Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt visited Burma last week, and his approach was very different from his predecessor, Boris Johnson.
Before his visit Jeremy Hunt met with members of the Rohingya community the UK, something Boris Johnson never bothered to do, despite questions in Parliament from MPs wanting him to do so.
On arrival one of the first things Jeremy Hunt did was visit a museum set up by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners – Burma (AAPPB), an organisation Burma Campaign UK has worked closely with for decades. This is a significant and very welcome change in approach. In recent years, Boris Johnson and other ministers have not even raised the issue of political prisoners in discussions with Aung San Suu Kyi.
Around 70 political prisoners are in jail in Burma today, with many more awaiting trial. Under Burma’s constitution the President has the power to issue an amnesty and release every one of those political prisoners. The President answers to Aung San Suu Kyi, so the decision on whether or not to release them lies with her. She should be facing just as much pressure to release political prisoners as Than Shwe, the former dictator, did.
Jeremy Hunt heard first-hand from former political prisoners about the need for all political prisoners to be released and the need for the repressive laws used to jail them to be repealed. He later raised with Aung San Suu Kyi the case of the two Reuters journalists recently sentenced to seven years in jail for exposing a massacre of Rohingya villagers.
On safe return to Burma for Rohingya refugees, the meaningless waffle about ‘safe, dignified and voluntary return’ has been dropped. Instead, Jeremy Hunt has said exactly what Rohingya, Burma Campaign UK and others have been saying all along. There cannot be safe return without justice and accountability. On Twitter Jeremy Hunt stated:
“We absolutely do support the repatriation and safe return of the Rohingya – but to do that there needs to be accountability and justice for any atrocities otherwise understandably they will be too terrified to risk the journey.”
There has also been a change in approach regarding the need for international action on justice and accountability. Support for Aung San Suu Kyi’s farcical domestic enquiry appears to be being dropped. “If there is not going to be accountability and justice in Burma, then the international community needs to look at all options including ICC referral,” Jeremy Hunt said during his visit. He has stated he will discuss options with world leaders at the UN General Assembly this week.
A new proposal is being floated for a Burma specific international criminal tribunal to be established. This was the method used to investigate international crimes before the International Criminal Court was established, for example on Rwanda and former Yugoslavia.
Establishing such a tribunal would still require a UN Security Council Resolution, and therefore come up against a potential veto from China, so some are questing why this is being suggested. One possible reason could be the recent attacks on the International Criminal Court (ICC) by senior White House officials. The US has a longstanding opposition to the ICC but abstained on the referral of the situation in Sudan regarding Darfur. The severity of the new attacks by American officials on the ICC makes it unclear if they would abstain or even oppose a resolution on referring Burma. A separate new tribunal might be a way of securing US support.
Jeremy Hunt should still explicitly state that Britain supports in principle referring Burma to the International Criminal Court. The situation in Burma is exactly the kind of situation the ICC was created for. Support for ICC referral sends an important political message to Min Aung Hlaing and will erode his sense of impunity. However, if the proposal for a separate tribunal seems more likely to garner support this could be an alternative option where diplomatic efforts are made. There needs to be a lot more transparency about the specifics. Given the recent track record of the Foreign Office, there is a lot of suspicion about their true intentions. Past language about ensuring justice and accountability was nothing more than hot air. The words were used but were not reinforced by action. The Foreign Office will need to understand and takes steps to address the deep suspicions of their intentions caused by their previous approach.
The British government has been under intense pressure from Parliament, Rohingya communities and human rights organisations over its approach to Burma. 160 Parliamentarian wrote to the Prime Ministers calling for support for ICC referral. Under Boris Johnson, the Foreign Office was not responsive to the concerns raised, ploughing on with the same outdated and failed approach as before the crisis. So far, Jeremy Hunt appears more willing to listen to and act on concerns raised.
He is no doubt facing down opposition within the Foreign Office. Those who have opposed taking a more robust stance on human rights will be citing the refusal of Min Aung Hlaing and his military to meet with Jeremy Hunt as evidence that a stronger stance is a mistake. They argue that keeping channels of communication open with the military is vital. At the same time though, they will be unable to cite a single example of how those lines of communication have led to any positive change in any area. The Foreign Office must be willing to meet and engage with the military, but not if the condition of such meetings is that they have to be silent on human rights violations and fail to act to ensure justice and accountability in response to genocide.
DFID staff in Burma will also likely be opposing this new approach. In the week before his visit, in evidence to the International Development Committee, DFID was still putting forward the same old tired and discredited arguments as an excuse for inaction and continuing unconditional support for Aung San Suu Kyi.
It is true that Aung San Suu Kyi is constrained in some areas. It is true that she does not control the military. The British government appears to take the view that she is the best and only hope for a more positive future for the country, and that despite her flaws, no-one better is waiting in the side-lines. To date, as DFID still articulate, this has led to a very uncritical approach towards her and her government. In effect, she has pretty much been given a free pass on the many human rights violations for which she is responsible as it is seen that she is the only option and has be to backed for the sake of the ‘greater good’.
As far as the Foreign Office is concerned, this appears to have changed slightly now. Visiting AAPPB and meeting with former political prisoners who are lobbying her to release political prisoners will not have pleased Aung San Suu Kyi. The visit itself delivered a message to her. It’s a welcome first step, but much more pressure is needed.
We have seen a change in approach, a change in tone, but not yet seen substantive proposals that will demonstrate that there genuinely is a change of policy. Support for ICC referral remains critical. Pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi to change or repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law and immediately give citizenship to the Rohingya is urgently needed. The political calendar in Burma means there may only be a 15 month window left for this to happen. A change in approach needs to feed through into how the UK leads at the UN Security Council, UN General Assembly and within the EU. The first draft of the EU Human Rights Council Resolution was pathetically weak. The British government helped make it better, but the Resolution is still far from good enough. They need to go back to their old approach of building alliances and pushing hard within the EU for stronger action.
Jeremy Hunt should support all the recommendations from the United Nations Fact Finding Mission. If he decides to support the establishment of a new tribunal, he needs to demonstrate that it truly is a genuine attempt to ensure justice and accountability.
He should also look again at reports from the Foreign Affairs Committee and International Development Committee and their recommendations not just relating to the Rohingya crisis, but all the human rights and humanitarian problems afflicting the country.
It is a long time since Burma Campaign UK has been able to welcome something the Foreign Office has done in relation to Burma. Today we can welcome a change in tone. We should know by the end of this week, based on what Jeremy Hunt does at the UN General Assembly, whether we can welcome a positive change in policy at last.