Burma, Bangladesh and Rohingya Muslims in Lords and Commons

Question asked by Baroness Berridge

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and (2) the consequent impact on Bangladesh.

Baroness Goldie (Con)

My Lords, we remain concerned by the systematic discrimination against the Muslim Rohingya community in Rakhine state. We are especially concerned by reports of widespread and serious human rights violations perpetrated by the military. The situation in Bangladesh is fragile, with an estimated 74,000 Rohingya refugees having arrived in the Cox’s Bazar region in the last eight months alone. The UK remains committed to supporting a long-term solution for Rohingya in Burma.

Baroness Berridge (Con)

I thank my noble friend for her Answer, but that now makes a total of more than 400,000 refugees in Bangladesh due solely to the religious persecution in Myanmar. Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees visited Cox’s Bazar this week and said:

“These people deserve a better future than the present conditions of extreme poverty, deprivation and isolation”.

Can my noble friend outline what discussions we have had with the Bangladeshi Government on whether more international assistance could persuade them to improve the conditions for the refugees in Cox’s Bazar? By doing so, they could help further their aim of developing Cox’s Bazar for tourism, which of course is not appealing at the moment, but Cox’s Bazar is the longest uninterrupted beach in the world.

Baroness Goldie

I thank my noble friend for her Question. Her interest in these issues is both enduring and acknowledged, and she has raised an important point. I remind your Lordships that the UK is the largest provider of food aid to the 60,000 Rohingya refugees already living in official camps in Bangladesh. Since 2014, the UK has provided nearly £8 million to address the humanitarian suffering of Rohingya refugees and the vulnerable Bangladesh communities that host them. My noble friend asked particularly about engagement. There has been extensive diplomatic engagement by the UK Government, not just with Burma but with Bangladesh as well. We have, in particular, sought to ascertain how best we can provide assistance to refugees in Bangladesh, but the UK record in this instance is commendable. We shall continue to engage and do everything we can to assist the Rohingya refugees.

Lord Lea of Crondall (Lab)

It is obviously tricky for an ex-colonial power to be centre stage in this sort of question. What is the mechanism within south-east Asia where we have some confidence that such matters can be addressed under the United Nations umbrella?

Baroness Goldie

I thank the noble Lord for his question. He is aware, I am sure, that there has been extensive United Nations activity in relation to the issues confronting Burma and also impacting on Bangladesh. More specifically, the United Nations former Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, has formed the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, which has produced an interim report. We expect the final report in August. The United Kingdom supported the establishment of a fact-finding mission by the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in March to establish the facts in Rakhine. We continue to urge the Burmese authorities to work with that mission.

Baroness Cox (CB)

My Lords, while strongly endorsing every concern regarding the plight of the Rohingya people, may I ask the Minister whether she is aware that the Shan and Kachin peoples are often suffering from military offences by the Burmese army, including rape, torture, extrajudicial killings and expropriation of land, with hundreds of thousands driven from their homes into camps across the border in Thailand? I have been there and seen their suffering. Would the Minister therefore include the less publicised plight of those people, together with the Rohingya, in any representations to the Burmese Government from the international community?

Baroness Goldie

Again, I thank the noble Baroness for a very pertinent question. The British Government remain concerned over continued human rights abuses in Burma’s ethnic border areas, where hostilities are still taking place. We have repeatedly called on the military to end hostilities comprehensively, and called on all sides to enter into dialogue towards a sustainable and comprehensive nationwide ceasefire and political reconciliation process. Those points are made repeatedly through diplomatic conduits; the Foreign Secretary made those points in January this year, and the then Minister for Asia and the Pacific, Mr Alok Sharma, made the same points to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on 27 February. We continue to take an interest in, and endeavour to represent, concerns about the detained Kachin pastors and the three Shan journalists.

Baroness Burt of Solihull (LD)

My Lords, noble Lords across this House will have been shocked by the horrific treatment of the Rohingya outlined in the BROUK report, which highlights the need for a UN inquiry into those human rights violations. Very disappointingly, Aung San Suu Kyi has refused it entry. What steps can the Government take to enable a UN inquiry into human rights violations happening against the Rohingya?

Baroness Goldie

I thank the noble Baroness for raising an important point. The United Kingdom Government were very concerned to learn of the Deputy Foreign Minister telling the Burmese Parliament on 30 June that it would refuse to issue visas to members of the fact-finding mission. That is certainly not the positive progress for the fact-finding mission that we would wish for, or that the United Nations or the membership states would wish for. As I say, there is very active diplomatic engagement between the United Kingdom and Burma, and we continue to prosecute the case robustly for co-operating with these United Nations initiatives. We await with interest the final report of Mr Kofi Annan’s advisory commission in August.

In the morning, questions were also asked in the House of Commons:

Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab)

What discussions he has had with his counterparts in other countries on promoting human rights.

The Minister for the Middle East (Alistair Burt)

With the Foreign Secretary’s permission, I can say that ensuring the promotion of human rights and engaging with this issue is an essential part of the foreign policy of global Britain. Ministers meet their counterparts regularly and raise issues including those relating to LGBTI people, gender equality, modern slavery, freedom of belief and religion, the death penalty and torture. This is an essential part of who we are as the United Kingdom and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Liz Twist

Back in March, the UN Human Rights Council established an independent commission to investigate the many alleged atrocities committed against the Rohingya people in Myanmar. In the light of ongoing abuses, including recent reports of Rohingya women being raped by the security forces, does the Minister agree that the perpetrators of such crimes should be brought to justice as a matter of urgency, and what steps is he taking to progress these cases?

Alistair Burt

I welcome the hon. Lady to the House. I was recently in Burma and was able to reaffirm the United Kingdom’s support for the independent United Nations Commission. Again, those in Burma are wrestling with this very difficult issue. The United Kingdom remains very close to the humanitarian needs of the Rohingya people in Rakhan.

Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon) (Con)

On his recent visit to Burma, did my right hon. Friend encourage the Burmese Government to allow full access and to co-operate fully with the fact-finding mission of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees into human rights issues in that country?

Alistair Burt

Yes, indeed. It is a difficult issue, but we have made it clear that the UN independent report needs full consideration. We have urged the Government to do all they can to facilitate what the UN needs to complete its work. An internal investigation is already being carried out by the Burmese Government.

Mrs Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con)

The World Trade Organisation estimates that three out of four new trade deals include provisions to improve human rights around the world. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with his colleagues in the Department for International Trade to ensure that, where appropriate, our new trade deals include obligations to improve human rights?

Alistair Burt

My right hon. Friend is right: ensuring that human rights are an essential part of the United Kingdom’s policy on trade deals is an important part of the future and will continue to be a key part of our prosperity drive.