[Mr Jim Hood in the Chair] — Rakhine and Kachin State (Human Rights)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:38 am on 12th June 2013.

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Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 10:38 am, 12th June 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate my hon. Friend Yasmin Qureshi both on securing this debate and making an excellent speech in support of it. It is a matter of great concern to her constituents, to Members across the House and in the wider community.

We should start by welcoming the major changes made in Burma over recent years. The country had been so long isolated from the rest of the world, had suffered severe repression for many years and was of concern to the world community. That is why this Parliament was so pleased to welcome Aung San Suu Kyi to Westminster Hall and to hear her message of hope, and why the world is renewing and expanding business and other relationships with Burma. We welcome the corresponding economic growth that is taking place.

It is also right to acknowledge the significant persuasive role of President Thein Sein in bringing about change, and the patient diplomatic role played by Burma’s fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which worked steadily to persuade the previous regime, often facing criticism for what seemed to be their cautious approach. All that offers hope for the future, for Burma and for its people.

As we have seen elsewhere in the world, however, such rapid change can often release old tensions and conflicts that have been repressed under the old regime. That is why we must acknowledge the progress that Burma has made towards peace and democracy. The conflicts in Rakhine and Kachin states demonstrate all too powerfully why there can be no complacency, whether from President Thein Sein or us and the international community. My hon. Friend Valerie Vaz alluded to that.

The Rakhine conflict started a year ago, following the rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman and the killing of 10 Muslim men. June and October in particular saw shocking inter-communal violence, with more than 200 deaths and by now an estimated 140,000 internally displaced persons, predominantly Rohingya. Conditions in the camps are shocking, as ably reported by my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali.

The conflict also raises fundamental human rights concerns, including the seemingly arbitrary arrest of hundreds during the Government-imposed state of emergency. The special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma noted

“harsh and disproportionate restrictions on the freedom of movement of Muslim populations in the IDP camps” and received “credible allegations” of

“widespread and systematic human rights violations by state officials targeted against the Rohingya and wider Muslim populations”.

That includes

“extrajudicial killings, rape and sexual violence, arbitrary detention and torture and ill-treatment in detention, deaths in detention, and denial of due process and fair trial rights”.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow also mentioned the chilling report from Human Rights WatchAll You Can Do is Pray”, which expresses considerable concern about possible state collusion in what is argued to

“amount to crimes against humanity carried out as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing.”

I understand and welcome the fact that our ambassador has raised that report with the Burmese Government. Will the Minister tell us the outcome of those talks, and whether the claims will be discussed at the highest level between the UK and Burma? The senior Minister of State at the Foreign Office commented that

“further independent investigative work would be required”.—[Hansard, House of Lords, 5 June 2013; Vol. 745, c. 1248.]

Will the Minister here today elaborate on what investigations the Government would like to see and on what steps the UK is taking to secure an inquiry and to ensure that the Burmese Government recognise the gravity of the report?

President Thein Sein initiated an inquiry into the inter-communal violence last year, and the Rakhine investigation commission finally reported at the end of April. Unfortunately, it seemed to provide further evidence of the rejection of the Rohingya community, as the report referred to them as “Bengali” throughout. That reinforces the point made by my hon. Friend Jonathan Ashworth and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East. There were a number of comments on the birth rate among the community and, as mentioned in the debate, the two-child policy imposed on the Rohingya was reaffirmed last month, a move I am pleased to see was condemned by Aung San Suu Kyi as discrimination that

“is not in line with human rights”.

What discussions have there been with the Burmese authorities and in the European Union or the UN about the Rakhine investigation commission report?

In particular, the report notably failed to support a review of the 1982 citizenship law, which denies the Rohingya citizenship and renders them stateless. What recent representations has the Minister made in support of a review of the law and of positive action to address the prejudice and discrimination suffered by the Rohingya community? Does he agree that continued segregation, as endorsed by the commission, should not be seen as a permanent solution? There was also a strong emphasis in the report on a greater presence for the security forces. Given that we have already discussed grave concerns about their past role, is the Minister satisfied that they can be deployed as a force for good and to calm the tensions, and that they will be held accountable for their actions?

Non-governmental organisations have reported worrying difficulties in supplying vital humanitarian support to the thousands who have lost their homes, and that was acknowledged by the investigation commission, which concluded that 15% of food needs are unmet and that

“some 90% of needs are unmet in the construction and provision of shelter”.

Can the Minister provide an indication of how reliable those figures are and tell us what steps the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development are taking to ensure unhindered access for humanitarian support, an issue stressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South? Can the Minister also update us on the current safety of internally displaced persons and on efforts to protect them from the monsoon season? What recent representations have been made to the authorities in Thailand and Bangladesh regarding the treatment of Rohingya asylum seekers? Is the Minister aware of any work by the Burmese authorities to stem the violence and to promote inter-religious dialogue?

The focus of today’s debate has been primarily but not only on Rakhine, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East is absolutely right to say that the human rights situation in Kachin state also requires international attention. That conflict intensified in November last year, after the 17 years of ceasefire. There are now estimated to be 90,000 internally displaced persons, to whom humanitarian support was reportedly restricted. There is also evidence that, unfortunately, those fleeing Kachin and seeking asylum in China have been turned back, adding to the humanitarian crisis. As has been mentioned, the UK has contributed £3.5 million in humanitarian aid to people affected by the Kachin conflict. Is the Minister confident that assistance is reaching those who need it, and can he update us on the humanitarian situation?

Amnesty International has received claims of extrajudicial executions, torture, arbitrary detention, forced labour and sexual violence, and concerns about the involvement of elements of the Burmese army. What investigations have the Government made into the actions of the armed forces in Kachin. What representations has the Minister made in support of justice for the Kachin civilians?

We support the Government in welcoming the agreement in the past couple of weeks between the Burmese Government and the Kachin Independence Organisation to begin dialogue and to work towards a ceasefire. Does the Minister consider that to be a likely scenario? What assistance can the international community and regional bodies provide to ensure that the talks prove successful.

As mentioned by a number of colleagues, the Foreign Secretary has been rightly commended for his work on tackling sexual violence in conflict. Understandably, there have been calls for Burma to be included in the initiative. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Mr Swire, stated:

“Over the summer, the British embassy in Rangoon will be scoping options to expand the initiative to Burma.”—[Hansard, 5 June 2013; Vol. 563, c. 1120W.]

Can the Minister assure us today that the urgent need to end the sexual violence and to hold those responsible to account has already been discussed with the Burmese Government? Can he elaborate on how and when the preventing sexual violence initiative could be expanded to Burma, as also discussed by Andrew Stunell? Furthermore, will the issue be raised at the G8 next week?

In April, the EU Foreign Affairs Council took the decision to lift sanctions, with the exception of the arms embargo. Some have argued that that was premature, and this morning’s debate has certainly highlighted that far too many people in Burma are still waiting for sustainable peace and respect for human rights. That is not to say that those things cannot be achieved, but does the Minister agree that the EU’s decision to lift sanctions must place an even greater obligation on Burma to comply with international law? Will he assure us that the UK, bilaterally and through the EU, will use the lifting of sanctions to press for more concerted action on human rights? What discussions have the Government had with the authorities in Burma since the sanctions were lifted, and what expectations have been set out? Answers to those questions will enable Burma to move on and start to build the democratic, peaceful and prosperous society that its long-suffering people richly deserve.