Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade

Situation In Syria: Discussion with Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade

4:30 pm

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and his officials. We have all watched in horror over the summer period as the death toll in Syria continues to rise. We have all seen the reports on the use of chemical weapons on that fateful day of 21 August. There is no doubt that the situation in Syria has been the principal foreign affairs issue since the last meeting of the committee. It was for that reason that I asked the Tánaiste to come here to update members on this important issue that is very urgent for all of us. I presume it has been debated in every parliament chamber in Europe in the past few weeks. This is our first opportunity to debate it. I call on the Tánaiste to make his presentation to the committee.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Chairman and members of the joint committee for inviting me to discuss with them the issue of Syria at this time. The conflict in Syria is a tragedy and a humanitarian disaster, but it is also a complex challenge, touching on international law and issues surrounding the spread of chemical and other weapons. The scale of each of these challenges is huge and their resolution will not be simple in such a difficult and unstable environment.

We have all been witness to Syria's agony for far too long. I know some committee members travelled to the Middle East this summer to witness the dire situation of Syrian refugees in Jordan. I visited refugee camps in Turkey earlier this year. Members will have seen the terrible effects of the conflict and know full well the appalling suffering which those who have escaped the war are still enduring. The circumstances of those who have not fled and are still in Syria in the middle of appalling violence are unbearable.

Over 4 million Syrians out of a population of 20 million have been driven from their homes and are now internally displaced within Syria. A further 2 million refugees have fled to Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon. More than 100,000 Syrians have been killed since the conflict began and almost 7 million Syrians are in dire humanitarian need. These figures are so large that they are difficult for us to fully comprehend, masking to some extent the horrific scale of the crisis. Almost 40% of registered schoolchildren have dropped out of school in a country which had close to full enrolment in education before the conflict began. The United Nations reported that half of the children aged between six and 12 years from displaced families in Aleppo were forced to work because their fathers were dead, disabled or missing. These are the equally shocking and under-reported consequences of war - the destruction of future generations. We have received reports of a health system in crisis, with the United Nations reporting that one third of health workers in some areas had left the country. The Syrian-Arab Red Crescent has lost 22 volunteers since the conflict began - medical volunteers killed while performing humanitarian tasks. The United Nations has lost 11 of its own staff. This is a merciless conflict and the misery it is inflicting is unacceptable.

This is a conflict in which there has proved to be precious little respect for the duties and responsibilities of all parties to protect civilians, support the work of humanitarian agencies and groups and protect those providing medical or other essential needs for the civilian population. Irrespective of whether they fight for the Syrian state or opposition groups, all parties to the conflict are bound under international law, to say nothing of basic humanity, to uphold these duties. These failures and the growing reports of groups of foreign radicals affiliated to Al-Qaeda or other extremists becoming involved in Syria are profoundly worrying for the future of Syria. Syrian society needs not just an end to combat but also the promise of a stable and free society in the future. Respect for international law means a society which protects its people and upholds human values. Syria's future stability and prosperity are dependent on the survival of these values.

The attack on Ghouta and other areas around Damascus on the morning of 21 August represented a new low in this endless litany of horrors. We all saw the images of children lined up on the floor of hospitals wrapped for burial. This cowardly and cynical attack was aimed at opposition controlled suburbs of Damascus. This is not a battlefield but a residential area. The video and photographic evidence of toddlers gassed to death in the middle of the night is proof enough for us to know that this was aimed at a defenceless civilian population sleeping in their beds. We do not know exactly how many people died, but some estimates speak of over 1,400 killed and several thousand injured. The UN inspectors' report issued earlier this week shows clearly that they died from exposure to the sarin nerve agent delivered by surface to surface missiles. The information available points very clearly towards Syrian state forces as the responsible party for this horrific crime. As I have stated previously, this is a very serious war crime. It is true that many more people have died already in the course of the conflict. It is also true that for those victims, it is of no consolation to have been killed or wounded by conventional weapons rather than chemical weapons, but the world has long agreed that the use of chemical weapons is a crime. It has been illegal since 1925 when the nations of the world decided following the terrible human cost of the First World War that these weapons were too terrible to use in any circumstance. There is no use of chemical weapons which is legal. Syria is a signatory to the 1925 agreement and in breach of the commitments it owes to the international community. I have stated this new violation of international law, just the latest in a long list of abuses perpetrated on the Syrian people, must be addressed by the international community. There cannot be any impunity for leaders or anyone under them who carries out these crimes. The use of these weapons has been viewed with horror by the international community and we cannot allow those who would seek to introduce their use anywhere to succeed.

Many other foreign Ministers and I have previously called for the UN Security Council to refer the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court. The long list of violations of international law in the course of the war is all too clear and the legal means for Syria's people to seek accountability and justice are non-existent. There can be no long-term peace in Syria without justice for the victims of the war. It would be far better for Syrians to have recourse to an accountable and fair justice system in Syria and perhaps this can be achieved in the future. However, until such time as Syria can provide legal redress for the suffering of the victims, the International Criminal Court remains the only path to justice for the Syrian people.

