Burma

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:34 pm on 15th March 2018.

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Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 12:34 pm, 15th March 2018

I thank the Minister for that clear and comprehensive update on the situation of the Rohingya, and for giving me advance sight of his statement. No one can doubt the effort and commitment that he and his officials in the Foreign Office and on the ground are putting into resolving this issue.

I also welcome several specific aspects of the Minister’s update. First, the interim report of the UN fact-finding mission—both in its level of detail about the atrocities suffered by the Rohingya and in the unflinching language it uses to describe those genocidal acts—is a vital first step in building a case against the individuals responsible. Secondly, I welcome the public’s generosity, and the Government’s continued commitment to providing humanitarian relief to the Rohingya refugees trapped in Cox’s Bazar and elsewhere. I applaud the tireless work of British medical professionals seeking to stop the spread of disease in the camps.

Thirdly, I welcome the Minister’s words on the role of UNHCR in ensuring a safe, dignified and voluntary return, and a sustainable future for those refugees. The international community must continue to put pressure on the Government in Myanmar to allow UNHCR to dictate when and how it will be appropriate to begin that repatriation process. Fourthly, I welcome the Minister’s continued support for the Kofi Annan report, and the vital long-term reforms it sets out to give full rights and lasting protection to the Rohingya community in Myanmar. Democratic and civil society development did not improve as we hoped two years ago, and only this week I heard also about 100,000 displaced people in Kachin state.

I welcome the progress that the Minister mentioned on agreeing EU-wide sanctions against leading Myanmar generals. Only two weeks ago, Foreign Office Ministers were avoiding a debate and voting down Labour’s Magnitsky amendments. I was therefore pleased that the Prime Minister expressed a change of heart yesterday, not least because we noticed that the United States used Magnitsky provisions to sanction one of the generals, Maung Maung Soe.

The Minister spoke about the importance of providing support for the victims of sexual violence, and documenting the abuses that they have suffered, with a view to bringing prosecutions against those responsible at some future date. He will know the concern across the House that when we last received an update on Myanmar, it was confirmed that only two of the 70 sexual violence experts employed as part of the Government’s preventing sexual violence initiative in 2012 had been deployed to work on those cases. Have more of those staff now been deployed in the refugee camps? Are those two experts still there? How many people are now working to support victims and document their evidence? What percentage of the victims of sexual violence does he estimate have now received support and had their cases documented, whether by UK experts or other agencies working on this issue?

The Minister noted the impending monsoon season, and we are all aware of the risk that those heavy rains could turn the existing humanitarian crisis in the refugee camps into something even more catastrophic, including through the spread of waterborne disease. What assessment have the Minister’s officials, and their counterparts in the United Nations, made of the current shortfall in humanitarian funding to support the refugees, and of the expected shortfall if the monsoon season makes the crisis worse? If those numbers are as high as many of us fear, what emergency action will the Government take with our international partners to try to plug those gaps?

Finally, we must return to how we can best ensure the safe, voluntary and dignified repatriation of and a sustainable future for the Rohingya refugees, and how we can ensure that those responsible for the atrocities against them are brought to justice. I appreciate what the Minister has said about the pressure the United Kingdom has exerted behind the scenes at the United Nations in terms of setting up the fact-finding mission and obtaining the Security Council presidential statement. However, he will understand the long-standing view on the Labour Benches that it is time to go further and be more public in using the UK’s formal role as penholder on Myanmar on the United Nations Security Council to table resolutions on these vital issues: first, to table a resolution setting out the terms under which the repatriation process should proceed, and the future rights and protections that must be accorded to the Rohingya refugees, obliging the Myanmar authorities to accede to those terms. Secondly, at the appropriate time, a resolution should be tabled referring Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, so that the generals, who this week scandalously dismissed the UN’s claims of ethnic cleansing and genocide by saying the Rohingya had burned down their own houses, can be brought to account.

The Minister spoke with candour on that second point, admitting that such a resolution would be difficult to get past the Security Council. I ask him to expand on that. What steps have the Government taken to engage with Myanmar’s near neighbour China and did the Prime Minister raise this issue with the Chinese on her recent trip?

Many of us fear that, if we do not act quickly to break the stalemate, especially with the monsoon season coming, we will have these types of updates for too many months to come, and the humanitarian crisis the Minister described will only get worse.