House of Lords
Queen’s Speech

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

DEBATE (5TH DAY)

Baroness Cox: My Lords, I wish to offer first-hand accounts of causes of deep concern in three countries I have visited this year. The first concerns Burma where there are welcome reforms but many problems remain, including severe violations of human rights affecting ethnic and religious minorities such as the predominantly Muslim Rohingya, the Christian Kachin and the Buddhist Shan peoples.


The Rohingya people have suffered horrifying waves of violence, displacing at least 130,000, with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of deaths. Moreover, security forces have often failed to prevent the killing of civilians and destruction of Muslim homes, shops and other property. Those forced to flee to camps are living in conditions of appalling squalor, many dying from disease without medical care. May I ask the Minister what steps Her Majesty’s Government have taken to press the Burmese Government to ensure that security forces act swiftly to protect vulnerable communities, arrest and prosecute perpetrators of violence, prevent the spread of anti-Muslim propaganda and hate speech, and end impunity? May I also ask whether Her Majesty’s Government have raised with the Burmese Government the denial of citizenship for the Rohingya people, who, despite living in Burma for generations, exist as a stateless people?


I turn briefly to the plight of the Kachin people. In June 2011, the Burmese Army broke a long-standing ceasefire with Kachin state and fighting continues. I visited Kachin state in February and saw the dire predicament of at least 100,000 people displaced from their homes by military offensives and human rights violations by the Burmese Army, with killing of civilians, arbitrary arrests, torture, rape and destruction of villages. At least 66 churches have been destroyed in the past year. May I ask what efforts Her Majesty’s Government are making to press the Burmese Government to end these military offensives and engage in a meaningful peace process with the Kachin and other ethnic nationalities?

Persistent violations of ceasefires also continue in Shan state, where the Burmese army continues to attack Shan people and to commit grave human rights abuses. May I ask whether Her Majesty’s Government will press the Burmese Government to ensure unhindered access for humanitarian assistance to all conflict-affected states, and what humanitarian assistance Her Majesty’s Government are providing? As the monsoon season approaches, the current dire humanitarian situation could become catastrophic.


The ethnic national peoples of Burma fear that the warm welcome given by the international community to the reforms will result in massive investment, which the Burmese Government will use for more exploitation of the resource-rich lands of the ethnic national peoples, with further expropriation and displacement. As one of the Shan leaders said to us with deep concern, “When the lights went on in Rangoon, all the world rushed there and no one stopped to see us in the darkness”. Given the decision to lift EU sanctions on Burma, may I ask the Minister what measures the EU, including the United Kingdom, will use to pressure the Burmese Government to stop these human rights violations, ensure genuine constitutional change, which includes a just political settlement for the ethnic nationalities, and bring an end to these decades of war and oppression?


I turn briefly to the new republics of South Sudan and Sudan, having been twice this year to South Sudan and once to the conflict-afflicted areas of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile in Sudan. South Sudan needs massive assistance to recover from the war inflicted by the former north, in which 2 million people perished, 4 million were displaced and virtually all the infrastructure was destroyed. I had the privilege of being invited to the Independence Day celebrations in June 2011, where the joy of freedom was tangibly exuberant, alongside the sober challenges confronting the new nation. As President Salva Kiir said, it was not a case of rebuilding, as there was nothing left to rebuild.


The Government and the peoples of South Sudan deserve congratulations on their achievements in the 22 months since independence. Of course, there are massive problems, including inevitable internal conflicts
in a post-conflict tribal society, with historic tribal tensions exacerbated by unemployment, especially of demobilised soldiers, a generation of children who have not been able to attend school because of constant aerial bombardment, some of the worst health statistics in the world, with only 15% of the population receiving immunisation, and a desperate need for roads in a country which, at independence, had only a few kilometres of tarmac road. The problems are exacerbated by the Republic of Sudan’s aggressive policies, including military offensives into South Sudan and sponsoring South Sudanese insurgents and criminal groups. There is also the problem of continuing violence along the border, especially in the disputed Abyei region.


However, I am delighted to see many signs of progress in South Sudan, including establishment of institutions of civil society, programmes for reconciliation between conflict-prone tribal factions and investment by major international companies. Can the Minister say what specific initiatives Her Majesty’s Government are taking to promote UK investment in South Sudan, as it is essential for the development of this vulnerable new nation trying to develop as a true democracy in a very challenging part of Africa?


Finally, I turn to the Republic of Sudan, still under the rule of General al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court, together with two of his senior colleagues, one of whom he has imposed in a ruling position in southern Kordofan. Al-Bashir has declared his intention to turn the Republic of Sudan into a unified Arabic, Islamic nation. He is pursuing his racist policy of ethnic cleansing the African peoples from Blue Nile state and the Nuba Mountains in Southern Kordofan. Earlier this year, I witnessed constant aerial bombardment of innocent civilians, forcing half a million to flee their homes and hide in snake-infested caves, under trees or in river banks. Many have died of starvation as they cannot grow or harvest crops and a quarter of a million have had to flee to overcrowded camps in South Sudan. I and other noble Lords have repeatedly asked what pressure Her Majesty’s Government have put on the Government of Sudan to desist from this aerial bombardment of civilians which has caused such a massive toll of death and injury, and I do so again this evening.


Her Majesty’s Government claim that they wish to continue to “talk” to Khartoum. However, as many of us have emphasised, Khartoum continues to kill while it talks. There are also numerous other causes for concern in Sudan, including expulsion of many NGOs, attacks on Christian churches and schools and serious infringements of fundamental human rights, including freedom of the press. These deserve a separate debate. May I ask the Minister what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to bring an end to this culture of impunity, which allows, inter alia, mass killings and injury on that huge scale? May I also ask whether Her Majesty’s Government might consider assisting indigenous organisations in those conflict-affected areas, especially in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, with the provision of life-saving food and medical supplies for civilians currently dying from starvation and disease? In one village we visited in Blue Nile, 450 people had died from starvation and those still alive had had to flee into the bush from aerial bombardment targeting their village. The people of Sudan and South Sudan look to the British Government as having a special responsibility to help, not only because of our historic responsibility but our continuing duty as part of the three-nation group responsible for monitoring and assisting with the implementation of the comprehensive peace agreement.


Our friends in Burma, Sudan and South Sudan passionately hope that we will hear more substantive promises from the Minister—if not tonight, in due course—to bring encouragement to people who have suffered too much for too long at the hands of Governments who continue to kill and inflict suffering on so many of their own people in Burma and Sudan with virtual impunity.