—over half the population—have fled to Bangladesh, and harrowing accounts of the most extreme barbaric human rights violations are consistently repeated by survivors, it is impossible to reach any other conclusion. Of course, this is not by any means the first violence endured by the Rohingya: they have faced severe persecution for decades and, since 2006, I have repeatedly raised it in your Lordships’ House.
In 2013, I cited the Human Rights Watch report that stated,
“what is happening to the Rohingya people”,
is, in its words, “genocide”.
In 2015, I told your Lordships that,
“one in five Rohingya has now fled since 2011”.—[Official Report, 18/6/15; col. 1240.]
A year ago, the former President of East Timor, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate José Ramos-Horta, together with the human rights activist, Benedict Rogers, wrote:
“A human tragedy approaching ethnic cleansing is unfolding in Burma, and the world is chillingly silent ... If we fail to act, Rohingyas may starve to death if they aren’t killed by bullets first”.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, reminded us, so often we say “never again”, only to watch it happen all over again, from Rwanda, Kosovo, Bosnia, Darfur to the genocide—it was named as such by the House of Commons—of Christians, Yazidis and other minorities in Syria and Iraq.
I hope that the noble Lord will tell us what action Her Majesty’s Government are taking now to address the immediate humanitarian crisis, described by the UN Secretary-General as “catastrophic”, to address impunity and to gain urgent unhindered access for international aid organisations and human rights monitors. Does he agree that although much international criticism has focused on Aung San Suu Kyi—undoubtedly, she should have done more—she does not control the army? The person with the power to order the troops to stop the carnage is the commander-in-chief, General Min Aung Hlaing. If the violence is to end, the decision to immediately cease their operations in Rakhine state lies squarely with him. Have Her Majesty’s Government told General Min that, in the light of all the evidence available, we will make a referral to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity to be laid against him and those who have perpetrated these crimes?
What are we doing to promote the citizenship rights of Rohingyas and to facilitate their safe return to their villages in due course to rebuild their homes and their livelihoods, and to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, and of course in due course to promote a reconciliation process? Will we work for a global arms embargo of the kind that the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, mentioned? Will we work at the Security Council for targeted sanctions on military-owned enterprises? On what basis will we introduce a resolution before the United Nations Security Council to address this crisis?
Lastly, I urge the Minister to hold regular meetings with groups in London with expertise in Burma—most particularly Burma Campaign UK, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as representatives of the exiled Rohingya community—to discuss the crisis and to encourage clear statements about the rights of minorities from Daw Suu, especially during the visit of Pope Francis when he visits Burma next month.
Having travelled to Burma four years ago and met Daw Suu—on the day after I visited a village where Muslims had been driven out during an arson attack—and having addressed civil society activists in Rangoon and hosted in this place Burma’s courageous Cardinal Bo, an outspoken voice for the Rohingyas and other minorities, I had hoped that Burma was on a path of progress. Yet I cannot ignore the truth that the country now faces the worst human rights crisis in many years, not only for the Rohingyas but for the Kachin, Shan and others. In responding to this emergency, we must not neglect Burma’s other tragedies that continue to unfold. This catastrophe requires specific and urgent action. Like all other noble Lords, I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, for securing this debate and for her most profound speech. I acknowledge, too, the others in this House who have led on this deep human tragedy. I also acknowledge the humanitarian help provided by the UK thus far.
Over recent days, I have been in contact with Bishop Paul Sarker, who leads the small but vibrant Anglican Church of Bangladesh. He describes the situation as an extreme violation of humanity and talks of the extreme pressure that Bangladesh is experiencing at the moment, as well as its readiness to do all that it can. He pleads for greater action by the international community to support agents of compassion, such as his church, and to address the underlying causes of the crisis. In that spirit, I raise three practical issues and a longer-term one.
First, NGOs working on the front line need urgent help. At least one heroic NGO working on the ground has told me of the urgent need for international humanitarian agencies to be able to register their organisations in Bangladesh as quickly as possible and to have long-term permission to operate. Caritas and Christian Aid currently have, I believe, only two months in which to operate. Speedy and efficient registration processes are self-evidently vital. Without them, they cannot deliver food and medical supplies, let alone establish safe places to protect the children. I have heard terrible reports of children being trafficked and women being raped. Help is needed to stop starving Rohingyas being lured into drug trafficking as carriers. Therefore, I ask the Minister what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to help expedite the necessary registration.
