Humanitarian Work of the Syria Civil Defence: Discussion

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade Debate

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Humanitarian Work of the Syria Civil Defence: Discussion

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen We are delighted to have Mr. Farouq Al Habib with us this morning. He has come, at very short notice, to update the committee on the humanitarian work of Syria Civil Defence. He is very welcome. This presentation will provide the committee with an opportunity to receive, at first hand, an account of the situation on the ground which is very important for us as parliamentarians because there are so many atrocities happening in Syria. I thank Ms Valerie Hughes, who is the Gallery, for her efforts to ensure that Mr. Habib could attend today's meeting and the Irish embassy in Ankara for ensuring that a travel visa was issued to enable Mr. Habib to get here in time.

  We look forward to the presentation, which includes a short video. The committee has taken a very keen interest in Syria and has had numerous meetings with many non-governmental organisations, NGOs, about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in recent months. We are very concerned about it. The media moves from story to story and what is happening in Syria is often left unreported and we only know what continues to happen there, at the expense of women, children and families because of people like Mr. Habib and the NGOs working in the country. We are delighted to have Mr. Habib here today. I will invite him to make a short presentation and then committee members will ask questions.

  Before we begin today's proceedings, I remind members and those in the public Gallery to ensure that their mobile telephones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference even in silent mode with the recording equipment in the committee rooms.

  Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. However, if they are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Mr. Farouq Al Habib: Chairman, members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, ladies and gentlemen, allow me first to thank you for giving me this opportunity to testify about the ongoing tragedy that the Syrian people are living through and about the work Syria Civil Defence, SCD, also known as the White Helmets, is doing to ease that suffering. I would like also to thank the Irish people for their generosity in hosting Syrian refugees. We, as Syrians, have huge respect for the people of Ireland, who historically supported the rights of oppressed people in the Middle East.

My name is Farouq Habib. When the Syrian revolution began, I was working as a banker in a private Syrian bank. My belief that my people have the right to live with dignity and freedom obliged me to join the peaceful movement to defend human rights in Syria. Currently, I am working for Mayday Rescue Foundation, managing the training and equipment programme for SCD rescue teams in Syria and acting as a political adviser to their leadership. The White Helmets is an organisation of more than 2,700 volunteers operating from 111 centres across eight provinces in Syria from the south to the north, founded on the values of impartiality and humanity. It is currently the largest grassroots organisation inside Syria established for, and working on, a response to indiscriminate attacks on civilians, especially from barrel bombs. It does this by conducting search and rescue operations, fire fighting and emergency evacuation, and carries out these tasks daily. To this day, the teams have rescued more than 30,000 civilians from under the rubble. Please see this video as a short testimony of our work. It was made by one of my colleagues.

  The joint committee viewed an audio-visual presentation.

Mr. Farouq Al Habib: What my friend Qassem described in the video is an example of the life of terror we live because of the indiscriminate aerial bombardment in Syria using barrel bombs, which are the main killer of civilians in Syria. Many of the committee members have probably heard about this horrific weapon, which is specifically designed to impose mass punishment on civilian communities out of the regime's control. These crude bombs, which are simply explosive-filled fuel barrels that eject nails, scrap metal and other random cheap but deadly shrapnel, take dozens of innocent lives every day. These primitive, cheap and indiscriminate weapons have become a source of constant panic among Syrian civilians, especially when the regime fills them with chlorine gas.

While responding to these attacks, the search and rescue teams face twice the danger because as Qassem explained in the video, the Syrian Air Force has adopted a technique in carrying out its attacks, referred to as the "double tap", where the aircraft returns again to bomb the same location minutes later to kill rescue workers and first responders.

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