Last Saturday I welcomed the news of the agreement by the United States and Russia of a framework for the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons. The implementation of this agreement will improve the security of the Middle East region as a whole, for which the existence of Syria's chemical weapons was a threat and, above all, of the Syrian people who have suffered at the hands of their own Government's use of chemical weapons. The implementation of the agreement is what matters most at this point and the key factor for its success is the compliance of the Syrian regime. I am not labouring under any illusion as to the nature of that regime. It has repressed and murdered its own people and lied to the international community, denying until recently that it even possessed these weapons. The process must be quick, credible and comprehensive. Syria has used these weapons with deadly effect and they must be eliminated before their repeated use can ever again be contemplated. I am not under any illusion either as to the scale and magnitude of the task this will present. Achieving the complete elimination of Syria's chemical weapons programme by mid-2014 is an unprecedented challenge for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, the body charged with implementation of the chemical weapons convention. As it happens, Ireland is currently a member of the executive council of the OPCW and our ambassador to the organisation will express our full support at a meeting of the executive council later this week for the adoption of the agreement.

The elimination of Syria's chemical weapons will present a major challenge for the OPCW and entail significant additional resources on its part.

In principle, I believe Ireland should be willing to make a national contribution in support of implementation of this historic agreement and the issue is now being actively considered by my Department. Ireland has long opposed the existence and use of weapons of mass destruction and the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons will bring us a step closer to that aim.

We must continue to do all we can to encourage a political solution to this conflict, which remains essential. Hopefully, a much needed impetus towards finally convening the Geneva II conference will be provided by last week's agreement and the prospect of concerted action on the part of the Security Council in the coming weeks in endorsing the agreement and providing for its implementation. Such action on the part of Security Council is long overdue.

It is also crucial to remember the scale of the humanitarian crisis we are facing in Syria and neighbouring countries and the urgent need for the international community to redouble its efforts to alleviate the suffering caused by this tragic crisis. In particular, it is imperative that the international community is united in demanding greater protection for Syria's civilian population. Ireland has been consistent in its call for all parties to the conflict to fully respect and be held accountable for violations of international humanitarian law. We have also consistently supported Baroness Amos, the UN's emergency relief co-ordinator, in her efforts to remove major impediments to the humanitarian relief effort. In this regard, four key issues remain to be addressed. First, there is a need to facilitate increased protection and unimpeded access to people in need throughout Syria. This may involve the provision of cross-border assistance where necessary but should also involve humanitarian pauses in fighting and advance notice of military offensives. Second, specific measures to ensure the protection of humanitarian staff, vehicles and assets must be agreed. All parties to the conflict should allow for the free passage of medical supplies to all areas and safeguard all health facilities and ambulances, which have most shamefully come under attack throughout this crisis. Third, there is an imperative to prevent the politicisation of aid, most fundamentally by insisting upon respect by all parties for the humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence, impartiality and humanity. Fourth, the international community must commit to ongoing emergency relief and, at the same time, stand ready to step up long-term assistance measures for all countries affected by this crisis.

In the face of significant operational challenges, including constraints imposed by the Assad regime, it is important to recognise the exceptional efforts being made by humanitarian organisations to meet the staggering level of need in extremely difficult circumstances and at great personal risk. We will continue to support the work of the UN in attempting to address the most pressing humanitarian challenges. We must also acknowledge the huge pressure on neighbouring countries, which have made extraordinary efforts to accommodate the large scale influxes of traumatised refugees. In addition to the burgeoning camps that are struggling to provide essential services for new arrivals many host towns and cities, especially in Jordan and Lebanon, are stretched to their limits. This is exposing the refugee populations to significant protection risks, especially in respect of women and children. It is similarly increasing the risk of further internal tension in already fragile contexts, particularly in Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt. A comprehensive regional response and increased support to host countries is crucial to defusing the growing tension between host and refugee communities that could further exacerbate and extend this already entrenched and complicated conflict.

Ireland has been unwavering in its support to the international humanitarian response. To date, we have provided almost €11 million to the relief effort and are one of the world's most significant donors on a per capita basis to the response to this crisis. Through trusted NGO partners in Ireland, as well as the UN and the Red Cross-Red Crescent movement, we are playing a considerable part in the international effort to meet the massive needs both inside Syria and in the wider region. We stand ready to provide further assistance, within our means, to the humanitarian response.

I want to conclude my comments by referring to peace. I have spoken at length about war, international law and humanitarian disaster today but the overall aim remains a Syria at peace. This will be one of my main messages when I deliver Ireland's national statement to the UN General Assembly next week. The understanding between the US and Russia on the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria is not the only point which the world wants to see from these negotiations. The humanitarian crisis, the violations of human rights and the displacement of millions of Syrians cannot be addressed without peace and a sustainable political solution. I hope the US and Russia will continue their engagement with a view to bringing peace to Syria. I call on all parties to that conflict to create the space needed for a political solution. This is not a conflict that will be resolved by force. The continuation of the war will simply kill, maim and displace more Syrians and destroy more of their country. We need to redouble our efforts to bring the parties back to the negotiating table and achieve a stable and durable peace for Syria.

4:40 pm

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The UN report published last week did not determine where the guilt lies. France and the United States blame the Assad regime and the Tánaiste indicated that Syrian state forces are responsible for the atrocities of 21 August. Today the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister stated that he has evidence from the Syrian Government indicating that rebels were involved. Do we need another report to determine who was responsible? Clearly games are being played but human lives are being put at risk from the bombings and killings.

