Prime Minister Theresa May’s first official visit to China, which begins today, is billed as an opportunity to boost trade with an important ally. But it will also take place against the backdrop of the country’s violations of fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion or belief.
In the last month, Christians have been detained, and unregistered churches shut down or destroyed ahead of the implementation of revised Regulations on Religious Affairs, which strengthen state control over religious activities in China.
Unregistered churches, sometimes called house churches, are independent churches which have not registered with the state-sanctioned Three Self Patriotic Movement. The new regulations are due to come into force tomorrow, giving Mrs May a rare opportunity to speak directly to the Chinese government and publicly to reiterate the UK’s commitment to defending human rights.
No one should be denied food or medicine on account of their ethnicity or religion, but that is what is increasingly happening to some people in Burma. A humanitarian crisis is emerging because in some parts of the country, the authorities are blocking aid access. In other areas, international agencies are cutting aid. Blocks and cuts combined are resulting in displaced people who have fled conflict going hungry at night. That is why we have launched our new campaign: “Real Change”.
When we talk about refugees today, we think of Syria and Iraq. But Burma remains a country where significant numbers of people are fleeing conflict and persecution. Thousands escape to other countries, but others are internally displaced. Over 120,000 in Kachin and northern Shan states, and over 130,000 Rohingyas in Rakhine state.
Military powers remain problematic in Burma
The news headlines from Burma over the past year have mostly been positive. A remarkable peaceful transition from military rule to a civilian, democrat-led government, with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi at its helm, should be a cause for celebration. Her party, the National League for Democracy, overwhelmingly won the country’s first credible elections in a quarter of a century last November, and formed the government in April. To see her with Theresa May on the steps of 10 Downing Street, with President Obama in the White House, or at the United Nations, after over 15 years under house arrest and the best part of three decades of struggle, is extraordinary.
Yet behind the headlines, the reality is more complex. The military may no longer be in direct charge, but their power remains. Under the military-drafted constitution, a quarter of the seats in Parliament are reserved for them and they control three key ministries in government: home affairs, border affairs and defence. One of the two Vice-Presidents is a military appointee.
So unless the military agrees, the prospects for tackling the root causes of Burma’s conflicts remain slim. In August, Suu Kyi organised a major peace conference with representatives of most of the ethnic nationalities, which was a welcome start. But to secure genuine peace, a political solution needs to be found to address the ethnic nationalities’ desire for autonomy and equal rights within a federal system. And the fact that as the talks were going on, the Burma Army launched new attacks in Kachin and Shan States is hardly an encouraging sign. Even in Karen State, where a ceasefire was agreed in 2012, reports of new violence have emerged recently.
Dimensions of Religious Intolerance
Religious intolerance in Burma has several dimensions. In its most acute form, there is the appalling crisis facing the Rohingyas, a predominantly Muslim people in Rakhine State. Described as one of the most persecuted people in the world, enduring what some experts say may amount to crimes against humanity or even potential genocide, the Rohingyas are marginalised, dehumanised and stateless. Their mosques have been destroyed or closed, their movement restricted, their access to education denied and their citizenship taken from them. In 2012, two horrific explosions of violence against them forced thousands out of their homes and into displacement camps that seem more like concentration camps.
After years of reluctance to speak about the issue, Suu Kyi finally formed an international commission led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan last month, to investigate the causes of the conflict and seek solutions – something CSW had been calling for. Rakhine nationalists and military-backed groups responded with outrage.
Trying to find lasting solutions to end conflict and build peace in Burma is of course vital and these two steps taken by Suu Kyi’s government – the peace conference and the Kofi Annan commission – have to be welcomed. But there is the more immediate, more urgent challenge of allowing humanitarian aid to reach those desperately in need.
“For a country in the midst of a fragile transition from military dictatorship to some form of democracy, a humanitarian crisis stoked with ethnic and religious conflict is not what is needed to ensure stability.”
Aid is a Lifeline to Internally Displaced Communities
Last week, the Burma Army prevented trucks containing a month’s supply of rice from the World Food Programme (WFP) from reaching a camp for internally displaced people in Kachin state, and the previous month the military blocked a vehicle carrying medical supplies for four camps, provided by the United Nations.
In a separate but equally troubling development, reports have emerged that over 40 camps in Rakhine state have experienced cuts in WFP aid or been informed of cuts to come. These are apparently part of a plan to phase-out relief assistance in parts of Rakhine State.