Secondly, as important and necessary as long-term return is for the Rohingya people, what can be done to ensure that reported plans for the repatriation of those forcibly driven out do not involve them in being forcibly driven back against their will and exposed to further danger?
Thirdly, following other points that have already been made, what are Her Majesty’s Government doing to ensure that the witness testimonies of those who have been harmed are recorded so that those responsible for the atrocities can be held to account, as they must be?
Looking at long-term solutions, I am conscious of the analysis of the underlying issues in the Kofi Annan report, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. The report refers to the entrenched poverty of the Rakhine, as well as the Rohingya, and to the nutritional status of all the children in the state being,
“the worst in the country”,
It calls for communal participation and representation, intercommunal cohesion on border issues, and for the bilateral relationship with Bangladesh to be addressed, along with the need to abolish the distinction between different kinds of citizens and clarify the rights of those who reside in Myanmar without citizenship.
Given that, the report tells us, the Myanmar Government expressed willingness to implement “the large majority” of the commission’s recommendations, and in the light of a reply from the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, that I had to a Question very recently stating that the Government,
“assess that the Commission’s recommendations provide the most realistic solution to address the longstanding and underlying issues in Rakhine”,
I ask the Minister what efforts the Government are making now to provide diplomatic, legal and other expertise to assist the State Counsellor and the Government of Myanmar to deliver on that promise.
I end with the call of Pope Francis, who, as we have been reminded, will be visiting the country soon, on men of good will to work for those who are persecuted so that the people of that country,
“may be given their full rights”.
Those words echo Cardinal Bo of Yangon, who visited Parliament last year. He said in a recent interview that,
“the Church reaffirms the rights of every person in the country”.
He said that,
“Peace is possible and peace is the only way”,
and rightly so, but as he warned us in this place and the United Nations Commission for Human Rights, the “intolerable situation” in Rakhine state and the injustices suffered by the Rohingya, are,
“not a basis for a stable, peaceful future for my country”.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Helic for securing this debate and outlining the truly staggering scale of this crisis. It is not surprising that Bangladesh has struggled to cope. In 10 days, Bangladesh received more refugees than mainland Europe did from across the Mediterranean in the whole of 2016. Although the UK Government have committed £47 million since the end of August, more is, unfortunately, needed. I hope that my noble friend has praised the response officially to the Bangladesh Government and outlined what further aid will be given.
This crisis did not appear out of the blue. In 1982, the Government of Myanmar passed a law declaring all Rohingyas to be illegal immigrants, thereby removing their citizenship. However, in the first elections in 2010, Rohingyas had the vote if they had a white card, and Rohingya MP Shwe Maung was elected for Rakhine state. But in 2015 they were stripped of their right to vote, with very little international outcry. Sadly, it is not clear whether Her Majesty’s Government have ensured that UK support to assist the developing democratic Myanmar has not inadvertently supported this ethnic and religious discrimination, which is the basis of this crisis.
In your Lordships’ House on 6 June 2016, I asked Her Majesty’s Government how Rohingya with no identification papers could apply for UK tourist, work or study visas now on offer in Rangoon. I would like a guarantee that visas to come to the United Kingdom issued in Rangoon are in fact issued in a religiously and ethnically non-discriminatory manner, or we should stop issuing them to anyone. Could my noble friend please outline how many visas have been issued in Rangoon in the last two years and how many have been to Christians or Muslims who are within the ethnic minority population?
Similarly, is it the case that the embassy in Myanmar employs local people? If it does, please can my noble friend assure this House that they are from all the different religious and ethnic groups in Myanmar, or is the UK taxpayer paying only for the employment of the Buddhist majority population?
Perhaps most importantly, in terms of the UK taxpayer, since 2015 DfID has budgeted around £290 million on development projects in Myanmar. Much of the money will have been distributed to local NGOs in Myanmar, so have Her Majesty’s Government ensured that these NGOs are employing Rohingya Muslims and Christians as well as other citizens of Myanmar? In supporting development, is DfID merely building up NGOs through our aid budget that employ only the majority population, which is basically Buddhist? Part of this development work includes the UK Parliament’s own librarians and clerks doing capacity-building work, which is now funded out of the DfID budget. Again, who is the UK taxpayer training? Is it just the majority Buddhist population?
The All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, which I co-chair, published our report, Rhetoric to Reality, yesterday and my noble friend kindly attended. In it we have asked for more detailed tracking and auditing, as I have outlined, of DfID’s funds, but also particularly that we support NGOs and organisations that seek to build religious tolerance in countries.