The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz stated that Europe has not developed a clear position on Syria. Perhaps the Tánaiste will comment on the role that Europe can play in assisting the Russians and Americans in their efforts to find a solution.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The UN inspectors were not asked to express a view on who was responsible. Their task was to establish in the first instance whether chemical weapons had been used because, as the Chairman will be aware, there were vigorous denials that they had been used. They were also asked to investigate the extent to which chemical weapons were used.

It is clear from the extent of what was used that the only possible source was the regime. The gas attacks required the military capability and equipment that State armies possess. No non-state actor has ever been known to possess the ability required to mount a chemical weapons attack of the scale and sophistication involved. It would appear to be impossible for any opposition group, or combination thereof, to mount an attack of this magnitude. The missile and launchers used in this operation are known to be used by the Syrian armed forces. There is no record of their possession or use by any opposition group. The gas attack took place during a conventional assault by Syrian state forces against a suburb and I have no doubt that the responsibility for the attack rests with the Syrian regime.

In regard to the issue of Europe having a clear position on Syria, the EU has had a clear position right from the outset of the conflict.

At various stages the Foreign Affairs Council has adopted a sanctions regime against Syria and has expressed its view very forcefully at all times, and the European Union and its member states are the biggest contributors to the humanitarian effort in Syria.

We had a very extensive discussion at the Foreign Affairs Council meeting which took place in Vilnius just over a week ago. The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, issued a statement which reflected that discussion. It was not a formal conclusion because it was an informal meeting. The United States Secretary of State, John Kerry, attended the meeting with us and discussed the issue with us for approximately three and a half hours of that discussion. That statement made very clear our rejection and condemnation of the use of chemical weapons and our firm commitment that the appropriate place where this issue needed to be addressed and where the international community's response needed to be agreed was through the Security Council. It was a very strong commitment and reassertion of the European Union's willingness and readiness on the humanitarian side and the call for a political solution and the renewal of the Geneva talks. That statement was issued in advance of the subsequent discussions between the United States and Russia which led to the agreement. The European Union has a clear position on the Syrian conflict and has expressed that on more than one occasion.

4:50 pm

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I ask members to ask short questions rather than make statements, and if they do we will have interaction with the Tánaiste. We do not need statements at this stage. We would prefer to ask questions and probe the Tánaiste on the European Union's and Ireland's stance. He has given us a very clear picture on that.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Tánaiste for his presentation and, as the Chairman said, the figures he quoted on a country where almost one third of the population is displaced internally, and a sizeable cohort externally, are horrific. I welcome the fact that Irish Aid continues to be a major contributor on a per capita basis. It is very important that the European Union is also a contributor. Has there been any improvement in access and getting aid to people? There were allegations earlier that the regime was directing aid towards its own people.

The last time the Tánaiste spoke on Question Time he said the Geneva II talks were expected to get under way in late autumn. What is the thinking at European Union level and who are the proposed participants in the Geneva II talks? The last communiqué from the Foreign Affairs Council called for the Security Council to refer the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court. Has there been any movement on that? Has the European Union conveyed its serious concerns that the Security Council has been totally ineffective once again in trying to deal with this very protracted issue?

On the last day of Question Time, I used the word "barbarity" with regard to what was happening. I do not know what word one could use today that would be stronger than that to indicate the horrors of this civil war. I recently read that there has been a tenfold increase in refugees on this time last year. If that is correct, it shows the extent of the difficulties confronting so many people.

I compliment the Irish non-governmental organisations, NGOs, and their sister organisations which are working in Syria and the broader region to try to assist people in very difficult circumstances. Can the Tánaiste assure us he will continue to push for a political, peaceful settlement and highlight the need for the international community to increase its humanitarian aid? We accept that Europe has been one of the better contributors, but Europe must use whatever fora are available to it to highlight to the international community its obligation to assist in this horrific scene for Syria and the difficulties of the adjoining countries as well.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

First, we must acknowledge that the international community faces serious challenges in delivering humanitarian assistance. We have been working through a number of NGOs and United Nations agencies. I admire the work they are doing in trying to get aid through. Inside Syria there are excessive controls on aid agencies working in the country. The fragmentation of the armed opposition and the intensity of the military confrontations have made the operating environment extremely volatile and insecure, particularly in opposition-controlled areas. Restrictions imposed by the Assad regime, combined with logistical constraints and increasing insecurity, make it very difficult to access populations which are in need of humanitarian assistance. As an example of the difficulties faced in getting aid through, the journey between Damascus and Aleppo would normally take three hours, but now takes three days through approximately 50 different checkpoints.

This is the biggest humanitarian crisis of our times. The scale of this is enormous. The UN call was for €5.2 billion in aid. It is the biggest aid effort of all times. Approximately 43% of that has been delivered, which is huge, but there is a big demand for it. We have called for a pause in hostilities to enable humanitarian aid to get through. In welcoming what has been agreed between the US and Russia on the chemical weapons issue, we can build on a number of points. First, there was a pause in hostilities to allow the UN inspectors to do their work. That can and should be replicated for the delivery of humanitarian aid. That is an immediate priority and we are seeking it. Second, we hope the engagement by both the United States and Russia which produced the agreement on chemicals weapons - which must be implemented - can be built on and give momentum for the convening of Geneva 2 discussions and conference. There must be a political settlement and dialogue that gives rise to a new Syria, a state of peace and an end to the hostilities.

