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Speech by Federica Mogherini at the European Parliament plenary session on the situation of the Rohingya people

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Thank you very much Mr President.

Last month I was in Bangladesh together with two Foreign Ministers of two Member States - Germany and Sweden - another way of showing teamwork and the joint action of the European Union institutions plus Member States, in one of the largest camps hosting Rohingya refugees.

When you see the camps with your own eyes, when you talk with the people there, when you hear the stories, when you see the reality on the ground, it makes quite a difference.

The thing that struck me the most was the number of young children – children of my little daughter's age, 6, 7 years old – taking care of even younger children – 2 or 3 years old. These were children that were travelling together – the older ones were raising the little ones. But we are talking about children that are very, very, young. It is hard to imagine what that must feel like. These kids are forced to grow up, they're stripped of their right to childhood, and this is going to stay for the rest of their lives.

I also met a group of women, and heard from them about the violence they had suffered and the violence against their children. Stories that when you hear them, you would never ever forget them. And when you hear these stories, action is not just a political priority any more, it becomes a moral imperative.

I'm telling this because sometimes you have to link the political dynamics to stories, faces and people.

That same night, I met with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, not only to express the European Union's support to the country, but also most of all to discuss possible solutions to the crisis. Also because the camp is in an area where when the rainy season starts the situation will become impossible to manage. And it is a camp hosting 650,000 in just one place.

The day after that visit, the day after having talked with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, I was in Myanmar for the Asia-Europe meeting. And right before the Summit, we asked to set up a special meeting with all the Ministers who were there – including Aung San Suu Kyi – to discuss the situation of the Rohingya and find a way forward.

It was a quiet meeting: no cameras, no publicity, but it was a very important one. We agreed at that meeting on a shared perspective to start facing the crisis. Step-by-step but with commitments and with a strong regional and international involvement.

Just three days later, a deal between Myanmar and Bangladesh was announced and signed. We had discussed that deal during the meeting, we had encouraged the two parties to discuss together the first steps that could have been taken.

We know very well that it is still an extremely difficult situation. We know very well that the implementation of that agreement will have to be accompanied and monitored extremely carefully by the international community. But this is finally a first step in the right direction after months if not years, if not decades of inaction, or actually – even worse – sometimes of looking the other way.

It could be an entry point to address the crisis – from a bilateral point of view, between Bangladesh and Myanmar, and together with the Agencies, starting with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR].

For us, this comes after several months of intense engagement. I was here when you adopted your last resolution in September. One month later, we adopted conclusions on the crisis in the Foreign Affairs Council.

In the light of disproportionate use of force by the army, we also decided to suspend invitations to the Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar armed forces and other senior military officers, and to review ongoing practical defence cooperation.

Meanwhile, we have active at the UN Human Rights Council: first, we supported the extension of the Fact-Finding Mission's mandate; second, we supported a Special Session on Myanmar last week, and the resolution proposed by Bangladesh. We also supported a resolution at the UN General Assembly's Third Committee.

Beyond public statements, beyond the political and diplomatic work we have carried out in these months, we've stepped up our humanitarian assistance and co-hosted the UN Pledging Conference in October in Geneva.

As usual, the European Union has been the one pledging more money than anybody else. And if you look at the EU and Member States together, we pledged more than the rest of the world combined. And let me add that our pledges always turn into real money, into real projects that help real people, meaning that we always deliver on our pledges.

But the humanitarian work alone is not enough; we have to solve the problem.

It is now up to Myanmar to improve the situation in Rakhine State, so that everyone can go back to their homes in a safe and dignified way. Rule of law and full humanitarian access must be granted as a first step. The government has granted access so far to the Red Cross and the World Food Programme in Rakhine State, but we will continue to press for full access to the broader UN and NGO community.

At the same time, the people of Rakhine must be guaranteed the right to education, basic social services and the difficult issue of citizenship must be addressed – all in line with the Annan Plan.

Let me say that this is maybe the most important political point for me. The authorities of Myanmar have declared their intention to fully implement the Annan Plan.

Aung San Suu Kyi has expressed her willingness and her commitment to do so, including in our private meetings but also in our common press activities and publicly several times.

We know very well that she faces an extremely complex situation in the country.

The democracy of Myanmar is a very young one. The country is still in a democratic transition, and the path towards an inclusive and pluralistic democracy is never easy, particularly after so many years of military rule.

I believe that Aung San Suu Kyi needs and wants our support to implement fully the Annan plan, and to translate the political commitment into real action and to do it step-by-step, accompanied by the international community and other countries in the region.

In the coming days and weeks we will continue to work for dignified, voluntary returns, based on the bilateral agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar. We will push for humanitarian access in Rakhine State, based on the first openings made by the government. And we will work to address the root causes of the crisis, and push for the full implementation of the Annan report.

I am sure that the European Parliament will continue to contribute to such work that will hopefully bring results – probably not in too short a time period – but I believe that the first steps in the right direction finally have been taken, even if I am not hiding all the limits, all the difficulties, and all the shortcomings that we will still be facing in the months ahead. This is why we have to continue working in that direction together.

Thank you.

Closing remarks

Thank you very much Mr President. First of all, let me say that it is always useful to hear your [the Members of the European Parliament] views, to take them into consideration for the continuation of our work on the ground and continue to use all the instruments that we have.

As many of you said, there is a certain amount of work that we can do; there are other things that are not in our power or in our hands to solve, but the fact that we are by far the largest humanitarian donor, literally keeping people alive in very difficult conditions, is already a very important component of our work.

The work we are doing on stabilisation and development assistance; the work we are doing on political dialogue – again, I would like to stress the fact that the bilateral agreement was reached after our pressure and our meetings together with both the Bangladesh and the Myanmar sides.

We will continue on the monitoring of the implementation of this agreement, on the specific support to human rights and democracy; and - let me mention one point that was raised by one of you and that I believe is extremely important - the work we do on accountability and the fight against impunity. Clearly this has to be part of the commitments that are taken by the Myanmar authorities.

Knowing very well, as I said in the beginning and as you are all extremely aware of, that Myanmar is even more than a young democracy, I would say it is a country still in transition.

We have to be aware of the fact that we have to do two difficult exercises at the same time: on one side, finding a solution to the issue of the Rohingya – finding a solution that is sustainable, that is in full respect of all of their rights, and this is doable with the full implementation of the Annan Report, to which Aung San Suu Kyi has committed herself; and on the other side, we have to strengthen the democratic process in Myanmar, knowing very well that there is a political fight in the country and that things are complicated to say the least.

We also have to avoid that the clock turns backwards in Myanmar itself. After so many years of military rule, this is always a risk.

So this is the exercise that we are doing, with a strong commitment and engagement from the European Union side. We will continue to do so.

Last two points. One, returns obviously have to be happening in a dignified and safe manner, in full respect of all of their rights and with international standards. It is not an issue that is going to be solved easily; on the contrary. But again, I believe that one first small step – extremely partial – but encouraging has happened.

Obviously it is not a bilateral issue between Myanmar and Bangladesh, but without that first bilateral step, the international work to try to solve the problem would also not be possible. We will continue to work also to push for the international community and in particular, as I said, UNHCR and international NGOs to have a full role in this process.

It is still going to be a long process that will require all our political determination. The Council [of the European Union] will for sure come back to this point: we just adopted Council Conclusions in October; I am ready to put the issue on the agenda again at any time to continue to try to help and push for a solution to this issue.

I thank you very much for keeping this issue high on the agenda. I believe this is useful and I count on your full on the continuation of our work there.

Thank you.