The private sector must also play its role in supporting human rights. Standard Chartered Bank is the first western financial institution to open a representative office in Burma, and Unilever opened its first factory in Myanmar in 2013. While the CEO, Paul Polman, has in his private capacity signed an open letter to the UN over the military offensives in Rakhine, the company has kept silent. Has my noble friend spoken to these companies operating in Myanmar about whether they are facing similar issues in employing people from across the ethnic and religious communities in the country?
The Rohingya must return home from Bangladesh, but as equal citizens of Myanmar, which is one of the recommendations from the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State’s final report. It was said that:
“The current constitution, drawn up by the military government in 2008, must be amended to incorporate the basic rights and aspirations of Burma’s ethnic nationalities”.
Those were the words of Aung San Suu Kyi on 21 June 2012 in Westminster Hall. This Parliament bestowed a high honour on Aung San Suu Kyi by inviting her to be the first person from Asia to address both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall. Alas, I am not sure she would be given the same honour today.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness for introducing this debate and noble Lords for all the powerful speeches that have preceded mine. I also declare an interest as a trustee of the Burma Campaign UK, which has long campaigned for human rights in Burma.
The fact that nearly 1 million people have had to flee to a neighbouring country because of the systematic murder and rape by the military in Burma is a shocking indictment of the world we live in. The fact that ethnic cleansing on this scale can happen again is a reminder of the fragility of our world. One million people is as if nearly all of Birmingham ceased to be.
While reports of attacks by the military might appear to have diminished over recent days, the remaining Rohingya in Burma are being starved to death because humanitarian assistance is denied access to Rakhine state, where 140,000 Rohingya are living in IDP camps which are in reality prison camps.
The UK Government should adopt a twin-track approach in supporting the Rohingya. First, we must help the displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh and surrounding countries with humanitarian assistance and healthcare. The British people have shown their humanity by their response to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, and I am pleased that the Government have increased the level of matched funding, but I hope that the Minister will announce today that the Government are keeping the level of aid under review and that it will be increased as necessary, as well as urging other countries, especially fellow Commonwealth countries, to pledge further funding.
The other approach must be to put pressure on the military so that they understand that they cannot act with impunity. It is not possible for the Rohingya to be repatriated as Aung San Suu Kyi has suggested because there is nothing to go back to. Their home villages have been destroyed and their only prospect is indefinite internment in even more IDP camps. It has been made impossible for the Rohingya to prove citizenship, as the noble Baroness just explained.
Only economic measures will get the military to change their behaviour. It has happened in the past and it is the only sure way to get them to change in the future. The generals did not wake up one day and decide that democracy was a good idea. They were under significant international pressure, which was causing them domestic problems as well. All the reforms in Burma have been carefully orchestrated by the military, underpinned by the 2008 constitution which they drew up to ensure that they kept their grip on the pace and speed of change. They knew that Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD would win elections and they needed to keep control of the levers of power in the security ministries whilst keeping a block on reform in the Parliament, too. That constitution stops Aung San Suu Kyi having any control over the army, in the same way as it stopped her becoming president—but she did not let that stand in her way. Her voice could mobilise international and domestic opinion, but, so far, that has not happened. Aung San Suu Kyi was a beacon for the human rights movement, but is letting herself now be described as a shield for the military. While we regret her inaction, that does not shift responsibility from the military.
There is a view, wrongly held in my opinion, that the military are looking for a reason to take back control of the country. But how is a coup in their interest? They know full well the international consequences if they removed Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as the domestic problems that it would cause them.
I am sure the Minister will talk about the UK’s five-point plan, but the UK and the international community must have a concerted programme to achieve those laudable aims. That will happen only if the military see that their economic interests are hurt if they pursue their programme of ethnic cleansing. So I hope the Minister will say that the British Government will impose visa restrictions on the military and their families, promote an international arms embargo mandated by the UN and halt investment in and business with military-owned companies. What is happening in Myanmar and in Bangladesh has consequences for the whole world, and the British Government should be at the forefront of action to stop this appalling situation.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, for bringing the deeply distressing situation in Myanmar for debate in your Lordships’ House. She is indeed well qualified to do so, as her opening remarks showed.
