As the pope made a high profile visit to Myanmar in late November, attention turned to how to help the thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have fled their homes to Bangladesh following violence and what UN officials have described as ethnic cleansing. A deal struck between the two countries to start returning the refugees, has been criticised for going against international refugee law.
Western politicians have also travelled to Myanmar and Bangladesh to witness the crisis in recent months. In September, the British foreign office minister Mark Field travelled to Rakhine state, the centre of the violence. Members of the US senate also travelled there in November. The British Labour MP Rosena Allin-Khan, a doctor, then travelled to Bangladesh to work in a refugee camp there.
We believe that parliaments in foreign countries, such as those in Europe, can contribute to a resolution of the Rohingya crisis. Many parliaments have the authority and power to shape government policy. Governments such as Myanmar’s are sensitive to foreign opinions. The British and Dutch governments have, for instance, facilitated extensive business investments in the water management infrastructure of Myanmar – and it is not in the country’s interest to lose them. A forceful call from parliaments in Europe could strengthen the existing condemnation by European governments that violence towards the Rohingya population has consequences for Mynamar’s future relations with European countries.
What happened in Darfur
Our elected representatives can play an important role in shaping the way Western governments respond to gross human rights violations. In our research, we analysed the actions of parliaments and individual MPs in the Netherlands, France and the UK at the start of the Darfur crisis in Sudan 13 years ago. While the Darfur and Rohingya crises are quite different, they are also similar in some important aspects. In both situations, a grave humanitarian situation followed attacks on a marginalised ethnic group, and Western governments limited their involvement to diplomacy and humanitarian assistance.
Our research showed that in the case of Darfur, the Dutch and UK parliaments had some measurable effect on changing the policy of their own governments, for example through requests for additional funding for humanitarian workers and an African Union monitoring mission. Relative to the French parliament, the UK and Dutch parliaments have greater constitutional rights in foreign policy, such as the right to ratify international treaties or deploy the military. This allowed MPs to be more active in shaping their governments’ response to the Darfur crisis through debates, parliamentary questions and motions.
Knowledge and expertise in committees and from individual MPs help parliaments to ask relevant questions and make useful suggestions for policy. We found this to be the case for the UK and Netherlands. In these two countries and France, we found that ideological party divisions were largely absent from discussions on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. This gives hope that parliamentarians can form a unifying front on human rights violations.
European parliaments and the Rohingya
We have found similar patterns in the response to the Rohingya crisis. In the Netherlands and UK, MPs sitting on foreign affairs and development cooperation committees have discussed the Rohingya crisis with relevant ministers in recent weeks. We have found no such debates in France, although some French MPs submitted questions to the French minister of foreign affairs. In each country, MPs from most political parties encouraged governments to be bold in emergency aid and to exert pressure on Myanmar’s military to halt their actions.
One problem is that MPs often respond when there is a lot of media attention. Unfortunately, specialist reports by NGOs or their own governments, often written long before the issue reaches a crisis point, are rarely as effective in triggering a forceful response from MPs. At the moment that MPs become more interested, they often find that their governments are too far ahead in formulating a policy response to the crisis for parliamentary involvement to have a meaningful effect.
Some individual politicians do try to bring the issue to their government’s attention at an early stage. For instance, the House of Lords debated the Rohingya situation in January 2017, and some MPs in the Netherlands and France submitted questions. When the UK foreign minister, Boris Johnson, went to Myanmar in February 2017, he was urged by MPs to raise the issue of the Rohingya.
Foreign affairs are not the exclusive domain of world leaders and their ministers. Through parliamentary representatives, citizens can demand that governments prevent foreseeable emerging crises from occurring and give them credit when doing so. But this requires timely intervention and unity within parliament.
There is no guarantee that this could have prevented the current crisis in Myanmar, or would stop other ones in the future. But we do believe that MPs can play a stronger and more positive role in humanitarian crises than they often do.