We were one of the first countries to call for what was happening in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court. A very strong body of international opinion from many countries has similarly called for it. That remains our position and we will continue to do that. Clearly one of the frustrations for the international community has been the Security Council's inability to agree a strong, robust response to the Syrian crisis.

It is important that nobody decide to give up on issues such as Syria being dealt with through the United Nations. It is also important that the UN processes are not bypassed and that we all recognise that the United Nations is the forum through which the international community should appropriately make its response. However, in particular, the permanent members of the Security Council have to increasingly understand their responsibility in this privileged position, with all of the influence, authority and power that it confers on them, and this capacity is to the international community, not just their own states or alliances. The Security Council will have to be seized of the outcome of the agreement on the chemical weapons issue, but I hope in the period ahead that it will reach agreement and, in particular, that all of the permanent members will exercise that responsibility for the wider international community.

5:00 pm

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I agree with the Tánaiste's statement that the conflict cannot be resolved by force and that view is shared by the majority in Ireland. According to a RED C poll released yesterday by PANA, 67% believed Ireland should not support the sending of arms or military supplies to Syria and 79% said we should not support a war in Syria without a UN mandate. There is a general consensus throughout the country and across the political spectrum that the way forward is to come up with a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Does the Tánaiste agree that the difficulty will be getting people into a room, given that the Syrian opposition comprises 1,000 groups with various views? The Free Syrian Army and the opposition generally have a precondition that they will not agree to negotiations with President Assad. Is there any way of getting around this precondition? Is it helpful?

The Tánaiste has said, "As a member of the executive council of the OPCW, our ambassador to the organisation will express our full support for the adoption of this agreement at a meeting of the executive council later this week." He also referred to the significant resources that will be needed to deal with the chemical weapons issue. Will he elaborate on this statement? What does he propose in that regard? Will financial support be provided or will individuals provide support?

Bearing in mind that 100,000 opposition troops are fighting government troops, how realistic is the four point plan of the UN emergency relief co-ordinator which addresses the issue of unimpeded access and so on? There are 1,000 groups in the opposition, some of which are more extreme than others. It is reported that the jihadists and al-Qaeda support is increasing among the opposition groupings and this will create difficulties in trying to get them to talk. People are looking for answers. I agree that there is no simple answer, but the only way to resolve this conflict is to have people sit down around a table. What we can we do to encourage this?

I do not know that it is a good idea in the context of the chemical attack to refer to it being the responsibility of one side or the other. For instance, people were arrested in Turkey who were trying to make sarin gas, while others were arrested in Iraq. People are saying the weapons that fired missiles into Syria are not in rebel hands, but the same weapons were used in Libya. People are more interested in how the conflict will be resolved and some of those who have engaged in the conflict will end up before the International Criminal Court. How can we push forward this issue?

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Ireland has taken a consistent position on the issue of sending arms to Syria, which is that we do not want to see the further militarisation of the conflict in Syria. We were keen for the European Union to renew its arms embargo on Syria and I had hoped this would happen, but it was not possible to get agreement. The supply of arms to Syria is often portrayed as arming the opposition or elements of the opposition, but we need to recall that the Assad regime is being supplied with arms and when we say there should not be a supply of arms, we also mean that those supplying arms to the Syrian state and providing the means by which the conflict can continue need to stop also.

It will not be easy to get people around the table. There are complex issues involved, some of which, for example, relate to the situation on the ground and the perception of those who are party to the conflict of how well they are doing and when they will be in the best position to have the strongest voice. There is then the issue of participation by those of who are opposed to the regime and their willingness to take part in discussions which will involve a regime they want to have removed and replaced. All of this complicates the issue, but, at the end of the day, a political path has to be discussed, negotiated and worked through. Ultimately, the only way this issue will be resolved is through a political process and talks. The Geneva II peace conference is the only process being talked about; therefore, it is the one that we have to deal with.

The Deputy asked how realistic it would be to secure humanitarian access, given that thousands of militants were involved. A ceasefire was secured to facilitate the weapons inspectors; therefore, it ought to be possible to secure a ceasefire to deliver humanitarian aid and medical supplies to attend to people who have been injured or wounded. That needs to be the next phase of what needs to be done immediately.

Photo of Eric ByrneEric Byrne (Dublin South Central, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The chemical weapons issue has taken the focus and the media attention away from conventional weapons. Perhaps that is the way it should be, but, as we discuss this conflict, up to 1,400 people are being killed every day with conventional weapons. Given the impotence of the European Union and the United Nations, does the Tánaiste agree that essentially the solution will come from the United States and Russia?

Presumably Russia is conditioned or hardened by its own experience of fundamentalism in Chechnya and would seem to be determined not to facilitate the "rebels". Given the sophistication of Western intelligence with things in the air, spying and everything, nobody seems to be openly telling us the relative strengths of the free Syrian army vis-à-visthe strength of the "Al-Qaeda jihadists". Does the Tánaiste have any idea of the geopolitical, military combinations at play in the region?