A Muslim terrorist attack in northern Rakhine province is the justification that the outside world is asked to accept for the merciless, inhuman attacks on villages and civilians which resulted in more than 600,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh to date, thousands killed, hundreds of villages burned and reports of horrific human rights atrocities including mass rape—even of very young children—torture, execution without trial, and the blocking of aid and independent observers. It has been described by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that we should have no truck with this utterly disproportionate military response against Rohingya civilians, who have suffered decades of persecution. The 1982 Myanmar nationality law stripped the Rohingya people of statehood and restricted freedom of movement, state education and civil service jobs—the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, gave us great detail of how that has affected the civilian lives both of the Rohingya and of other minorities.
The Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh now number almost a million, as 600,000 of them join the 300,000 who had previously fled their homes in Myanmar after similar atrocities. There is a clear pattern of a desire by Burmese nationalists to cleanse the region of all non-Buddhist nationalists. Today, it may be the Muslim Rohingya being singled out and driven out, but make no mistake, the ruthless Buddhist nationalists will, in time, also come methodically for Christians, Hindus and anyone else who is not a Buddhist nationalist.
What should Britain do? Britain has authority on the international stage to lead, not just on mustering an effective humanitarian response to aid the refugee camps in Bangladesh—welcome though that is—but on co-ordinating a response aimed at stemming the army’s actions. I pay tribute to the Government of Bangladesh, who, despite domestic challenges, have shown such generosity in welcoming those who have nothing.
To date, action on our part has been woefully inadequate. The removal of UK military training personnel is hardly commensurate with the scale of events in Myanmar. I wholeheartedly agree with noble Lords who have suggested, or indeed demanded, that the military be held personally accountable. Will the Government urgently seek a UN Security Council resolution to impose a global arms embargo on the Myanmarese army? Will they urge the Myanmar Government to allow unhindered access to all parts of Rakhine state for international humanitarian aid, human rights monitors and the media? Will they urge the Myanmar Government to implement immediately the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission, chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan?
I have reserved my closing comments for a few words on democracy. Some exhort us to not criticise Aung San Suu Kyi because she is walking a tightrope in her attempts to bring an end to the generals’ power, and thus bring democracy to Myanmar. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate herself knows that democracy is much more than fair and free elections. It is about putting in place a state apparatus that will deliver the international norms that define a civilised society: the rule of law; an independent judiciary; and human rights for all citizens, regardless of race, gender, creed or sexual orientation.
Sometimes the argument that the means justify the end is used to mitigate condemnation of actions, but what can justify means that lead to an end which is in itself abhorrent? In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu—also a Nobel laureate, like Aung San Suu Kyi—what the Government in Myanmar are pursuing is no less than apartheid. When Archbishop Desmond Tutu uses that word, the world must pay heed; and when Aung San Suu Kyi fails to condemn what is happening in her country, we must question what has happened to her moral compass and not rein in our criticism.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, for initiating this timely debate. The Rohingya crisis has been fast evolving over recent weeks; but, as my noble friend Lady Kinnock said, we must not forget that the Rohingya people have suffered decades of terrible persecution, being denied citizenship and marginalised. As we have heard, there are now nearly a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. I too welcome the funding made available by the Department for International Development and the international community but, as she said, estimates are that we are 20% short of the required amount. What steps are the Government taking to ensure we meet the full target? What are we doing to make sure other countries make similar contributions?
I also welcome the Government’s efforts in raising this issue at the UN Security Council and the General Assembly, as well as convening an international meeting in New York with Kofi Annan. However, as my noble friend Lady Nye said, Ministers have been asserting that this action has focused the international community on the implementation of the five-point plan, which says that: the security forces must stop the violence; there must be full humanitarian access within Burma; refugees must be allowed to return to Burma in a voluntary, safe and dignified manner; the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine state, chaired by Kofi Annan, must be implemented rapidly and in full; and, above all, Burma must grant access to, and fully co-operate with, the UN Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission.
As we heard, Aung San Suu Kyi has announced measures including the establishment of a new civilian-led body to oversee the return of those who have fled and the development of Rakhine into a state in which all communities can live together. The Government have said they are watching closely to ensure that Aung San Suu Kyi’s words translate into swift action and that they will keep challenging her to ensure that the five-point plan is implemented. I hope the Minister will tell us what the Government’s assessment is of progress so far. Does it meet the definition of “swift action”?
On 11 October the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, said in the Chamber that,
“it is the military who are behind this ruthless and brutal treatment of the Rohingya”,
and he pointed out the UK is,
“providing some military training through education on issues such as human rights”,—[Official Report, 11/10/17; col. 222.]
and that this had been “suspended”. We are calling on the EU to do likewise. I welcomed that decision, but I do not understand why the same consideration is not given to DfID funding of parliamentary advice and WFD funding of advice to the union Government. Surely we need to act against all authorities that have failed to act to protect the Rohingya community?
