2005 UN World Summit Outcomes: “Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. … The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means … to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action …”
2016 World Humanitarian Summit Communique: “First, we commit to use global leadership to prevent and end conflicts. We will do more to prevent crisis situations from deteriorating further and focus more attention on tackling root causes of conflict.”
14.The joint DFID/FCO Minster Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP, told us:
Although there have been spikes in violence [in Burma], even after October 2016, there was nothing in the responses then to indicate that such an extreme act as what followed in August 2017 would happen.
This analysis is, however, disputed by a number of NGOs. They point to numerous reports over the last few years suggesting that a huge crisis was building in Northern Rakhine in Burma. Since 2015 the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Early Warning Project had identified the Rohingya as one of the world’s vulnerable populations most at risk of genocide. Protection Approaches (an NGO focused on defending the rights of peoples violently targeted because of their identity) argued that failure to protect the Rohingya was not due to a lack of early warning saying “Unchecked hate speech, lack of government control over security forces, presence of non-state and pseudo-non-state armed groups, growing nationalist support of the military and increased incidences of identity-based attack, were all serious indicators of the escalating violence against the Rohingya.”
15.As recently as February 2017, the International Crisis Group wrote:
Failure by the authorities, and Aung San Suu Kyi personally, to take control of the crisis by developing and implementing an overarching political and development strategy, could result in the situation spiralling further out of control.
On 21 August 2017 Burma Campaign UK published a call to the Foreign Secretary Rt Hon Boris Johnson to ask for a meeting on rising tensions in Rakhine State at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) citing: “Anti Rohingya tensions are on the rise in Rakhine State, and there are fears there could be a new large-scale outbreak of violence against the Rohingya.”:
As well as the government whipping up fears and tensions, local politicians and nationalists are doing the same. The military is sending more soldiers to Rakhine State. [ … ] With tensions so high, an actual incident involving ARSA or one blamed on ARSA, could trigger not just another brutal clearance operation by the military, but also attacks by nationalists against Rohingya communities and international aid workers.
In evidence, the UK Director of Human Rights Watch, David Mepham told us:
Clearly, what has happened since 25 August has not come out of nowhere. In recent years, we and others have documented many instances of violence against the Rohingya. The Rohingya have faced decades of persecution and discrimination.
Indeed, Human Rights Watch has been reporting on what it has described as the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Rohingya since at least 2013, asking for the international community to act. Our predecessor Committee had also highlighted the dangers to the Government in its report of 2014, “Democracy and Development in Burma”:
The situation of the Rohingya is a major threat to the whole reform process [in Burma]. We appreciate that it is an extremely sensitive issue, but the UK must take a stronger position with the Burmese Government to address the Rohingya’s plight. We recommend that DFID do more to encourage interfaith dialogue and to ensure that the Rohingya have access to education and health services.
Dealing with human rights abuses by the military, or any other group, cannot be swept under the carpet or Burma will be left with festering sores.
16.In its reply, the Government appeared to agree, saying:
We fully share the Committee’s concerns regarding the situation in Rakhine State and will continue to raise these concerns at the highest levels of the Burmese government. We will continue to push the Burmese government to take swift and decisive action to protect the lives and rights of the Rohingya and all people in the country who are vulnerable to discrimination and violence, and to address the underlying causes of ethnic and religious discrimination. We will continue to make it very clear to the Burmese government that they must allow unhindered access for humanitarian assistance in all parts of the country.
17.In our current inquiry, we questioned Minister Burt as to what the UK Government and DFID had done to promote solutions to the problems in the Rakhine. He told us that a new peace-building programme had been established. This programme included significant funding to tackle intercommunal violence through a peace support fund—the Paung Sie Facility (PSF)—which had committed $4 million to inter-communal harmony efforts in Rakhine as part of $6.8 million invested countrywide. DFID had contributed 85% of that total, including a major contribution to Kofi Annan’s commission on a peaceful future for Rakhine State (see below). In addition we were told that the UK worked with a number of Burmese NGOs, such as the Search for Common Ground, the Centre for Diversity and National Harmony and an organisation called the Spirit in Education Movement. It also financed attempts to operate dispute resolution between ethnic communities, delivered by Mercy Corps. The UK was working with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting to monitor social media, and to try to combat hate speech.
