Bangladesh and Burma: the Rohingya crisis Contents

4Gender based violence

World Humanitarian Summit Communique: concrete action to protect against sexual and gender-based violence and provide support to the survivors of such crimes when they do occur in crisis situations.

New York Declaration: Prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence.

Scale of the problem

47.A predecessor committee’s report of 2006–07 contained the following recommendation:

Rape is used as a weapon of war by the Burmese Army and we call on the UK Government to make high-level representations about this atrocity to the Burmese regime.89

The Government of the day replied:

We share the Committee’s deep concern about cases of rape as a weapon of war by some in the Burmese military. We have helped to ensure that resolutions at the UN General Assembly have called for an end to rape and sexual violence by armed forces in Burma. Former FCO Minister Ian McCartney raised the issue with the Burmese Ambassador on 15 June 2006 and in a letter to the Burmese Foreign Minister on 5 July 2006.90

In 2014, another predecessor committee reported evidence of the high incidence of rape throughout the conflicts in Burma, including documentation of a hundred cases of rape by the Tatmadaw (Burmese Army) with victims as young as eight, since the civilian government came to power in 2010. Witnesses to our predecessor believed the attacks to be:

… systematic and structural in a pattern of sexual violence indicating its use as an instrument of war and oppression by the Tatmadaw in Kachin and Northern Shan State since military offensives started there in 2011.91

It appears that the use of sexual violence against civilian women and girls is military policy in Burma and this has not changed.

48.There is now a new substantial body of evidence of horrific, gender-based, atrocity crimes – rape, including of children, sexual violence, torture and mutilations — reported by Rohingya refugees as being committed by uniformed Burmese security personnel and others. ActionAid’s evidence states unequivocally:

Girls as young as 5 years of age have been reported to have been raped by multiple uniformed actors, often in front of their relatives. There are reports of rapes being widespread, extremely violent, and accompanied by mutilation. There are reports of pregnant women being attacked and their foetuses removed from their bodies.92

David Mepham told us that Human Rights Watch researchers in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh had found:

Some women have been raped and gang raped and have walked for a week with their [own] and other young children. It is unbelievable what people have experienced.93

49.Humanitarian organizations working with refugees in Bangladesh have identified hundreds of rape cases. These may represent only a proportion of the actual number because of reports of rape victims being killed and the well-documented reluctance to report sexual violence (especially when interviewed in a non-private environment). Two-thirds of rape survivors interviewed by Human Rights Watch had not reported their rape to an available multilateral agency or authority nor a humanitarian organization; yet health clinic staff are reported as seeing clear indications such as untreated relevant injuries and infections as well as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder:

One tragic dimension of this horrific crisis is that Rohingya women and girls are suffering profound physical and mental trauma without getting needed health care, Bangladeshi authorities and aid agencies need to do more community outreach among the Rohingya to provide confidential spaces to report abuse and reduce stigma around sexual violence.94

50.The Burmese Ambassador described this reportage as “extremist terrorist propaganda” designed “to incite anger and promote misunderstanding”95. This line of attack was also evident from the Facebook pages of State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi’s office which has had a banner posted reading “Fake Rape” since the claims made by Rohingya women were made during the clearances in 2016.96 In September, the Rakhine state border security minister denied the reports. “Where is the proof?” he said. “Look at those women who are making these claims–would anyone want to rape them?”.97 However, the UK Government’s supplementary memorandum referred to “widespread and credible reports of rapes”.98 DFID’s evidence reported that:

The UK supported the visit to Bangladesh of the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramilla Patten. The UK is supporting her request to brief the UN Security Council on her findings. Ms. Patten has said that the Burmese military orchestrated widespread sexual violence during its clearance operations in northern Rakhine.99

It is Pramilla Patten’s view that the widespread and systematic use of sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls appeared to be deliberately targeted on account of their ethnicity and religion.100 On 12 December she recounted to the UN Security Council “heart-breaking and horrific accounts of sexual atrocities” by Burmese soldiers against Rohingya Muslim women, urging the organisation to visit the region and demand an end to attacks on civilians:

some witnesses reported women and girls being tied to either a rock or a tree before multiple soldiers raped them to death. Some women recounted how soldiers drowned babies in the village well. A few women told me how their own babies were allegedly thrown in the fire as they were dragged away by soldiers and gang raped.101

51.The UK Government’s solution to the evidential question was simple and compelling: “If the Burmese authorities are claiming that their security forces were instructed to exercise “maximum restraint” and “protect all civilians”, they should be open to a credible independent investigation to examine this.” With specific reference to gender-based violence, DFID’s supplementary evidence said that Burma must heed the call of the UN Security Council Presidential Statement which called for “transparent investigations into allegations of human rights abuses and violations, including sexual violence and abuse and violence against children, and of holding to account all those responsible for such acts to provide justice for victims.”102 The UK Government said that the Burmese authorities should grant access to the UN Human Rights Council’s Fact-Finding Mission.