As noble Lords have said, if we do not get progress, what are the Government going to do next? Will they support calls for UN-mandated sanctions, particularly targeted sanctions and travel restrictions against members of the military? As the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, said, we have seen clear evidence of gender-based violence, which is a significant threat in Myanmar and Bangladesh. What is DfID doing to respond to the specific needs of women as part of its response, including supporting survivors of gender-based violence and protecting women from further attacks?
We are witnessing ethnic cleansing. Like the House of Commons, this House needs to say that loud and clear. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, there should be no impunity for such action. What steps are the Government taking to better support efforts to gather evidence so that the people responsible are properly and fully held to account?
My Lords, I too begin by paying tribute to my noble friend Lady Helic for securing this debate and for the powerful way in which she introduced it, drawing on her personal experiences of the horrific events in Bosnia. It is tragic and salutary that we connected the events of 1995 and now, in the sense that Kofi Annan’s report was the definitive report at the time and he is at the heart of trying to seek a way forward in this crisis as well, drawing on those experiences.
I will try to use my time to respond to some of the detailed and focused questions, but I think that some of the responses will benefit from a further meeting, if noble Lords are willing. However, before I address those questions, I should begin by updating the House on the Government’s response to the situation of the Rohingya in Bangladesh, on the situation in Rakhine state and on the border, and on our diplomatic efforts.
We condemned the attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in late August, but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, said, the violence carried out against the civilian Rohingya population was completely disproportionate and utterly appalling, and we condemn it without reservation. The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, asked about allegations that funding has been coming from other sources. We will look into that and I will write to her on it.
More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in a matter of weeks. Tens of thousands more are believed to be displaced within Rakhine state. Humanitarian access remains severely constrained. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked what we are doing to ensure that we get access to that area. The UK co-sponsored a resolution at the Human Rights Council that set up a fact-finding mission to look at the human rights situation in Burma. We recently supported a resolution to extend the mandate of the mission until September 2018. In addition, as noble Lords would expect, I spoke to Jane Edmondson, who is the head of DfID in Bangladesh. I put on record my tribute to her and her team—something which we do not do often enough. They are working down there in the camps at Cox’s Bazar as well as with the Government in Dhaka to ensure that there is NGO access in those areas. I pay tribute to their work, which comes, as usual in many such situations, with great personal risk.
The survivors’ accounts of the suffering have painted a harrowing picture. The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop the Coventry referred to that and to other humanitarian abuses. Burmese security forces and ethnic Rakhine vigilante groups have displaced the Rohingya through a brutal campaign of violence that increasingly appears to be ethnic cleansing. Others have gone much further and we would not detract at all from what those organisations have said. The UK is one of the leading actors in the international community in responding to and seeking a solution to this crisis. I emphasise that word, solution, and I will come back to it. We are calling on the security forces and the Burmese Government to protect civilians, to facilitate full humanitarian access in Rakhine and to allow the safe and voluntary return of the Rohingya.
The noble Baroness, Lady Helic, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and others referred to the pledging conference that took place on Monday of this week and was a major effort. It might be helpful to the House if I put on record that the pledges totalled $344.7 million. That fell short of what was expected but the UK contribution was a pledge of $63 million, which was by far the largest. The next largest donor was the European Commission pledge of $42 million, followed by the United States, at $38 million, and then Sweden at $23 million, along with Australia. We join others in calling for the international community to be cognisant of the severity of this crisis and the urgent need for resources to be found.
Providing humanitarian assistance is the most urgent priority now for hundreds of thousands of refugees who have arrived in Bangladesh and those who remain in dire need in northern Rakhine state. We commend the Government of Bangladesh—as did the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, and my noble friend Lady Berridge—for their generosity in welcoming so many refugees. The UK is the largest donor to the refugee response in Bangladesh. Within days of the outbreak of violence in August we committed an additional £30 million to enable humanitarian organisations to scale up, we have committed to match donations given through the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal and we announced an additional £12 million at the pledging conference I referred to.
UK aid is making a tremendous difference on the ground. Our support is allowing food to be provided for 174,000 people and has provided safe water and sanitation. I know that one thing that Jane Edmondson and her team were very concerned about in the camps was the possible outbreak of diseases such as cholera, so the washing facilities were absolutely critical in that initial response.
