Violence in Rakhine State and the UK’s response Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Violence in Rakhine State

1.Bangladesh has acted responsibly and with generosity in opening its border to hundreds of thousands of refugees. Its actions thus far should be supported with rapid and sustained help from the international community for both the refugees and the local population. The UK Government deserves credit for its own quick and generous provision of humanitarian support. (Paragraph 8)

Does the violence in Burma amount to atrocity crimes?

2.The evidence we have received suggests that the violence in Burma does amount to ethnic cleansing, and may well constitute crimes against humanity and even genocide. The UK Government’s hesitation and equivocation over defining the violence has made its statements frustratingly confusing. We do not agree that these issues will disappear into the background if the refugees are able to return. If atrocity crimes have taken place, these certainly cannot be redressed through repatriation and must be addressed in court to ensure perpetrators are held to account. (Paragraph 16)

3.We are seriously concerned to find that the FCO has not undertaken its own analysis of the situation, nor committed its own expert team to gather evidence. The Minister said that its effort was focused on addressing the humanitarian situation, but it is unclear why humanitarian support and legal analysis cannot go hand-in-hand. The FCO’s political and diplomatic response should be informed by a legal opinion on what is happening. The FCO should immediately undertake to:

a) send an expert team to gather evidence on sexual violence in conflict and other possible atrocity crimes;

b) conduct a review of the situation based on NGO and International Organisations’ reports and its own findings, and provide the Committee with a summary of its findings, including a clear statement on whether it judges that, based on the evidence available, the actions of the Burmese security forces constitute ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and/or genocide;

c) respond to the Committee as to how it will use this designation to guide its policy on the Rakhine crisis, including in assessing whether to pursue a referral to the International Criminal Court. (Paragraph 17)

The UK’s multilateral and bilateral response

4.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. (Paragraph 26)

5.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);

b) Lobbying now for achievable UN action including the reinstatement of a UN Special Adviser on Burma and the reinstatement of the annual UNGA resolution on Burma;

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:

i) Targeted travel bans and asset freezes on senior military figures;

ii) A ban on investment in and business with military-controlled companies.

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. (Paragraph 27)

3.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. (Paragraph 29)

Repatriation of refugees to Burma

4.The UK Government should state clearly to both Bangladesh and Burma that it will not support a repatriation deal that does not include comprehensive safeguards and does not have the confidence of relevant UN agencies. The Government should lobby for humanitarian agencies to be represented at bilateral talks, with a view to ensuring they are given access to Rakhine province to assist with and monitor the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, and for any agreement on repatriation to include references to the implementation of the Rakhine Advisory Commission Report. The Government should be ready to intervene strongly with Bangladesh if repatriation is begun before humanitarian access is allowed in Rakhine and other minimum guarantees are provided by the Burmese government. (Paragraph 31)

5.The safe and voluntary repatriation of refugees is an ideal. However, we believe it is unlikely that all Rohingya refugees will wish to return following their traumatic experiences, and there are serious risks if any return happens without proper safeguards, including some element of independent international monitoring and oversight. The UK Government’s reluctance to envisage long-term displacement is understandable, but it is mistaken about its views as to the worst-case scenario. The prospect of long-term, well-resourced, and sustainable camps is far better than the prospect of temporary housing that is permanently extended, in squalid, poverty-stricken camps which offer no hope for the future to their inhabitants, and which make them vulnerable to radicalisation. The UK must now start work with its UN allies to agree a plan for long-term displaced people offering them safety, education, and employment prospects, on the understanding that the international community will be working towards the safe return of Rohingya refugees to their homes in Burma. The understandable fear of camps becoming permanent must not lead to under-resourcing of the humanitarian effort in the short to medium term. (Paragraph 34)

The UK’s future relationship with Burma

6.The Minister was commendably candid about the need for reflection over the widespread failure to challenge long-standing discrimination against the Rohingya. This process should include the FCO as a whole as there is a clear need for the institution to learn lessons from the recent events in Burma about responding to signs and prioritising atrocity prevention in political and diplomatic conversations. In its response, the FCO should set out what lessons it has learned regarding atrocity prevention from these events and how these lessons will be applied in Burma and elsewhere in future. In particular, it should provide details of what, if any, policies it is putting in place to change, over the longer term, the poisonous narrative about the Rohingya in Burmese press and online sources. (Paragraph 37)

7.We recognise that State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is constrained by the autonomy of the military and the strength of domestic public opinion against the Rohingya. We are also clear that the Commander in Chief of the Burmese Army, General Min Aung Hlaing, bears ultimate responsibility for the violence. We are nonetheless disappointed in Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure of leadership. The UK Government is right to focus on what is best for Burma, and Aung San Suu Kyi may remain its best hope, but admiration for her should be tempered by a more hard-headed approach based on a new understanding of the political trajectory of the country, and an increased willingness to deliver tough messages and take a firm stand on principles even when the messages are unpopular and unwelcome. (Paragraph 40)

8.The UK Government should conduct an internal review of its overall Burma policy in light of the recent events, including:

a) its assessment of Burma’s political trajectory and the state of its democratic transition and leadership;

b) the UK’s place and influence in Burma; and

c) the UK’s scope to encourage regional states with an interest in Burma to assist in its response to the crisis.

In its response to this Report, the FCO should provide a summary of its conclusions and planned actions. (Paragraph 41)

8 December 2017