In July, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma Yanghee Lee said, after meeting internally displaced peoples, that she had heard of their “daily struggles to survive”. She expressed concern about the “extensive difficulties in accessing and delivering aid”, even though such assistance “provides a lifeline to communities”. In Rakhine state, she noted, access can only be approved “through a cumbersome procedure”, and in Kachin state “humanitarian access is shrinking”. The conditions of the internally displaced peoples’ camps she witnessed “remain poor”.
If this continues, more people will die. For a country in the midst of a fragile transition from military dictatorship to some form of democracy, a humanitarian crisis stoked with ethnic and religious conflict is not what is needed to ensure stability. It is in Burma’s own interests to ensure that this does not happen. Suu Kyi’s government needs to stop the block on aid, and the international community must end the cuts, and we must all do what we can to ensure that no one starves to death because of their race or religion. Join us in this campaign today, and help bring real change for Burma.
As the Prime Minister assembled her new cabinet following the UK referendum on its membership of the European Union (EU), attention was rightly being paid to the how the new-look Government would deal with Britain’s decision to leave. Those appointed by Theresa May know that, whatever their brief, a significant proportion of the Government’s work will be negotiating, executing and accounting for the UK’s withdrawal from EU.
While it is understandable that this unprecedented task will be time consuming for the UK Government, this must not be allowed to supersede its obligation to promote and protect human rights worldwide.
Human Rights within the European Union
For all the debated successes and failures of the EU, what is undeniable is that its various institutions engage in significant human rights work.
The EU delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) regularly speaks with the weight of the 28 member states of the Union, promoting key thematic and country specific human rights issues. During the latest HRC session in June 2016, amongst other work the delegation supported a resolution on Syria and led a resolution condemning the death penalty in Belarus.
There is an EU Special Representative for Human Rights; the current post-holder, Stavros Lambrinidis, engages on behalf of EU member states with countries across the world which are failing to meet their international human rights obligations.
In May 2016, the European Union appointed former European Commissioner Jan Figel as its first-ever Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) outside the European Union. Upon his appointment, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said: “The persistent persecution of religious and ethnic minorities makes protecting and promoting this freedom inside and outside the EU all the more essential…Our Special Envoy will help us in this endeavour, sharpening our focus and ensuring that this important issue gets the attention it deserves”.
Once the UK invokes article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and begins the formal and legal process of leaving the EU, it will no longer be associated with any of these important human rights and FoRB initiatives.
Human Rights outside the European Union
In addition, once it has withdrawn from the European Union, every EU treaty that had previously applied to the UK will become null and void. This includes a vast array of trade arrangements that the EU has in place for member states with some 50 countries around the world.
It is therefore not surprising that the UK Government felt the need to establish a new Department for International Trade, which among other things, will be responsible for agreeing alternative deals to replace the preferential trading conditions that will cease to apply once the country is no longer an EU member state. However, the UK Government has recently been criticised for the perception that its human rights work has been deprioritised, and the most senior civil servant in the Foreign Office declaring the ‘prosperity agenda’ ranks higher in the list of priorities. It is therefore essential that the Government is continually encouraged to ensure human rights forms an integral part of its work as it ventures into a post-EU-membership world.
Keeping Human Rights on the Agenda
It is worth noting that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) estimates over 75% of the world’s governments now participate in preferential trade agreements that include human rights components. The human rights promoted in these agreements include privacy rights, political participation, due process, access to information, cultural rights, indigenous rights, and access to affordable medicines. Since human rights language in trade agreements is clearly now the norm, the UK ought to have no compunction in making human rights, including FoRB, a key component of its approach to brokering new trade agreements once it has left the EU.
“Since human rights language in trade agreements is clearly now the norm, the UK ought to have no compunction in making human rights, including FoRB, a key component of its approach to brokering new trade agreements once it has left the EU.”
The UK’s human rights work will diminish the day it is no longer an EU member state. This is not a value judgement; it is an outworking of the UK voting to leave the Union. However, this diminution does not have to be permanent.
As the dust begins to settle on the result and plans are formulated on how the exit is to be negotiated and executed, talks have begun on there being ‘more Britain abroad’ with the opportunity of having ‘a greater global profile’. At a time when the UK will be seeking to engage overseas as never before, it is important for the government to meet the crucial challenge of incorporating the promotion and protection of human rights in its policies on every occasion.