Situation in Syria: Motion [Private Members] (Continued)

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 962 No. 6

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Catherine Connolly: Information on Catherine Connolly Zoom on Catherine Connolly] It is a very cautious and moderate report. More than a year ago the UN appealed for an immediate, strategic review of the sanctions by all the stakeholders because they were simply not doing what they were supposed to do. We know that the sanctions against Iraq resulted in the deaths of half a million people. That number has been quoted already. The very courageous Denis Halliday resigned in protest after a lifetime in the UN. That was a decision he did not take lightly. He equated what was happening to genocide.

Deputy Wallace has already quoted Madeleine Albright but I will repeat what he said because it is the most appalling statement, namely, that it was worth it. She said about the US sanctions, with half a million people dead, that the price was worth it. That self-damning confession came seven years after the sanctions were introduced. Seven years used to be the age of reason, where one would take stock when one grew up. Is that the type of leadership we want? The retired US general, Wesley Clark, revealed the Pentagon plans to overthrow seven governments in five years, including Syria. All that those plans achieved was an appalling loss of life and left in place and even more secure in his position the man for whom none of us have any respect. The people of Syria marched for democracy but they never asked for a war of the nature they got. This was a country that was almost self sufficient in 2011, which has cities that were the cradle of civilisation. The people of Syria never asked for this barbarism and they never asked for our hypocrisy.

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Simon Coveney): Information on Simon Coveney Zoom on Simon Coveney I welcome the opportunity to address this House on the situation in Syria and I thank Members for their continued engagement on the issue. I thank Deputies Wallace and Clare Daly in particular for tabling the motion and giving us an opportunity to have this debate.

I share the revulsion expressed in this House at the continuing violence in Syria and its impact on the Syrian population, especially the most vulnerable, namely, children. The fighting has cost the lives of an estimated half a million people so far. Civilians continue to bear the brunt of this conflict, marked by unparalleled suffering, destruction and disregard for human life. More than 13 million people require humanitarian assistance, including close to 3 million in need trapped in besieged and hard-to-reach areas, where they are exposed to grave protection threats. More than half of the population has been forced from their homes, and many people have been displaced multiple times. Children and young people comprise more than half of the displaced, as well as half of those in need of humanitarian assistance. In fact, children are at the heart of this vicious conflict. The war in Syria began when the Assad regime brutally repressed a protest by parents demonstrating against the arrest and torture of their teenage children in southern Syria in early 2011. Since then, the Assad regime and its allies have repeatedly targeted civilians, including through use of "starve or surrender" techniques, forced displacement in the interest of demographic engineering, denial of humanitarian assistance and deliberate attacks on civilian infrastructure such as schools, markets and hospitals. The regime has even gone so far as to use chemical weapons on its people, as recently confirmed by the UN-Office for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, joint investigative mission.

We cannot stand idly by as the Assad regime inflicts such suffering on its people. Ireland has consistently supported EU sanctions targeting the regime and its supporters, and will continue to do so as long as the situation on the ground justifies those measures. As the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, has outlined, the sanctions target the Syrian regime. There are no sanctions on food, medicines or most other civilian goods and there are exemptions and derogations for essential civilian needs and for humanitarian assistance built into the measures. Furthermore, the EU keeps the impact of sanctions under constant review and regularly considers options to mitigate any unintended consequences. I hear what Deputy Connolly said, but I do not think anyone is suggesting that if sanctions were lifted in the morning, many of the concerns that have been raised in the House this evening would be resolved any time soon. There are numerous barriers to humanitarian access in Syria, but those are as a result of actions by the parties to the conflict, particularly the Assad regime. I am confident that EU sanctions are not a barrier to the delivery of core aid needs. To lift the sanctions would amount to tacit support for the Assad regime and would only serve to encourage further impunity and disregard for the peace process.

I have previously expressed in this House my utter condemnation of the attack in April 2017 on a convoy of buses transporting evacuees from al-Fu'ah and Kafriya in north-west Syria. My predecessor as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, also issued a statement condemning the attack at the time. Regarding the reported kidnapping, as the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, explained earlier, it is extremely difficult to get reliable information from contested zones in Syria and reliable evidence is essential for follow-up and accountability. I again invite anyone who may have any information about this incident to share that information with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in order that it can be passed on to the bodies that may be in a position to help. If Deputy Wallace has information I ask him to give it to me and I will act on it. For example, the Red Cross movement often plays a role with regard to missing persons but it would presumably need concrete information to allow it to pursue any case. I give the Deputy my personal assurance that if he gives me something which I can follow up, I will be more than happy to do it.

The recently published findings of the OPCW-UN joint investigative mechanism, JIM, show that the Syrian regime was responsible once again for a chemical weapons attack in April 2017 at Khan Sheikhoun for the release of sarin, and that ISIL was responsible for the use of sulphur mustard on two occasions in September 2016 at Um-Housh. Ireland has joined the international community in expressing its horror and condemnation of the confirmed use of chemical weapons in attacks on civilians in Syria. One of my most vivid memories of the region was when I visited Halabja and met family members who were directly affected and had seen their loved ones die following the chemical attack that happened there. It is a pretty gruesome experience to speak to people who have experienced the horrors of chemical weapons on civilians. We have repeatedly called upon Syria to honour the commitments and obligations it entered into on becoming a state party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. We urge Syria to engage in good faith with the OPCW in all aspects of its investigations.

The development and use of chemical weapons, including the use of any toxic chemicals as weapons, by anyone – state or non-state - anywhere, any time, and under any circumstances is absolutely unacceptable and must be rigorously condemned by the international community and punished to the full extent of international law. Ireland supports a broad range of efforts to ensure full legal accountability for all war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria as part of a sustainable peaceful resolution to the conflict. That includes war crimes committed by any party. We have consistently called for the referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Ireland supports the work of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic established by the Human Rights Council to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law in Syria. Last December Ireland and a group of like-minded countries successfully pressed for the adoption of a resolution by the UN General Assembly to establish an international, impartial and independent mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for the most serious crimes under international law committed in Syria.

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