With the focus now on chemical weapons, the regime is clearly rebuilding its army. We know of the involvement of the Iranians, which has been there since the beginning. We know that the Russians have publicly volunteered to tell the world that they will arm President Assad, whose side is possibly getting stronger and the opposition getting weaker - we do not know. The Tánaiste is a politician and not a military expert. Is anybody capable of giving us an outline of what is happening on the ground? Is the West slightly hypocritical in acknowledging the strength of the jihadists, Al-Qaeda and the fundamentalists, whom we do not want to win? As a Christian West we do not want to see the Palestinians or the Christians slaughtered by those who would proclaim a Muslim state and are happy, in a sense, to hope President Assad's secularist form of a Muslim state would survive. While I know the Tánaiste is not a military man, perhaps he could help us.

5:10 pm

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I do not believe the Tánaiste is a military man but perhaps he can try to respond.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The issue in Syria has moved on from some of those questions, particularly the last batch of questions about how one sees it in terms of the big picture issues of power and influence in the region. A conflict has been going on for over two years and more than 100,000 people have been killed. There has been an involvement by some external actors - if I can use that term. It has become a kind of cockpit for conflict. We need to recalibrate where the priorities now lie. The first priority is to bring that conflict to an end, end the suffering and get a ceasefire at least for humanitarian purposes. We need to work on getting a political resolution that ends the conflict and puts Syria on a peaceful path in which all its citizens irrespective of their religious or other background can have a future.

The conflict has complicated the whole environment. Making an assessment of the relative strengths of different forces is difficult, not least because of what has happened to normal communications in the course of the conflict. The picture is moving. One hears reports of the relative successes or setbacks encountered by different parties to the conflict. There is, of course, intelligence information that has been picked up. I have heard figures mentioned of the relative strengths of the different forces in the conflict. What credibility one can give to those figures is another question.

The conflict is taking place and there have been waves of international responses to it. There was the formation of the Friends of Syria, in which we participated to try to influence and help the situation. There is the mobilisation of the humanitarian effort through the UN, its agencies and NGOs. There is the call of the international community expressed through whatever means for a peaceful resolution. It has been disappointing and enormously frustrating that the UN Security Council was not able to agree a resolution owing, as everybody knows, to the use of the vetoes. Permanent members of the UN Security Council have a very important responsibility.

It is encouraging that the US and Russia were able to agree. Just two weeks ago people were considering a potential, serious military intervention in Syria with all of the consequences that might have flowed from that. It is encouraging that the US and Russia were able to agree a formula. Of course, that formula now needs to be implemented and hopefully we can build on the collaboration between the US and Russia on the chemical weapons issue to drive forward the Geneva II process and try to reach a peaceful settlement. It is not easy; it is complicated and nobody is holding their breath.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I call Senator Norris. Questions, please, Senator.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I might first make a quick comment. I thank the Tánaiste for his clear and decisive statement. He left no doubt in my mind that the Syrian Government was clearly responsible. Analysis of the kinds of weapons used for the delivery, and the kind of gas and the quantities make it fairly clear as well as the directional flow of the instruments. I am reassured by the strength of his statement, for which I thank him.

Does the Tánaiste agree that we in the West were somewhat late in responding? A very good article in The New York Times by Yassin al-Haj Saleh has been circulated to us. It states it is not a civil war because the government side is murdering its own citizens. They have asked for no-flight zones and humanitarian corridors, but got no support. In 2011, some 5,000 Syrians were killed. Now it is 5,000 a month. So the situation is getting progressively more serious.

I have always welcomed the International Criminal Court, which was a splendid development. It is weakened by the absence of some signatories, but some people are apparently bound by international law even though they may not be signatories if violations are of sufficient seriousness. This may possibly be one of them, although I am not a legal expert. What is the possibility of ever getting someone such as President Assad to the International Criminal Court? That would be a major triumph not just for Syria but for every other country ruled by a rotten dictator or person who turns into a rotten dictator.

I am pleased that the Government is continuing to make an historic contribution. I am glad to see that it is twice the amount the Seanad costs per annum. It shows that the Government is using some of its money wisely.

I strongly support the implementation of the historic agreement and our involvement in it. We have, for example, played a significant role in the work on cluster bombs. Will the Tánaiste quantify what financial, resource and other aid will be contributed?

5:20 pm

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

A strong position has been taken by the European Union in particular from the beginning of the conflict in March 2011 when protests about security force abuses started which resulted in the adoption of sanctions. The Security Council has also made repeated efforts to agree strong resolutions and a robust response to what is happening in Syria. Unfortunately, it was not possible to reach agreement. As I have mentioned, various attempts have been made, particularly through the Friends of Syria, to mobilise international opinion and countries to help the situation. Again, unfortunately that has not succeeded. We have seen the biggest call for humanitarian assistance leading to the biggest mobilisation of humanitarian effort in modern times.

On the process, the executive committee of the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, of which we are a member, is meeting on Friday. The matter will then go to the Security Council with a view to agreeing a resolution on implementation and what happens if it is not implemented and so on. We must see how that will be dealt with at the Security Council. Clearly the OBCW has a big responsibility and it will require addition resourcing. We have in mind a financial contribution and my officials in the Department and I are looking at what contribution we can make.

Our total aid contribution to date for the Syrian crisis is about €11 million. The Minister of State at the Department of Trade and Development, Deputy Costello announced €1 million of funding about ten days ago. Against the scale of the crisis that is a small amount but on a per capita basis it is at the higher end of the international community. We keep under review what additional contribution we can make.