The Annan Commission: Towards a peaceful, fair and prosperous future for the people of Rakhine
In September 2016, the Kofi Annan Foundation and the Office of the State Counsellor (Aung San Suu Kyi) established an Advisory Commission on Rakhine State to identify the factors that have resulted in violence, displacement and underdevelopment. It considered humanitarian issues, living conditions, access to health, education and livelihoods, the question of citizenship and freedom of movement, and the assurance of basic rights. It was not mandated to investigate specific cases of alleged human rights violations and it was asked by the State Counsellor not to use the terms ‘Bengali’ or ‘Rohingya’ but instead ‘the Muslim community in Rakhine’. The Commission reported in August 2017 and its recommendations included:
18.The Annan Commission report publication coincided with the second significant attack by ARSA militants on the Burmese Police outposts killing 12 soldiers and the beginning of the violent clearance campaign against the Rohingya. The Burmese Ambassador wrote that this action by ARSA was deliberately timed to coincide with the publication of the report and to attract international attention prior to a meeting of the UN General Assembly.
19. Burma Campaign UK argued:
Questions have to be asked why so little was done to try to prevent the current violence given that it was so widely predicted and tensions were growing in the previous weeks and months. This also relates to the humanitarian situation. It was always likely that tens of thousands of Rohingya would flee to Bangladesh, but there appears to have been little preparation. This failure to prepare for conflict and subsequent displacement and humanitarian crisis in Burma or its neighbours is a consistent problem we have witnessed over the past 25 years.
The Minister said that because DFID was “already out there and on the ground”, providing support to the Rohingya people in Bangladesh, and the communities that have hosted them since the 2014 exodus, the UK was able to respond very rapidly; immediately releasing £5 million in additional funding to meet urgent needs at the beginning of September.
20.In terms of crisis prediction and prevention, we asked the former Secretary of State, Rt Hon Priti Patel MP, what potential there was to send strong signals to, or exert pressure, on Burma. She emphasised the difficulty of knowing when to change, reduce or break off relations — diplomatic, development or other forms — due to the possibility of depriving or harming the very people you are trying to reach with aid (without much impact on the regime). DFID’s Director-general of Country Programmes, Lindy Cameron, told us the three largest programmes in Burma were livelihood and food security, maternal and child health and humanitarian assistance and resilience programme (aimed at the needs of marginalised groups). She said:
The majority of our programming is about thinking about the very poorest and most marginalised in Burma. We have to be extremely careful not to penalise poor people for the actions of their government at times like this, but we are looking extremely closely at our whole programme and ensuring that we review it in the light of the actions that have taken place.
The committee discussed with witnesses two particular areas about which we were concerned that the UK’s actions may have exacerbated the problems within Burma: UK support for the 2014 Burmese National Census; and the UK’s relationship with the Burmese military.
21.The UK provided £10 million co-funding for Burma’s 2014 nationwide census. In 2013, our predecessor Committee questioned the Minister about whether the Rohingya would be listed as an ethnic group within the official papers. There had been press reports at the time describing the census as “British aid for ethnic cleansing” as it appeared that there was in fact no classification for the Rohingya and it was alleged that this reflected, and would support, official attempts to deny their existence and continue discrimination against them. The former Committee’s report found that:
There is concern that, because of the 1982 Citizenship Law, the census will not list Rohingya as an ethnic group. We questioned the Minister on this and he explained that the census would allow people to ‘self-identify’ their ethnicity and would hopefully provide a sound statistical base for estimating their numbers. The census operators were being given two and a half months intensive training to sensitively deal with the issues.
22.However, Burma Campaign UK highlighted in its evidence that President Thein Sein “broke an agreement in principle to allow Rohingya to take part” and yet the UK continued with its support of the census even though various organisations asked for it to be delayed. We followed this up with Minister Burt to ask what had happened. He told us:
We would have wished the Rohingya to be included in the census. They wanted, very strongly, to self-identify, but for reasons of anticipated conflict and violence, it could not be done. There was clear evidence from the Rakhine community in the region that there would have been violence because they do not see them as Rohingya. A lot of effort and pressure was put on the authorities who were compiling the census, but it reached a point where we realised that violence was highly likely to result. Would it have been better if the Rohingya had been included? Of course—they wished to self-identify as Rohingya. Would it have been worthwhile losing lives and increasing violence as a result of us pressing the point on the census, which we were not able to do? Probably the answer to that is ‘no’.
Burma Campaign UK drew attention to violence that had occurred around the census process and reported that DFID had declined many petitions requesting internal investigation into the UK’s support for the initiative.
23.In evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, Mark Farmaner, Burma Campaign UK, argued that, by acquiescing to the exclusion of the Rohingya as an officially recognised identity from the 2014 census, the Burmese authorities perceived “a green light” to continue with its treatment of them:
We [the UK] accepted the 2015 elections, even though Rohingyas were excluded. We [the UK] funded the census, even though it excluded the Rohingyas. [ … ] Consistently, we [the UK] sent a signal to the military and the government in Burma that we were prepared to compromise when it came to the human rights of the Rohingyas, as long as the general direction of travel was considered to be good.
