In August last year, the world watched as the Burmese army rolled into the Rakhine State in Burma where the majority of the Rohingya, one of the world’s most persecuted people, live, and with military precision and brutish cruelty, set out about driving the Rohingya from their homes with all the tools that are the hallmarks of genocide – rape, murder and burning homes to the ground.
Representing a constituency with one of the largest Rohingya populations in Europe, I was amongst the first to hear of these barbaric acts, with pictures brought to me by distraught constituents with relatives in Burma. These pictures were sickening, capturing civilians butchered in their homes, and the ominous smoke of burning Rohingya villages in the distance.
Despite this despicable violence, the response from the UK Government has been deplorable. They were too slow in recognising the scale of the slaughter, too limited in acting to prevent it, and even now as the violence shows no sign of abating, too timid in standing up to the Burmese Government. Indeed, the failure to confront the violence allowed it to descend into genocide, with a refusal to act bolstering the military’s belief that they can get away with it.
As a result, 12 months on from the start of one of the worst humanitarian emergencies in recent times, there has still been no substantial action taken to ensure an end to the violence, and still no effort to hold those responsible for it to account. It should shame the world that those who ordered and committed atrocities against the Rohingya still walk free.
We need action from our Government, not warm but ultimately empty words. They need to realise that the threat against the Rohingya has not subsided, and they need to realise that taking a strong stance against Burma, will not put obstructions in Burma’s ‘road to democracy’. The road to democracy cannot be built on acts of genocide and a road that is should and must only lead to one place, a trial at the International Criminal Court.
The UK must be vigorous in making this clear to the Burmese Government and show we will not stand for the continuation of a genocide. This ‘vigorous clarity’ should be applied not just in condemning the behaviour of the Burmese Government, including Aung San Suu Kyi, once a defender of human rights, now an apologist for abuses, but also applied in seeking a referral to the International Criminal Court.
Real sanctions means real effects, and that means an end to those applied more for appearance’s sake than practical use. Asset freezes for example do not work here as they apply to too few Burmese military officers to have an impact. Instead, we need to apply sanctions that will have a substantial impact on restricting the military’s ability to carry out acts of violence against the Rohingya and will hurt both financially and politically the military figures ruling Burma.
To that end we must expand the EU arms embargo to a ban on the sale of all equipment to the Burmese military, seriously degrading their ability to even move troops let alone carry out attacks. We also must seek a ban on European companies from doing business with military owned and controlled companies to hit a dictatorship where it hurts - in the pockets of the ruling elite - and a push for UN-mandated global arms embargoes. Sanctions led to the first democratic elections in Burma, despite their limited scope, and they can succeed again.
We must also not end these sanctions when violence stops, because that is not a guarantee that it won’t erupt again. They must only be lifted when the Rohingya are equal citizens, when they have citizenship and when they can stand up for themselves without harm. Anything else is a betrayal of the Rohingya and our defence of democracy.
Those responsible for this genocide must also be held accountable, and that means a trial at the International Criminal Court. I have long called for the UK to push for those responsible to be taken to The Hague, and whilst this is a difficult task, with referral to the ICC requiring the consent of the UN Security Council where both Russia and China will likely use their veto, the UK has disappointingly rejected the prospect of seeking a referral.
Yet following the recent report from the UN calling for referral to the ICC, there is the perfect opportunity for the UK to use its position as a permanent member of the Security Council to set the agenda and build a willingness to do so. There are difficulties in seeking an agreement, but reaching it cannot start unless the UK supports a referral itself, which it must immediately do.
Ultimately, the time of reports and inquiries is over. We know what atrocities are taking place and who is responsible. Now is the time for action.