The aid contribution is being channelled through the NGOs. The total contribution to date is €10.8 million of which €8.15 million has been provided in this year alone which probably reflects the growing scale of the crisis. The breakdown is €650,000 through GOAL; €500,000 each through Oxfam, Concern Worldwide and the International Federation of Red Cross; €1.4 million through the International Committee of the Red Cross; almost €3 million through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNCHR; just under €1 million through the World Food Programme; €100,000 through the International Rescue Committee; €300,000 through the World Health Organisation; €700,000 through the United National Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, UNRRA; €1 million through UNICEF; and €500,000 thorough the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA. We have also contributed €750,000 towards non-food items from our emergency relief stocks which are held in Dubai and which were delivered through our rapid response unit. That is broadly the Irish aid effort. We work in close collaboration with the NGOs.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

There was no mention of the Red Crescent. Is there a reason for that?

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I mentioned the Red Cross. We have contributed €1.4 million to it and it mainly provides food, medical aid and assistance to refugees.

Photo of Deirdre CluneDeirdre Clune (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It have been important to hear the Tánaiste's views and about developments. I agree that it is time that the Security Council did something. It has been seen to be ineffective but it has an international obligation and some of the strong members need to act.

A range of issues have been commented on. I am particularly interested in the refugee camps and the Tánaiste listed the support that is going to the various organisations to those camps. However, the host countries, some of which are not as developed as western countries, are under enormous pressures and it is difficult for them to support the level of refugees that they must deal with. What relations are there with those countries and what discussions are taking place at European level? Those countries need support. I have heard that Greece is one of the countries that has a significant number of refugees, although the number is obviously not as high as it is in Jordan, Lebanon and other nearby countries. Another side to the conflict is that the host countries do not necessarily have the capabilities to deal with what is being asked of them and they need to be supported.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

That is a big dimension of the crisis. The crisis in Syria has led to the movement of more than two million refugees out of the country. Those people are desperately seeking sanctuary from the conflict. All the region's countries are experiencing the effect of the humanitarian crisis. The countries most seriously affected are Jordan and Lebanon where more than 60% of the total refugee population are being hosted. More than 500,000 Syrian are in Jordan, and the Jordanian Government estimates that it needs $300 million annually to support the health sector and $800 million to support the education sector due to the influx of refugees. The Jordanian Government has indicated that, without increased financial assistance, it will be unable to cope if refugees continue to cross into Jordan.

In Lebanon there are in excess of 730,000 Syrian refugees and the situation is similarly difficult. Access to adequate shelter, livelihood opportunities and basic services are immediate priorities. Other issues are also arising, such as vulnerability to sexual exploitation, forced marriage and survival sex. It is a hugely growing problem.

I visited a refugee camp in Turkey which is particularly well managed and has good physical facilities. Great effort is being made by the regional and local authorities and the Government of Turkey in hosting refugees. However, a person would almost feel the tension were they to stand in the middle of the camp. These are really difficult places in which to be. I talked to the regional governor where the refugee is located about the huge pressures that puts on local administration and resources.

Yes, the impact of the refugee crisis is major. There is continuing discussion between the European Union and the countries concerned, as well as the NGOs and international agencies that are working on how to deal with it. However, it is a huge problem and as I indicated in the case of Jordan, this kind of cost is now a huge draw on its resources and will continue to be to an increasing extent.

5:30 pm

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

As the Tánaiste mentioned in his opening remarks, three members of the joint committee visited Jordan in June and visited Zaatari refugee camp, which has a population of 120,000 refugees. We met families that had been affected by the atrocities in Syria and it constitutes a huge drain on the resources of the Jordanian Government. The Foreign Minister told us that even the provision of water would become a real problem for them there. It is a city like Limerick of 120,000 people with its own problems including robberies, violence and so on. To be fair to the authorities and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, they are doing a great job considering the difficulties they face with people arriving every day.

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Having listened to the Tánaiste's comments today and having read the reports and information members have been getting recently on Syria, particularly the United Nations Human Rights Council report of May, June and July that outlined the appalling human rights abuses on the part of both the pro-and anti-government sides, one cannot help but ask the first question on the effectiveness or otherwise of the United Nations. While everyone present agrees with the Tánaiste on the political solution, unfortunately, the main players are pushing for a military solution. Who is going to induce them to talk and get them all to the table? I refer to the role of Iran, which could play a significant role in Syria and I wonder whether Iran, particularly with the new regime, is being taken sufficiently seriously given the other issues surrounding it?