Healthcare services

52.IRC reported that so far the available health and care services were arguably inappropriate, offering the victims only male members of staff and/or very visible locations for the treatment of gender based violence. IRC wrote that:

There is a real risk and fear among survivors of stigma and that recounting very traumatic incidents increases the trauma, so the services have to be delivered appropriately—and they are very technical.103

In IRC’s view, there is yet to be an appropriate clinical response to the incidence of rape. The NGO is set to deliver a comprehensive women’s centre. It is working with partners ActionAid, Relief International and ACF on women-friendly safe spaces, where survivors can access multiple services, both rape response and being with other women in a space where they can feel safe and have some return to normal life.104 World Vision highlighted the need for women who spoke the same language to help:

To really give the support that is needed, it needs to be [transacted] in your mother tongue. If you try express some things in another language, you do not get the intensity of that. You are not always able to express it in the way that you really want to. One of the challenges we are facing in this situation is, yes, get the right support, but where possible have people who can give that support in the language that really speaks to them, that they can really relate to and that really reaches into the essence of what has happened to them.105

53.DFID reported to us that the UK aid was funding 13 women’s centres which will offer psycho social support for 10,292 women and girls and case management for 2,190 survivors of sexual and gender based violence.106 The IOM Humanitarian Response plan said that 448,000 refugees urgently needed gender based violence assistance.107 We asked the Minister whether DFID’s provision met the estimated need. Minister Burt responded: “Our ability to respond at present cannot possibly match the scale of the problem”108 Dr Richard Montgomery, Director, Asia, Caribbean & Overseas Territories Division, DFID highlighted that the UK’s contribution was just a small part of the overall provision by the UNFPA, UNICEF and UK NGOs such as Save the Children and Oxfam. However, there was a great need to bring specialists in which would benefit from the grant of annual – rather than three month – access permission from the Bangladesh Government.109 When pressed on whether the UK’s contribution could be scaled up, Minister Burt conceded: “I suspect the answer would be ‘yes’.”110

Legal assistance and evidence-gathering

54.We were told by Human Rights Watch that

The services are not there in sufficient number and we are not doing enough to talk to women in privacy and with confidentiality to establish what happened to them, to create a basis for prosecution at some future point.111

55.Witnesses from NGOs were clear that evidence needed to be gathered sooner rather than later, and this made obvious sense, not least for effective investigative, forensic and legal practice. ActionAid indicated that an early demonstration of the political will and resources to try and bring the perpetrators to justice under International Law would reduce the chances of the guilty parties, and those deciding the tactics, being emboldened to continue with the violations; and that DFID had an important role to play in this.112 David Mepham of Human Rights Watch, agreed saying:

The British Government have said consistently … that tackling sexual violence in conflict is a priority. [ … ] the issue of getting people held to account for those awful crimes is critical. DFID, the FCO and the British Government have made so much of this issue, rightly, and you could ask them some tough questions when the Ministers come before you about whether that has really been taken forward.113

56.The Foreign Office’s team ‘Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative’ (PSVI) was set up by the Foreign Secretary, then Rt Hon William Hague, in 2012. Its aims were to increase the number of perpetrators, and ringleaders, of sexual violence brought to justice, and to support states’ capacity to prosecute such acts committed during conflict. Its activities include the deployment of multi-disciplinary experts overseas to support efforts to gather evidence and testimony that can be used in investigations and prosecutions. These experts include: police, lawyers, psychologists, doctors, forensic experts, gender-based violence experts and experts in the care and protection of survivors and witnesses. They also provide training and mentoring to national authorities and work with grassroots and human rights organisations. When the PSVI was formed there were 73 multi-disciplinary experts deployable. The recent UK National Action Plan on Women, Peace & Security 2014–17 report to Parliament stated that:

The UK continues to lead on PSVI and throughout 2015 – 2017 we have focused on three key areas: tackling the stigma of sexual violence including providing better access to healthcare, psychosocial support and livelihood programmes; delivering justice for survivors including capacity building on evidence gathering, training of the judiciary and support with court processes; and prevention, improving how security forces around the world prevent and respond to these crimes.114

