Burma: Rohingya and human rights – House of Lords

11 October

Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to prevent human rights violations against the Rohingya people in Burma.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
My Lords, we are deeply concerned by events in Rakhine State. The British Government have led the international response to press the Burmese authorities to end the violence and enable humanitarian access and an early return of the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. We believe that the implementation of the Annan commission recommendations offers the best long-term solution to the underlying issues in Rakhine, and we are working with like-minded partners to support the Burmese Government with implementation.

Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead (Lab)
My Lords, I thank the Minister for what he has to tell us. However, in recent weeks, over half a million more Rohingya people have been forced to flee slaughter and other atrocities, hundreds of villages have been destroyed and the border has been landmined. That is what these people are facing, which makes it hugely difficult to talk about peace and agreement. The UN has called it nothing less than ethnic cleansing, but, shamefully, Aung San Suu Kyi, whom many of us have respected in the past, has called it “fake news”. Will our Government now recognise the evidence of genocidal crimes against humanity and agree to lead efforts to immediately restore UN sanctions and arms embargoes against the Burmese regime?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
First, I of course acknowledge the excellent work that the noble Baroness does on this issue and I share her sentiments totally. The brutality and military ruthlessness and the ethnic and religious prejudice that lies behind this human suffering are there for all to see. The noble Baroness will be aware that the UK has been leading action at the UN Security Council in the open debate that has taken place, and that there have been various engagements through both my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and my right honourable friend the Minister for Asia and the Pacific, who recently returned from Burma. We have also been speaking directly to the Bangladeshi Government—indeed, I met with Her Excellency the Prime Minister of Bangladesh last Friday. All the matters that the noble Baroness has raised are very much on the agenda. We do not, in any case, sell any arms to the military in Burma, and let us be absolutely clear: it is the military who are behind this ruthless and brutal treatment of the Rohingya. We were providing some military training through education on issues such as human rights, and that has also been suspended.

Lord Alderdice (LD)
On the moral case which has been identified so clearly by the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock of Holyhead, do Her Majesty’s Government appreciate that the plight of these people because they are Muslims is now being used loudly as a recruiting sergeant by ISIS in south and south-east Asia? This is not just a question of the moral imperative to do what is necessary for the Rohingya people; we in this country must also say very loudly that we oppose any role that Aung San Suu Kyi has in all of this. We rightly have a history of being very supportive of her when she needed it. For the sake of our Muslim people, we must now say very clearly that what she is doing and the stand she is taking is wrong and that we do not support it.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
Any kind of prejudice against any ethnicity or religion is unacceptable and it is quite right to point it out. I share the noble Lord’s sentiments and agree with him that the time has come for Aung San Suu Kyi to use her moral authority to challenge directly herself the military ruthlessness and ethnic prejudice that lies behind the suffering.

Baroness Hayman (CB)
My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, said, since August there has been an influx of more than 500,000 mainly Rohingya women and children into an already poor and over-populated part of Bangladesh, leading to a desperate humanitarian situation. I declare my interest as a trustee of the Disasters Emergency Committee. Like the British public, the UK Government have been generous in their response, not least in their aid match to the DEC appeal, but in the light of the overwhelming need of those people for food, shelter, sanitation and healthcare, I urge the UK Government to continue to review their contribution and ask other nations to do so as well.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
The noble Baroness raises a pertinent point. It is regrettable that currently, as I am sure she and the House are aware, in Rakhine itself the authorities are not allowing humanitarian access, apart from the Red Cross. We have provided £1 million directly to that programme. But on Bangladesh specifically, she is right to raise the match funding that we declared on the £3 million. The noble Baroness may be aware, as I hope the House is, that we have also provided through DfID an additional £30 million in humanitarian assistance since the crisis started. That was announced in mid-September and is being spent directly on the issues that she raises, such as food and sanitation, currently for over 126,000 refugees.

Baroness Berridge (Con)
My Lords, although the overwhelming majority of people have fled to Bangladesh, about 40,000 Rohingya have in fact fled to India. The Indian Government are now threatening to deport them back to Myanmar. Are we going to speak to our colleagues in India to outline their commitments under international law and the principle of non-refoulement, which means that they should not deport to a place where there is a risk of torture?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
My noble friend raises an important point about the challenge and the burden that has fallen on neighbouring countries. We have talked about Bangladesh, and on the matter she raised, I can assure her that my right honourable friend Mark Field, during his visit to south-east Asia, also visited India and met with Foreign Minister MJ Akbar to discuss various issues, including the humanitarian situation and Burma itself.

Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
My Lords, I welcome what the Minister said regarding the suspension of advice to the military in Burma, but has the same consideration been given to the DfID funding of parliamentary advice and the WFD funding of advice to the Union Government? While this genocide is going on, should we not suspend that activity as well?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
The noble Lord raises an important issue. We have stood with Burma. I remember visiting Burma as a Minister in my previous role after the new Government were elected, and it was clear to me then that what the country needed most was acute assistance with governance. The noble Lord raises a couple of pertinent points and, if I may, I will take those back and write to him accordingly.