On the humanitarian side, I acknowledge what Ireland is and always has been doing. However, is there a role for European countries to relieve the burden somewhat on the surrounding countries by taking refugees? Are there plans for so doing? Moreover, pressure should be applied to those countries that are not contributing as well as they should or are not honouring the promises they have made. One group met some members of this joint committee and I put them in touch with Irish Aid about the idea of funding what was called a Jasmine Tent. This would be a safe place for women, particularly in light of the increasing number of rapes of women. Talks were under way in respect of counselling and perhaps Irish NGOs here could facilitate that

On chemical weapons, is a move regarding the other four countries that have chemical weapons also part of the process? Finally, I seek the Tánaiste's comments on the safety of the Irish troops, including those in Lebanon. I believe that if and when this war ever ends, there will be a need for an even bigger commitment to pick up the pieces in terms of repairing infrastructure and with regard to the mental, physical and emotional problems people will have.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I agree with Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan that Iran has an important role to play in this regard and that it should be part of the Geneva II process. I spoke by telephone with the new Foreign Minister of Iran recently and exchanged with him Ireland's views on the situation and the role Iran might play. As for the issue of chemical weapons, as I mentioned in my opening contribution the use of chemical weapons has been banned since 1925. This applies consistently and Ireland's view is that it is a war crime and one must work towards their complete elimination. It is not simply a case of their use but it also concerns their manufacture, stockpiling and maintenance. We need a world that is free of such weapons.

On the issue of Irish troops, as the Deputy is aware, the Government has decided to deploy 114 members of the Irish Defence Forces to the UNDOF mission on the Golan Heights and four officers already are deployed there at present. The initial detachment will go out this Friday and the balance will follow approximately one week later. Clearly, the circumstances in which they operate, their safety and the safety of their operating environment are matters of the greatest importance to the Government. It was an issue on which the Government had extensive discussions with United Nations when the request came from the latter to participate in the UNDOF mission. I spoke directly with Secretary-General Ban about both the request and in particular the measures that needed to be taken to ensure the safety of the troops. This is an issue about which we will have continuing discussions. I expect to meet Secretary-General Ban again during the United Nations General Assembly week and to have further discussion with him about it. I am aware there have been some media reports regarding the evacuation of civilian staff and family members of the UNIFIL personnel in Lebanon. The current information we have from the United Nations is that no decision has been made on the evacuation of UNIFIL personnel or their family members. As it happens, no family members are accompanying Irish personnel in Lebanon in any event. The UNIFIL mission continues to implement all mandated tasks and in line with the requirements of all UN missions, it reviews constantly and updates its contingency plans.

The Jasmine Tent is a civil society initiative to provide psychosocial support for victims of violence and involves people from the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. It is very important work and officials of my Department are facilitating links with some of our implementing partners in the field.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I compliment the Tánaiste, who has been very sure-footed on this issue. His analysis both today and previously has been impressive. In addition, the part played by Russia in this regard in recent weeks has been highly constructive. While one may disagree about what the Russians have been doing at the United Nations Security Council, the manner in which they took up the issue of the United Nations becoming involved in putting beyond use chemical weapons was very good. The Tánaiste might comment on how this came about on foot of what some people saw as a faux pas. I watched the press conference at which US Secretary of State, John Kerry, was asked the question by the American journalist to which he gave what I considered to be a realistic and reasonable answer. However, it appears to have got his Administration on the wrong foot. I ask the Tánaiste to comment on that.

With regard to the plight of Christians generally across the Middle East but particularly now in Syria, I attended a conference a week and a half ago at which one of the keynote speakers was a Syrian Christian. When talking to some Christian groups, I have discerned a conflict in respect of supporting regimes which are known to be far from benevolent but which are very oppressive. Nevertheless, because of their secularist approach Christians at least have been able to survive under such administrations. However, under some Middle Eastern Islamist-led governments, they have become subjected to murder and persecution.

My question arises from comments made at that conference, but also from observations I myself have made. How is it that no politicians in any country, particularly Christian countries, are standing up to raise the plight of the Christians or doing anything to protect them? It is a travesty, right across the Middle East. Why is that the case? In that regard, would the Minister welcome that Pope Francis, on 7 September, held a day of prayer and fasting for peace and for all those who have been persecuted, particularly in Syria?

My other question is to do with the fragility, in particular, of Jordan and Lebanon, and of Turkey and Iraq, which are mentioned as well. Having visited two refugee camps adjacent, in both countries, to the Syrian border, I was struck by the fact that the international community should be endeavouring to achieve a situation, working with both sides in the Syrian conflict, in which no-conflict areas are established within Syria but adjacent to other countries where international refugee camps could be established, so that at least there would not be the overspill into neighbouring countries which, in many ways, we would look to as templates for what we would like to see happening in many of the conflict areas in the Middle East. Both Jordan and Lebanon could be models driving international policy.

Geneva II has been mentioned. I wonder if the Minister would comment on the concerns mentioned by some of the opposition advocacy groups in Syria that the opposition leaders in Syria may well be reluctant to become involved in these negotiations as they feel let down by the new accord between the United States and Russia. Some of the jingoistic language that was being used, particularly from the American side, probably gave expectations to the opposition that the Assad regime would be attacked and, from the point of view of the conflict, they would have welcomed that. Will their reaction in some way now be contrary to constructive participation in the Geneva II process? In that regard, the free Syria media have issued comments to the effect that refugees, both within Syria and displaced into other countries, share that view also.

At the conference I mentioned, I was interested to hear the views of a former European Commissioner who in recent years had met President Bashar al-Assad and the military and come away with the view that Assad was really a puppet for the military regime. The former Commissioner was of the view that, similar to the situation in Egypt, unless one can get to the military and involve it in negotiations, there may not be a way of achieving direct involvement to reach agreement. I would be interested in the Minister's view in that regard.

5:40 pm

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

First, I thank Senator Walsh for his kind remarks.