24.Relations between the UK, and other members of the international community, and the Burmese military and security forces under the control of Commander in Chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, are a second area where observers have highlighted perverse ‘signals’ being received by the Burmese authorities. Mark Farmaner told us:
At the same time as Min Aung Hlaing’s soldiers were attacking Rohingya using rape as a weapon of war, he was invited to Europe. He was speaking to the heads of EU militaries at a prestigious meeting in Brussels. He was later invited to Italy, Germany and Austria, taking in tours of weapons factories. He learnt that he could carry out these violations with impunity then. There were no consequences for him. He saw that he was more popular within the country after these attacks last October, and it was probably as much a surprise to him as it was to us when Aung San Suu Kyi launched a vociferous defence of the military, denied human rights violations were taking place and acted as a lightning rod.
25.The UK did have a military training programme in Burma with the Burmese Army (also known as the ‘Tatmadaw’). This was something that our predecessor committee considered in its inquiry in 2014. The previous committee found:
26.At the time, the previous committee supported the training given by the UK Armed Forces to the Tatmadaw to encourage a better understanding of human rights and better working with civilians on the grounds that “soldiers listen best to other soldiers”.
27.In September 2017, the Prime Minister, Rt Hon Theresa May MP, announced at the UN General Assembly in New York, that this initiative with the Burmese military training was being withdrawn, Her spokesperson said:
As of today, the Ministry of Defence are saying that there will be no more defence co-operation or training with the Burmese army until we are satisfied that [the Rohingya situation] has been resolved. It is about recognising the seriousness of the situation. We want this situation resolved and until it is this co-operation will cease.
The UK programme did not include combat training but was aimed at educating soldiers in democracy, leadership and the English language. It cost approximately £305,000 in 2016. Burma Campaign UK had been leading a campaign to end the programme, it said:
67% of the money came from the overseas aid budget. The training had no clear goals, no evaluation, and no conditions on human rights were asked before it was provided. The Foreign Office has repeatedly claimed the training was about human rights, but in an answer to a parliamentary question earlier this year, the Ministry of Defence said there was no specific human rights component in the training.
Minister Burt told us the UK was “making very clear to the Burmese authorities what was not acceptable in terms of an overreaction from the security forces” and that the UK had “worked to try to descale the violence and the reasons for conflict by working on a longer-term answer.” However, The Rt Hon Mark Field MP, Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, told the Foreign Affairs Committee that a “blind eye was turned to the ongoing plight of the Rohingya” in the expectations of the move towards democracy and:
Consistently [ … ] we have sent a signal to the military in Burma, particularly in relation to the relationship with the Rohingya, that somehow the Rohingya were, at very best, second-class citizens. That is something that we will need to reflect on.
28.The NGO Protection Approaches argued in its submission that the concerns about Burma and the Rohingya, expressed by the UK at the UN, were not matched by our trade policy, diplomatic efforts or international development focus – hindering interventions. We questioned witnesses as to whether the UK should continue to support programmes in Burma following the end of the military training programme. David Mepham of Human Rights Watch said:
I do not think DFID should suspend its programmes, but it should look very closely at its existing programmes to see whether, to some extent, it is reinforcing the authoritarianism and the rights abuses of the military, and if it is in any way, it should stop. There should be a review of its policy.
The Minister said that the programmes were designed to continue “improving the situation in Burma as it looks towards democratisation and development” and “not designed to sustain the military in any way”. The Burmese Ambassador said that the development assistance provided by the British Government and DFID’s work had greatly contributed to the development of Burma and its people.
29.Amnesty International wrote that, whilst development was an important part of the solution, it should not be conducted in a way which further entrenched discrimination. The international community, and in particular donors, must ensure that their engagement did not make them complicit in these violations. We asked the Minister and his officials how confident they were that this was not happening and were told that this was an area the Secretary of State had asked to be investigated. Dr Richard Montgomery, Director, Asia, Caribbean & Overseas Territories Division, DFID, told us:
The issue of the ethnic patchwork, and ensuring that we are really focused on inclusion and working with ethnic organisations rather than just with the majoritarian ones, is something we are looking very closely at.