57.However, a full team of experts has yet to be dispatched to the Rohingya refugee camps despite the mounting evidence of the demand for its services. The Rt Hon Lord Hague and Baroness Helic wrote to the Foreign Secretary at the beginning of October:

The PSVI Team of Experts, compromised of doctors, lawyers, police officers, psychologists and forensic scientists, was set up in 2012 to be deployed to support local authorities and NGOs facing crimes of sexual violence, and where local capacity is weak or overstretched. This is clearly the case in this crisis. We therefore ask that you deploy the team to Bangladesh, in strength, to document crimes and assist survivors, so that crucial evidence is not lost, and the perpetrators of these crimes can be identified.115

The PM’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said on 14 November:

The Head of Team for the FCO’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI) visited the region alongside the UN to meet with survivors, support workers, and government officials. We will also shortly be sending two experts to Bangladesh to provide further support on responding to sexual violence, including on investigating and documenting these abhorrent crimes.116

DFID confirmed to us on 6 December that still only two ‘Deployable Civilian Experts’ had been sent to Bangladesh. They are there to provide advice on how to investigate and document sexual violence.117 The UK National Action Plan on Women, Peace & Security 2014–17 report to Parliament said in relation to Burma it was: “supporting specific activities to prevent sexual violence in conflict, including the application of the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict.”118It also said the UK had “educated 167 senior and middle ranking military officers on courses, which included modules on, or raised, the issue of PSVI”.119 This was part of the training that has now been suspended.

58.In June 2013, our predecessor committee reported on Violence against Women and Girls, and recommended that: “It is imperative that the UK Government stands by its commitment to sustain momentum on the PSVI beyond the 2013 G8 Presidency.”120 The Government at the time agreed saying: “DFID’s leadership in these areas will ensure the momentum on the PSVI is maintained … through long-term country programming, building the global evidence base through the research and innovation fund, and international leadership through the Call to Action.”121 However, the UK’s response to the use of systematic sexual violence against the Rohingya suggests that “momentum on PSVI” is not being sustained.

59.The 6 November UN Security Council Presidential Statement called for “transparent investigations into allegations of human rights abuses and violations, including sexual violence and abuse and violence against children, and of holding to account all those responsible for such acts to provide justice for victims.” Burma’s agreement to access for a UN mission is one strand of the UK’s 5-point plan for resolution of the crisis (dealt with in more detail in Chapter 6), Minister Burt told us that:

Access to the UN fact-finding mission is essential, because this is the long arm of justice. It is, I hope, no coincidence that we are sitting here on the morning when Ratko Mladić’s verdict has been announced in The Hague, 20 years after the events of Srebrenica, which I know a number of people in this room have been very concerned about. It is essential that information is available so that those who have perpetrated the worst acts upon others can be brought to justice over a period of time. The UK will be fully behind and giving support to that.122 and “We will work with others on what is the most likely way to secure convictions.”123

60.However, we were concerned to hear that, other than the hopes for the UN Fact finding mission, as yet there are no other official evidence-gathering of the crimes which have been committed. As Lord Hague and Baroness Helic stated in their letter to the Foreign Secretary:

The International Community has a responsibility to ensure that rape is never used as a weapon of war to intimidate, humiliate and persecute ethnic minorities, and to send a clear message that these crimes against the Rohingya community will not be tolerated.124

61.We believe that an early, concerted and professional effort to gather the evidence of violent crimes against civilians — whether badged as atrocity crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing or genocide — is vital for three reasons:

62.Given the airplay that the UK’s “Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative” has been given by the Government, we are disappointed that it took so long to send any of its specialist resources on sexual violence to advise on dealing with the experiences of the Rohingya in Rakhine State. An initiative along these lines should be initiated in advance of agreement to UN access called for by the Minister; as that simply may never happen.

63.We seriously doubt the efficacy of urging the Burmese authorities to investigate the conduct of its own forces personnel in a “thorough and transparent manner”. The Burmese internal inquiry has already cleared its forces of any wrongdoing in a way which the UK Government describes as “simply not credible”. We urge the UK Government to seek other paths to a resolution of this issue. As elsewhere in the world, in the longer term a lasting resolution will require justice to be seen, and felt, to have been done. Should it ever come to pass, it would be far better for such a process to have a basis in evidence gathered by forensic professionals contemporaneously.

