18.We heard widespread disappointment and frustration from our witnesses and written evidence about a perceived lack of decisive action or international pressure on the crisis in Rakhine State. Mark Farmaner from the Burma Campaign UK told the Committee:
there has been the worst human rights crisis I have ever seen in the country. We have never seen human rights violations on a scale like this at any point in Burma’s past, perhaps since world war two, and there has not been a significant international response.
Save the Children agreed that there had been a “lack of concerted international action”, and “a failure of international institutions, particularly the UN Security Council, to agree a united response”. This was echoed in much of our written evidence. The UN Association UK compared the situation to others in Sri Lanka and Syria, in which the world was standing by once again. UN Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect said that while the Burmese Government had failed to protect its civilians from atrocity crimes, “The international community has equally failed its responsibilities in this regard”.
19.It is difficult to assess the extent to which international pressure has had any effect in Burma. The Burmese Government states that military operations ceased on 5 September 2017. However, Fortify Rights told us that “Attacks including killing and arson, although more sporadic, continue”, and this was recently confirmed by the UK Government, which said there were worrying accounts of violence not only by the military but also by armed ethnic Rakhine communities. Humanitarian access in northern Rakhine is still not possible; and representatives of the Burmese military and civilian government have made repeated statements indicating that they do not agree with the assessment or criticism of Burmese action. In fact earlier this month the Burmese military said its own internal investigation had exonerated security forces of all accusations of atrocities. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has established a ‘Committee for the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine’; but it is not yet clear when this will begin or how it will work.
20.As a result, many of those who provided evidence wanted further measures to be taken to exert pressure on the Burmese government and military. Human Rights Watch said:
None of the obvious tools to end or mitigate mass atrocities have been used. No Security Council delegation sent to Burma; no resolution demanding an end to the military’s abuses; and no threat of targeted sanctions and an arms embargo.
Our evidence indicated that there is substantial agreement on the measures NGOs and others wish to see. These include measures to exert pressure and improve monitoring, such as:
Some witnesses also made suggestions for international pressure and sanctions, such as:
21.However, sanctions are controversial and not universally supported. Dr Lee Jones told us that sanctions, including by the US, were not useful in the Burmese context, stating:
The reality is that two decades of western sanctions have essentially removed any leverage that the West had over Myanmar. So if they want to re-impose sanctions now, very little US investment exists in the country to cut off. There is no relationship to sever.
Trade statistics indicate that western countries indeed have relatively little trade to cut off unless China were to agree, which is seen as unlikely. The majority of Burma’s trade is conducted with other Asian countries: China accounts for 41% of all the country’s goods exports, while the UK accounted for 0.6%, and the European Union for 5%. The numbers for imports are similar. Dr Champa Patel was also sceptical, commenting that: “Sanctions from the West will be seen as largely symbolic. They may serve to make the West feel better, but they will not change realities on the ground.” We also note that the International Crisis Group has warned that “travel bans and asset freezes may not be helpful in achieving concrete progress, and risks constraining future policy options as well as sending unintended signals to investors that could impact on the economy, to the detriment of ordinary Myanmar people.” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also said that the US does not support sanctions at this time.
22.With this criticism and disagreement in mind, we examined the Government’s response to this crisis. The UK has a particular responsibility for the international response; it traditionally leads international response on Burma as the so-called ‘penholder’ for Burma in the United Nations Security Council. The Government told us that it has been leading the international response to Burma and galvanising the community around its Five Point Plan, which says that:
i)the security forces must stop the violence;
ii)there must be full humanitarian access within Burma;
iii)refugees must be allowed to return to Burma in a voluntary, safe, and dignified manner;
iv)the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine state, chaired by Kofi Annan, must be implemented rapidly and in full;
v)Burma must grant access to, and fully co-operate with, the UN Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission.
23.To this end, the UK has raised Burma in three UN Security Council Meetings and one briefing; hosted a meeting of Foreign Ministers at the UN; and secured a Press Statement in September 2017, and a Presidential Statement on 6 November 2017. It participated in four meetings of the UN Human Rights Council and supported the extension of the UN’s fact-finding mission to Burma (a mission which has not yet been able to visit). The subject was also raised in six meetings of the European Council, resulting in agreed Conclusions on 16 October that expressed serious concern and suspended invitations to military figures in Burma.
24.The UN Presidential Statement of 6 November is, so far, the pinnacle of international agreement on Burma. While it fell short of the full UN Security Council Resolution that the UK and France had reportedly originally proposed, it was nonetheless a strongly worded and lengthy statement expressing “grave concern” over reports of human rights abuses and “alarm at the significantly and rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation”, and requiring the Burmese government to halt violence and take action to redress the issues. However, it did not impose any measures or deadlines on the Burmese government, and it was reported that certain measures were removed from the draft resolution in order to gain agreement. Speaking before the statement was agreed, Minister Mark Field defended the UK’s work, telling us that the UK’s multilateral efforts had been “reasonably successful” though he noted that “Diplomacy can be painstakingly slow”, and said: “I don’t think there is any lack of urgency on these matters. It is frustrating that we have not been able to achieve more; I don’t deny that”.