30.The submission from Burma’s Ambassador in London blames the failure of initiatives to resolve statelessness and citizenship issues amongst the Rohingya in Rakhine on non-cooperation by the Muslim community. HE Kyaw Zwar Minn wrote:
With the aim of addressing the key issue of statelessness and ensure all those eligible are granted citizenship as quickly as possible, citizenship verification pilot projects were implemented during 2016. However, since the Muslim community leaders asked their people not to cooperate, eventually those projects had to be halted. In retrospect, there was the example of some Muslim community refusing to take part when the nationwide population census was conducted throughout the country during 2014.
The Ambassador also blamed the disruption of the Annan Commission process on the attacks committed by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) against Burmese police forces and intimidation of the population:
Even as constructive steps were being undertaken, three police border outposts in northern Rakhine State were attacked on 9 October 2016. In addition, thirty police border outposts and an army base were attacked on 25 August 2017 by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), also known by its former name AqaMul Mujahidin. [ … ] It is clear that the first attacks came at a time when human rights situation have been improving significantly in Myanmar with recognition from the international community and at a period when the EU decided not to table the draft resolution on the human rights situation. Additionally, the second attacks were deliberately timed to coincide with the release of the final report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State led by Dr. Kofi Annan as well as to attract international attention just before the UN General Assembly was to be held.
31.The UK Government’s response was unequivocal:
The responsibility for the fact that so many Rohingya resident in Rakhine do not legally hold citizenship of any state lies with successive governments of Burma. The 1982 Citizenship Law discriminates against the Rohingya and actually deprived many of citizenship status they had previously enjoyed. The UK Government welcomed the report of the Rakhine Advisory Commission and its recommendation that the 1982 Citizenship Law be reviewed, and that the Burmese authorities make progress on citizenship verification under the existing legal framework.
The Burmese Government told the British Embassy on 21 August that 528 applications had been approved so far in 2017 as part of the process it initiated for Rohingya to apply for National Verification Cards (NVC). But only a limited number of Rohingya in Rakhine have applied for an NVC. The [Burmese] Government has not managed to establish confidence in the Rohingya community about the value of the NVC. There have been similar campaigns in the past which resulted in Rohingya exchanging old documents for alternative documents which have proven to be less valuable and resulted in an erosion of their rights. Some in the Rohingya community consider accepting an NVC signifies an acceptance that they are not citizens. Furthermore, there is now significant social pressure from the Rohingya community not to apply for NVCs. Earlier in 2017 some Rohingya who accepted NVCs were murdered for being seen to collaborate with government.
32.In terms of the international community’s perceptions of the violence in Rakhine, the Burmese Ambassador’s submission denied any suggestion of ethnic cleansing or even disproportionate action. The Burmese government’s position is that it was defending the country against extremist, Taliban-trained, externally-funded terrorists in Rakhine State. In responding to this terrorism, the security forces had been instructed to exercise “maximum restraint” and to “protect all civilians”. In addition, the Ambassador wrote that the Burmese authorities had been providing humanitarian assistance in affected areas “without discrimination”. The Burmese army has carried out an internal investigation and reported it in a statement posted to its Facebook page. The military said it had interviewed thousands of villagers in Rakhine State who confirmed its denials of conducting inappropriately violent operations. The villagers, the army said, agreed that security forces: did not shoot at “innocent villagers”; did not commit “sexual violence and rape cases against women”; did not “arrest, beat and kill the villagers”; did not steal silverware, gold, vehicles or animals from villagers; did not set fire to mosques; did not “threaten, bully and drive out the villagers”; did not set houses alight. The report of the investigation said that “terrorists” from within the community in question (which it termed ‘Bengali’) were responsible for the arson, and that the hundreds of thousands of people who fled did so because they were instructed to do so and feared the terrorists. The, UK’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador Jonathan Allen referred to this report as a “whitewash”, at the UN Security Council Briefing on Burma in December.
33.The UK Government’s response to us was that it had immediately, and repeatedly, condemned the 25 August attacks by the ARSA. However, DFID wrote that the primary disruption to the lives of the Rohingya of northern Rakhine in recent months has “undoubtedly been the brutal military clearance operations targeted at Rohingya communities undertaken by Burma’s military, and the violent attacks by local vigilantes.” The Government went on to assert that:
A huge number of refugees, estimated at over 620,000, have fled into Bangladesh since 25 August. There have been widespread and credible reports of rapes, killings, burning of villages, and the use of landmines by the Burmese military. This is not consistent with Burma’s security forces acting with maximum restraint, and protecting all civilians.
In that context, the Burmese military’s report of 14 November which concluded it was innocent of any wrongdoing in northern Rakhine was simply not credible.
34. This evidence seems to signal a shift in the UK Government’s position to a harder stance, at least in terms of a public narrative. However, there is no clear evidence that the UK is taking an effective international constituency along with it in such a shift.
