House of Lords debate on plight of Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh

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Nation special report

LONDON: Expressing concern over the plight of Rohingya community in Bangladesh, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Lord Tariq Ahmad has said that the conditions in the camps in Bangladesh have improved but remain difficult for the Rohingya community.

“The UK has provided £129 million of assistance since August 2017. We welcome Bangladesh’s continuing generosity in hosting the Rohingya community and its commitment to the principle of voluntariness on repatriations. I agree with the UN Refugee Agency’s assessment that conditions are not in place for safe and sustainable returns, and I assure the noble Lord that the UK will continue to press for independent monitoring by all UN agencies”, he added.

Lord Tariq Ahmed said this in response to a question fielded by Lord Nazir Ahmed during a debate at the House of Lords on Monday (December 17) that what the government has made of the situation of Rohingya refugees and the likelihood of their safe return to Burma.

Altogether six members including Lord Tariq Ahmad, Lord Nazir Ahmed, Lord Alton, Lord Dholakia, Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne and Lord Bishop of Winchester participated in the debate.

Lord Nazir Ahmed was thankful to Department for International Development for providing support to the most oppressed people in the world. He asked whether the Minister is aware that last Thursday the US House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution, by 394 votes to one, identifying crimes against the Rohingya in Myanmar as genocide? Will the Government support the indictment of the Burmese generals and civilian leaders responsible for this genocide in the International Criminal Court?

Lord Tariq Ahmad responded; “on the earlier point, I thank the noble Lord for his remarks. It is true that we can all be proud of the role that the Department for International Development has played over many years on behalf of those people who are suffering the worst crises, including humanitarian crises and the ethnic cleansing that we have seen of the Rohingya community in Burma. On the issue of Congress, I am aware of that vote—but, as the noble Lord will know, it is a long-standing position that we regard attributing genocide as an issue for judicial authorities. However, the United Kingdom is playing a key role in gathering evidence to ensure that the perpetrators of these crimes can be brought to justice.

Responding to a question raised by Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB), Lord Tariq Ahmad said that there has not yet been a UN resolution on the issue. However, I assure that we are speaking to all international partners, including those on the Security Council, to find a way forward on this. He will be aware that there are particular perspectives, most notably from the Chinese, which would, in our view, result in any ICC referral being blocked. We believe in the institution of the International Criminal Court and in its reforms, but any referral to it should carry full support. Looking at what has been debated and agreed in the Security Council over the last 12 months, thus far we have kept unanimity. That remains a primary objective, but I assure the noble Lord that we keep in mind the issue of all persecuted minorities—in Kachin and Shan provinces as well. We will ensure that evidence is collected and the perpetrators ultimately brought to justice in a local or international court.

Lord Alton had drawn the attention of the House that 700,000 Rohingya have now fled to Bangladesh and there are reports of villages being burned and horrific human rights violations including the burning of homes, schools and mosques; the deliberate burning of people to death inside their homes; mass rape; torture; execution without trial; the blocking of aid; and similar offences ​being conducted against the Shan and the Kachin as well. So is the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, not right to call for this, regardless of the vote in the American Congress, to be referred to the International Criminal Court? Why is the United Kingdom not laying a resolution before the Security Council calling for a global arms embargo on the Burmese Army, with targeted sanctions against Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and calling for Daw Suu, Aung San Suu Kyi, to speak out forcefully against these horrific offences?

In response to Lord Dholakia’s query, Lord Tariq Ahmad said that On the issue of safe return and the fact-finding mission, we were one of the co-sponsors of that resolution in March 2017, and we agree with many of the mission’s findings. On the issue of safe return, I assure the noble Lord that there was talk of an agreement having been reached between Burma and Bangladesh in November this year for returns to start. However, we are very clear that they cannot start until certain conditions are met. First and foremost, they must be voluntary. The safety and security of the refugees is paramount. We have raised that, and I met with the Information Minister of Bangladesh on Thursday and again gained that very reassurance.

Lord Dholakia (LD) had asked thatthere seems to be no prospect of the safe return of Rohingya refugees to Burma. This will remain so until we accept the full findings and recommendations of the United Nations fact-finding mission. Why are we so reluctant to do so? Does the Minister accept that two issues need to be resolved? The first and central issue is citizenship being denied to Rohingya refugees. Their citizenship is objected to by Aung San Suu Kyi, who should know better. The second is the attempt to secure referral to the International Criminal Court, which has so far stalled. Surely we cannot accept refugees being returned to Burma until those who have perpetrated such vile crimes against them are brought to justice.