As the recently appointed Shadow Minister for Asia and the Pacific I have come to understand just how isolated and absent from the global stage consecutive Conservative governments have left the UK. Many on the government benches celebrated Brexit as a chance to reshape our global alliances and further UK influence abroad, but in reality ‘Global Britain’ appears to be nothing more than a soundbite to disguise the selling off of parts of the UK economy to the highest bidder.
At a time when liberal democracies need to pull together in defence of our values, successive Conservative governments have caused the UK to be widely perceived as an alliance-breaker rather than alliance-maker, and as isolationist rather than internationalist. This is the context the UK is operating in.
The Rohingya Muslims should be worried by the Conservatives’ diminishing of UK influence. The Foreign Office was a mere observer as The Gambia brought forward its case to the International Court of Justice against the Myanmar regime’s acts of genocide in Rakhine State.
The ICJ’s ruling on 23 January that Myanmar must prevent genocide, preserve evidence and submit reports and evidence periodically about its treatment of the Rohingya was an important first step. But now that Myanmar’s first report to the ICJ has been submitted, the Foreign Office should go further by asking for the report to be made public so that the international community can scrutinise the contents.
The UK must not accept at face value the Myanmar Government’s insistence that steps have been taken to comply with the provisional measures, such as the issuing of directives on preventing genocide, hate speech and preserving evidence.
Firstly, there is of course already evidence of genocidal atrocities, as outlined by the UN’s fact finding mission in 2018. Secondly, it is worth remembering that part of the Myanmar government’s response was to issue a directive calling on the public to identify human rights abuses at a time when the country has almost 200 political prisoners in jail and 500 more who are on trial or awaiting trial. It is frankly ludicrous to think that members of the public would come forward in such an environment of coercion and repression. Campaign groups also point to an internet ban in Rakhine and Chin States where the Myanmar military is committing crimes against humanity in a bid to repress information from becoming public. The action taken by the Myanmar government has therefore been entirely insufficient. Courts recently convicted three military personnel, but this has been widely seen as an attempt to protect more senior figures in the military
The Foreign Office will point to the sanctions it has imposed on 14 members of the Myanmar military as an example of the actions the UK has taken. These are welcome, but not sufficient. While these sanctions are important in sending a clear signal to the Myanmar government that the world is watching, we must recognise that in most cases these individuals are unlikely to have any personal dealings with the UK in any form and will therefore do little to prevent human rights atrocities. The same might well be said of the two further individuals that are set to be sanctioned under the Magnitsky legislation, announced by the Foreign Secretary on 6 July.
Therefore further sanctions should be considered, with a laser-like focus on targeting the economic interests of the military as an institution. Sanctions are already in place to prevent UK companies trading in certain military goods and technology, but the UK government should be asking if it could go further by preventing British businesses from having any relationship with Myanmar military-owned and controlled companies. This is what the UN Fact Finding Mission recommended, so I’ll be asking the government to look into this urgently.
The UK government – along with UK businesses – will recognise its moral responsibility to do all in its power to prevent the horrific abuses that are taking place in Myanmar – both through domestic policy and by holding Myanmar to account on the international stage. This is the type of leadership that has been lacking at the top of UK politics for a decade – leadership that the Labour Party will keep calling for.