35.The UK Government should reflect on why so much evidence of discrimination, marginalisation and abuse of the Rohingya people within Rakhine State in Burma was seemingly ignored for so long, rather than translated into effective action by the international community. Conduct, described clearly as amounting to “ethnic cleansing”, has been regularly reported by groups such as Human Rights Watch for some years and yet nothing effective seems to have been attempted to stop it. Indeed, initiatives such as support for a national census, reflecting the exclusion of the Rohingya people from public life in Burma, seem to have reinforced the problem.
36.One possibility is that the UK government was unduly optimistic about the likelihood of democratic reform within Burma. Unfortunately, hindsight shows straightforward and swift progress in this direction is unlikely. As Minister Field told the Foreign Affairs Committee: “I think it is fair for us all to say that we invested a lot of goodwill in [Aung San Suu Kyi’s] … leadership and I do not think we should be too self-critical. As I said, it is easy to look with hindsight. We do need to look back at precisely the way in which, in the midst of that move towards any sort of democracy, a blind eye was turned to the ongoing plight of the Rohingya, of which we were aware some time before. Clearly there will be a big post-mortem on all of these matters, and it is right that that should happen, but I do believe that we need to look very firmly towards the future.”
37.If previous world summits on tackling threats, humanitarian crises and their impacts are to turn out to be more than festivals of warm words and good intentions, the international community is going to have to look much harder at how to implement responsibilities to protect threatened populations and to prevent, and end, crises. This may include UN Security Council members and other large states establishing a clearer consensus around indicators and trigger-points for action as well as then taking tougher and more proactive steps in relation to their avowed responsibilities towards threatened peoples — regardless of trade relationships or traditional alliances.
38.We recommend that the UK, and like-minded states, should reflect on how to establish a more proactive approach to atrocity awareness and prevention. This should involve recalibrating the weight given to emerging hard evidence, on the one hand, and the weight given to signals and hopes of ‘the right direction of travel’ on the other. The human, and financial costs, of not doing so seem to be again manifest in the current plight of the Rohingya.
29 In 2005, the UN World Summit outcomes text included the following:
“Paragraph 138. Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means. We accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it. The international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability.
Paragraph 139. The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. We stress the need for the General Assembly to continue consideration of the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and its implications, bearing in mind the principles of the Charter and international law. We also intend to commit ourselves, as necessary and appropriate, to helping States build capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to assisting those which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out.”
31 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, , September 2017
32 Protection Approaches (), para 23
33 International Crisis Group, , February 2017
34 Burma Campaign UK 21 August 2017
36 Human Rights Watch, , 22 April 2013,
37 Op. cit., Ninth Report, 2013–14, HC821
38 Government reply to ibid, Ninth Special Report, 2013–14, HC1290
41 Letter to the Chair from HE Kyaw Zwar Minn, Ambassador of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, dated 22 November 2017. ()
42 Burma Campaign UK ()
45 The Independent, Aung San Suu Kyi is only the latest to fail the Rohingya. More of this and the result will be genocide, 30 October 2013
46 International Development Committee, , Ninth Report, Session 2013–14, HC 821, para 6
47 Burma Campaign UK ()
49 One child had been killed and humanitarian workers evacuated (reported to have resulted in further Rohingya fatalities from a lack of humanitarian aid and medical support)
50 Burma Campaign UK ()
51 FAC, , Violence in Rakhine State, 10 October 2017, HC 435, Q14
53 Democracy and Development in Burma, Ninth Report, Session 2013–14, HC 821, paras 48 and 49
54 Ibid, paragraph 50
55 The Guardian, , 19 September 2017
56 Burma Campaign UK, , 19 September, 2017
58 FAC, Violence in Rakhine State, 25 October 2017, HC 435, Q 79
59 FAC, Violence in Rakhine State, 25 October 2017, HC 435, Q 79
60 Protection Approaches (), para 31
63 Letter to the Chair from HE Kyaw Zwar Minn, Ambassador of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, dated 22 November 2017. ()
64 Amnesty International, , , 21 November 2017
66 Letter to the Chair from HE Kyaw Zwar Minn, Ambassador of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, dated 22 November 2017. ()
67 Letter to the Chair from HE Kyaw Zwar Minn, Ambassador of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, dated 22 November 2017. ()
69 Letter to the Chair from HE Kyaw Zwar Minn, Ambassador of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, dated 22 November 2017. ()
71 Statement by Ambassador Jonathan Allen, UK Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, at the Security Council Briefing on Burma, , 11 December 2017
73 FAC, Violence in Rakhine State, 25 October 2017, HC 435,
15 January 2018