We are targeting the needs of vulnerable women and children, and my noble friend Lady Helic reminded us of the importance of us doing that. Emergency nutrition support will reach 21,000 pregnant and lactating women and more than 60,000 children under five. UK-funded women’s centres and health clinics will support survivors of gender-based violence and provide medical help for more than 50,000 pregnant women to give birth safely. The UK has provided £1 million to the Red Cross in Burma, which is currently the only aid organisation able to provide humanitarian support in Rakhine. I cannot at this stage answer the pertinent question of my noble friend Lady Berridge about the composition of those who are delivering the humanitarian aid, but I undertake to make investigations and come back to her. Our diplomatic efforts have been focused on directing international attention on to the Burmese security forces. We have raised Burma three times at the UN Security Council and convened an international meeting in New York with Kofi Annan, the chair of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. The role of neighbouring countries is vital. We are talking to China and India—which have very important roles to play in the region—and other regional states to encourage them to play their full part in resolving the crisis.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Kinnock and Lady Nye, and my noble friend Lady Helic referred to the role of Aung San Suu Kyi on this issue. I very much understand the criticism and grave disappointment felt by many in this House. However, we should not fail to acknowledge in part—and this is why I say that I will come back to the emphasis on a solution—the pressures she is facing, to which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred in his remarks. The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, described it as walking a tightrope—we recognise that description as well—between the international condemnation and Burmese public opinion which overwhelmingly supports what the security forces are doing. That is the reality and we need to work within that. We believe that Aung San Suu Kyi has now begun to show more leadership, and she has announced a humanitarian mechanism. She has clearly expressed her willingness to facilitate the safe and voluntary return of the Rohingya to Rakhine, and has set up nationwide interfaith meetings to promote respect for diversity and challenge widespread prejudice.
At this point, I refer to the remarks of my noble friend Lady Berridge on the persecution of both Muslims and Christians in Burma, particularly in Rakhine. It is very clear that they are facing persecution there and in other parts of Burma as well. Ministers including the Foreign Secretary have met community leaders, including some from religious minorities, and we have spoken publicly of our support for the importance of freedom of religious belief. That is all the more important as tomorrow is International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Berridge and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief for the event that it organised yesterday. My noble friend Lord Ahmad attended that event and spoke powerfully about the importance that we place on defending people’s religious beliefs in those areas.
We stand ready to encourage and support Aung San Suu Kyi on taking these initiatives forward, but we will need to see progress. The situation in Rakhine has been difficult for many decades. Noble Lords have referred to that, including the noble Lord, Lord Collins. Resolving the current crisis as well as healing the deep divisions requires sustained and long-term engagement. The UK is committed to supporting the Rohingya, not only now in their time of most urgent need but also during the difficult times ahead.
I will now turn to some of the specific points raised. On citizenship, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and my noble friend Lady Berridge, the Rakhine Advisory Commission makes it clear that citizenship must be addressed in order to make progress in Rakhine. It sets out two approaches on citizenship: making progress on verification under existing laws and reviewing the controversial 1982 citizenship law. It is of course a tragic consequence of those laws, and the failures that are in place, that the Rohingya end up in the situations referred to by my noble friend Lady Berridge, with the difficulty they have in getting visas. To have a visa into any country, you need to have valid identification and travel documents. If they do not have those because they do not have citizenship, then of course it is difficult for that to happen. Again, we will look into that.
My noble friend Lady Helic talked about the response to gender-based violence. DfID is supporting a range of organisations providing specialised assistance on gender-based violence to survivors. At the moment, having spoken to officials in DfID about the stories they are coming across, I know that, anecdotally, the numbers are staggering. We are working with official groups to make sure that those testimonies and reports are recorded so that actions can be taken. She also asked what work we are doing through the UN Security Council. Although we have raised it in three sessions, we also have to be aware of the reality that there is a possibility of veto in the Security Council because countries have an interest in and are prepared to use a veto. However, we were encouraged that on 13 September, for the first time in more than nine years, the Chinese agreed to issue a UN Security Council press statement. We regard that as an encouraging step forward.
Overwhelmingly, this has been a debate which should sober our minds and make the international community wake up and take notice of what is actually happening there. This is yet another man-made crisis which requires a political solution. I pay tribute to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, and to my noble friend Lady Helic. I stand ready to meet noble Lords to pursue these matters further as the need requires.