25.We asked the Minister for the UK Government’s position on further means to exert pressure and sanctions, as suggested by the NGOs. The answer was unclear, though the Minister did not reject the idea of sanctions in principle. When asked to comment on particular measures, he expressed doubt that a global arms embargo was achievable; said a travel ban “might provide a certain amount of leverage”; and said he would “consider” banning investment on business with military controlled companies. He was, perhaps surprisingly, open to the UK leading a call for an international neutral body to monitor and perhaps even provide security under a UN or ASEAN umbrella, which would be a major initiative. However, he emphasised the need for all of these to be done in unison with other partners. FCO minister Alistair Burt has since echoed this open-minded but vague position: “If sanctions were possible that would achieve an effect and demonstrate a determination by the international community to bring about a result, I would always be interested. Sanctions as a gesture may not be right, and I can understand where Secretary of State Tillerson is coming from”.
26.International action on this crisis has been inadequate, and though the UK has been active in international forums, it bears some responsibility for this. As the country with the diplomatic lead in international forums, the UK should define clear and ambitious goals and channel the moral outrage that atrocity crimes elicit into tangible action and changes on the ground. The UK Government has demonstrated diplomatic skill in its UN negotiation, and its 5-point plan correctly identifies the desirable outcomes, particularly the need rapidly and comprehensively to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, which provide for an acceleration of citizenship verification and note the need to review the 1982 citizenship law. However, this so-called plan does not offer a roadmap for getting from the current situation to those outcomes. Though the UK Government has said sanctions may be hard to achieve, it has set out no other suggestions for getting results on the ground. The situation is undoubtedly difficult, but given that the charge is one of atrocity crimes, we are disappointed to see that the UK’s diplomatic leadership has struggled to achieve a clear sense of direction and has so far had such meagre results.
27.Given the difficulty of securing and making sanctions effective, a fitting response would be the collection of evidence for the preparation of trials against the perpetrators. However, if there is no clear sign of change in the medium-term, we believe sanctions would also be appropriate as a sign that it is unpalatable and wrong for the international community to continue to engage with Burma in the same way as before. We suggest the Government adopts an overall response that involves immediate action and then can be scaled up. This could involve:
a)Immediately providing better and more systematic support for collecting evidence in Bangladesh, Burma and elsewhere, for eventual justice (building on the current UK deployment of two civilian experts);
c)The Government should also make clear now to Burma and other international actors that if there is no shift in Burma’s position, including the facilitation of immediate access for humanitarian agencies and independent international monitors to Rakhine province, it will begin pursuing sanctions in the UN and other forums. Unless the Government has reason to believe that the UN Presidential Statement is the start of a change of policy by China and Russia and that they would in the near future consider imposing measures on Burma, it would be reasonable to conclude that this may be the high-water mark of international unity on this issue. The UK Government should therefore prioritise working with its partners in other forums such as ASEAN, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and the European Union to achieve more tangible results. These could include:
In response to this Report, the Government should set out the measures which it considers to be potentially effective as sources of pressure on the Burmese military and government, and how it intends to gain agreement in different forums on imposing them. If it does not intend to exert pressure through any measures because it believes this would be counter-productive, it should say so.
28.The UK has also taken limited bilateral measures: following public pressure and a sustained lobbying campaign in the House, the UK Government suspended classroom-based training that it had offered to members of the Burmese military. It has otherwise pursued a policy of continued engagement with the civilian government: in September, the Minister Mark Field was the first foreign minister from outside the region to visit Rakhine state in Burma since the crisis there escalated. He has since returned to Burma, as we urged, in November to attend the Asia-Europe Summit Foreign Minister’s meeting. The Foreign Secretary has spoken by phone to the State Counsellor on three occasions since 25 August to discuss the situation in Rakhine State. In statements to the House and this Committee, the Government has acknowledged disappointment in the administration of Aung San Suu Kyi, but has pledged to support her, noting that she has said she wishes to see the Rohingya people return to Burma (she does not use the term ‘Rohingya’, though Mark Field told us she referred to the refugees as “our people”).