Prevention of gender based violence in the camps

64.Expert witnesses reported grave concerns over the safety, security and dignity of the Rohingya in the camps, particularly the women and girls who now form about 70% of all Rohingya refugees. The UNHCR reported:

Women and girls face safety and security risks when collecting firewood from the forest and also at distribution points. The lack of sufficient lighting in camps further exacerbates such risks and negatively affects their sense of safety. The lack of designated toilet or bathing facilities in spontaneous settlements has a severe impact on the health and safety of women and girls.125

Minister Burt and David Mepham of Human Rights Watch raised fundamental issues like lighting, security guards and the risks of sex trafficking on the basis of experience from other refugee camps around the world.126 127

65.The media has reported a number of harrowing stories of Rohingya women and girls having reached the relative safety of Bangladesh only to be sold into sex slavery and face the risks of yet more sexual violence. Women and girls are currently being sold for as little as £5:

Women and vulnerable young girls are being stalked inside refugee camps by gangs of pimps who need women to supply Bangladesh’s notorious sex trade. They look for widows because they are alone or orphans who have nobody to protect them.128

Investigations have found that the trafficking of girls is not limited to Bangladeshi cities but Rohingya women have been sent on to India and Pakistan.129 The IOM have said urgent action was required to keep women and girls safe in Bangladesh’s refugee camps:

There’s been recruiters here in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, previous to this influx and we know they are getting more business, and we know that new criminal networks have kicked into action.130

IRC was hopeful that a Preventing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse network would be fully supported by all agencies.131

Child Marriage

66.World vision raised the increase of child marriage happening in the camps:

One of the key areas that we are also monitoring is child marriage, because we are aware that there has been an increase in child marriages taking place. There is a concern that this is another mechanism for child abuse, so you have forced marriages. People are selling children for income or see it maybe as a way for the child to get out of that situation, not realising that they are going into even worse. That is an area we feel needs to be monitored very closely.132

67.UK support is providing protection for vulnerable groups, including children, in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. DFID said it was working with its partners to further scale up support for children, including on child marriage and child exploitation, within its wider protection work. Working with UN agencies and NGOs, targeted services for child protection are expected to provide the following:

68.More recently there have been reports that the distribution of food based on allocations per “household” has created an incentive for refugees to arrange marriages, including child marriages, to establish new households and thereby gain extra allocations of food aid. We have not been able to test the veracity of such reports but urge DFID to do so and seek the necessary administrative changes if it emerges that there is a basis for this perverse incentivisation of behaviours amongst the refugee population.134 The risk of child marriage is compounded by the fact that Bangladesh has the highest rate of child marriage in Asia, with 59 percent of girls married by age 18 and 22 percent married by age 15.135 The Bangladesh government, in spite of pledging to be a leader in abolishing child marriage, notably at the 2014 London Girl Summit, has backpedalled on this pledge, actually lowering the minimum age of marriage this year to permit girls under age 18 to marry in undefined “special circumstances” with no minimum age.136

89 International Development Committee, DFID Assistance to Burmese Internally Displaced People and Refugees on the Thai Burma Border, Tenth Report of Session 2006–07, HC 645, July 2007

90 International Development Committee, DFID Assistance to Burmese Internally Displaced People and Refugees on the Thai–Burma Border: Responses to the Committee’s Tenth Report of Session 2006–07, Eleventh Special Report of Session 2006–07, HC 1070, October 2007

91 Democracy and Development in Burma, Ninth Report, Session 2013–14, HC 821

92 ActionAid UK (DBB08)

93 Q19

95 Letter to the Chair from HE Kyaw Zwar Minn, Ambassador of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, dated 22 November 2017. (DBB017)

102 Department for International Development (DBB020)and UNSC Presidential Statement of 6 November 2017.

103 International Rescue Committee (DBB019)

104 Q45

105 Q47

106 Department for International Development (DBB016) pg 5

107 Humanitarian Response Plan September 2017-February 2018, Rohingya Crisis, October 2017

108 Q103

109 Q103

110 Q104

111 Q19

112 ActionAid UK (DBB08),

113 Q19

115 The Rt Hon Lord Hague and Baroness Helic (DBB032)

116 Government Press Release, Sexual violence abuses against the Rohingya in Burma, 14 November 2017

120 International Development Committee, Violence Against Women and Girls, Second Report of Session 2013–14, HC107, 13 June 2013

121 International Development Committee, Violence Against Women and Girls, Government Response to the Committee’s Second Report of Session 2013–14, Third Special Report of Session 2013– 14, HC 624, 12 September 2013, pg 19

122 Q86

123 Q89

124 The Rt Hon Lord Hague and Baroness Helic (DBB032)

125 UNHCR (DBB011)

126 Q20

127 Q103

130 Aljazeera, Rohingya women sold as sex slaves, 3 December 2017

131 International Rescue Committee (DBB019)

132 Q41

15 January 2018