29.In part, this continued support for Aung San Suu Kyi appears less about continued faith in her, and more about a lack of alternatives: Minister Alistair Burt told the International Development Committee that “someone has got to take Burma forward, and if Aung San Suu Kyi is clear about the role of the Rohingya people in Burma in the future and can lead that, that is important, and it is important to make a comment about it.” We also note that the UK’s attachment to her is not obviously reciprocated: while the UK Government seemed keen to emphasise its continued engagement, there have been only three phone calls between the Foreign Secretary and Aung San Suu Kyi in three months during this time of crisis, and on 30 November there had been no phone call for over 6 weeks; the Minister Mark Field was not afforded a second meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi on his visit to Burma in November, though Pope Francis was greeted by the State Counsellor. It is concerning to see that after years of diplomatic effort, the UK has secured only an apparently distant relationship with a leader whose ability and willingness to influence these events is not as great as hoped. Like many others, including the domestic population, we have limited options: Aung San Suu Kyi remains far better than the alternatives and appears to be the only hope of improvement, but she is now a compromised one.
53 Q14 [Mark Farmaner]
54 Save the Children paras 1.3, 3.3
55 See, for example: Human Rights Watch ; International State Crime Initiative School of Law Queen Mary University of London ; Dr Eglantine Staunton para 6; United Nations Association UK (BUR0013)
56 United Nations Association UK (BUR0013) para 2
58 Fortify Rights para 20; See also: Dr Lee Jones, (BUR0027); ); Dr Eglantine Staunton () para 2.6. See also 13–24 September 2017
59 Oral Evidence taken before the International Development Committee on 22 November 2017,
60 See: , 6 October 2017; U Thaung Tun, National Security Advisor, Myanmar comments to UN Security Council on : Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, , 1 November 2017; Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, , 10 November 2017. See also , BBC News, 6 September 2017
61 See: , BBC News, 14 November 2017
62 The Republic of the Union of Myanmar: State Counsellor Office, , 17 October 2017. See also: [on Burma: Politics and Government], 2 November 2017
63 “How Long Will UN Security Council be Missing in Action on Burma?”, Human Rights Watch, 1 November 2017
64 Those calling for this include: Save the Children para 3.4; United Nations Association UK para 8; See also: United Nations, Statement by the President of the Security Council, 6 November 2017, p3
65 Those calling for this include: Middlesex University para 5; Christian Solidarity Worldwide para 11
66 Those calling for this include: Christian Solidarity Worldwide (BUR0014) para 12–13; Save the Children para 3.7; ActionAid UK para 22
67 Those calling for this include: Protection Approaches para 35; Christian Solidarity Worldwide para 10; United Nations Association UK para 10; Dr Eglantine Staunton para 6.3.2; Fortify Rights para 26
68 Those calling for this include: Human Rights Watch para 53; Burma Campaign UK para 43; Middlesex University para 5; Protection Approaches para 35; Christian Solidarity Worldwide (BUR0014) ; Dr Eglantine Staunton para 6.3.2; Fortify Rights para 7; ; Save the Children () para 3.7
69 Those calling for this include: Protection Approaches para 35; Save the Children para 3.7; Fortify Rights para 7; Christian Solidarity Worldwide, () para 10; Dr Eglantine Staunton () para 6.3.3; Human Rights Watch
70 Those calling for this include: Middlesex University para 40; Save the Children para 3.1; Human Rights Watch para 53;
71 Those calling for this include: Human Rights Watch ; Middlesex University para 5; Save the Children para 3.7
72 Those calling for this include: Middlesex University para 5; Human Rights Watch para 49. See also Dr Eglantine Staunton para 6.3.5
73 Q60. See also: Q63 and Dr Lee Jones, () para 9
74 China was also Burma/Myanmar’s largest source of imports, accounting for 34% of all the country’s goods imports. The UK accounted for 0.2%, the European Union for 3%. All data taken from the , accessed 6 December 2017
75 Q61 [Dr Champa Patel]
76 International Crisis Group, Rohingya Crisis: A Major Threat to Myanmar Transition and Regional Stability, 27 October 2017
78 “”, Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, 23 August 2017
79 HC Deb, 17 October 2017, ; HL Deb, 26 October 2017,
80 United Nations Human Rights: Office of the High Commissioner, , accessed 5 November 2017
81 European Council, ‘’, 16 October 2017
83 United Nations, Statement by the President of the Security Council, 6 November 2017
85 Qq91, 132
86 Qq128–129. . See also HC Deb 28 November 2017,
87 Qq 91–92
88 Oral Evidence taken before the International Development Committee on 22 November 2017, HC (2017–19) 504, Q91
89 HC Deb 11 October 2017, . Note: It provided details of the training to the Committee as part of this inquiry , see:, 10 October 2017.
90 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, ‘’, 20 November 2017
91 On 7 and 14 September and on 21 October. Source: [on Aung San Suu Kyi], 27 November 2017
93 Oral Evidence taken before the International Development Committee on 22 November 2017,
94 [Aung San Suu Kyi], 5 December 2017
8 December 2017