Let me start with the contribution of the Russian foreign Minister, Mr. Lavrov, and US Secretary of State, Mr. Kerry. I have had the privilege of discussing the issue of Syria with both, more recently with Mr. Kerry at the Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Vilnius, and I am not in any doubt about their personal commitment to seeking a peaceful political solution to the conflict in Syria.

The issue facing the international community over the past couple of weeks was that a war crime had been committed, in that chemical weapons, banned since 1925, were used. The United Nations, for reasons that we all know, is not in a position to respond. Does that mean that there cannot be a response, that there should not be a response, that chemical weapons can be used with impunity and that regimes can commit atrocities without consequence? We are in the fortunate position today - I commend both Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov on the work they have done together in bringing about a solution - that a way of dealing with this has now been agreed, because the first priority was, I suppose, to ensure that chemical weapons were not going to be used again. There was a very real worry, in the aftermath of what happened on 21 August, that this might be the start of repeated use of chemical weapons, with all of the consequences that would flow from it. We have at least seen progress on that. The hopeful aspect is that their work lays a foundation for further work to be done.

I am glad Senator Walsh raised the issue of Christians because I want to make an observation on it. The Middle East is home to some of the world's most ancient Christian denominations, although of course there has been a very significant reduction in their numbers in the region over recent years. The political turmoil that has overwhelmed many countries in the Middle East in recent years has led to increased international concerns about the safety of Christians, first in Iraq and Egypt and now, most pressingly, in Syria. The descent of Syria into violence and disarray has left small Christian communities very exposed and sometimes subject to direct attack. Ireland raises the issue of the safety of Christians through its official bilateral contacts with the countries in question and stressing the responsibility of the Government to protect minorities. I have raised the issue of the protection of Christians in the Middle East at discussions at the Foreign Affairs Council and supported stronger EU statements on the issue - for instance, the Council conclusions on Egypt which were issued on 21 August last. Officials from my Department have met frequently local Christian leaders from the Middle East region and discussed the issues that are affecting their communities. It should be noted that many of these groups requested that any efforts made on their behalf be carried out discreetly, as any special attention from Western countries might only increase their difficulties. I assure Senator Walsh and the committee that we have been very active on the issue of the protection of Christians. I welcome the statement that was made by Pope Francis and the call that he has made. He has been forthright and consistent in his calls for peace.

I have spoken already about the impact on the neighbouring countries of Jordan and Lebanon and the potential for destabilisation because of the number of refugees involved. I am quite happy to go into greater detail on it, but it is an issue about which we are very concerned.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I will not detain the Minister for long.

I compliment him and his Department on their efforts in mobilising the international community on this issue. It is a pressing issue where, once again, the international community appears to be sidelined, inept and incapable of taking immediate action. I put it to the Minister, who may choose to answer or not, that there is increasing evidence of the inability of the United Nations to intervene where the Security Council is not in a position to reach agreement on a resolution or whatever, that this is similar to other situations in the past, including in Kosovo, and that this, in turn, gives wide latitude and scope to despotic leaders in various locations who are safe in the knowledge that the international community cannot intervene.

Does this not pose the questions as to whether the United Nations needs to have its modus operandi revised, whether the European Union needs to examine whether it can be more convincing in its influence and whether NATO is the appropriate vehicle? I ask this in the clear knowledge that intervention in an internal conflict is a serious issue. Particularly where democracy has prevailed and elections have taken place, how can the international community impress on leaders in similar future conflicts that they cannot operate with impunity? That is the issue. It was the issue in Kosovo and other locations also. Perpetrators know full well that the international community cannot intervene and that, if it does, there will be repercussions. Intervening in the internal affairs of any state, regardless of its structures, carries with it serious difficulties. How can the international community reconcile the various arguments in an effort to ensure we will not be held up to ridicule internationally by various leaders or dictators, with the consequences we have seen?

5:50 pm

Photo of Dan NevilleDan Neville (Limerick, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Let me refer to the impact on society of the refugee camps. When in Jordan, we saw at first hand that there was a city developing at the refugee camp, which contained approximately 120,000 people. They have all the needs of the residents of a city in regard to all aspects of representation, control, policing and crime prevention. Crime can be very much present.

A broader issue arising in Jordan and, I am sure, Lebanon is that highly skilled professional refugees are competing for employment with the local population. This is also causing some stress within communities. People do not understand how such a movement of refugees affects society. When in the region, we were informed that the refugees would be there for at least eight to ten years. They are actually emigrants, not refugees. Parliamentarians told us they had a duty to support the parliament and the government. While we may have an issue with their government, the international community has a responsibility to support it in handling the matter, in addition to supporting the UN Refugee Agency.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Deputy Dan Neville has identified the key dimension of the refugee crisis, namely, the tension there can be between refugees and the host community. It is a worrying dimension, reflecting the pressure on the countries with large refugee populations. Inevitably, there are tensions and pressures. This will have to be managed and worked on very carefully.

On the wider issues raised by Deputy Bernard J. Durkan, I share the disappointment and frustration at the fact that the UN Security Council has not been able to deal quickly and effectively with what has been a growing crisis in the past two years. The response has been very strong on the humanitarian side, with agencies working very well, and we work very well with them. However, that is not an argument for ignoring or bypassing the UN Security Council.

We must consider this issue on a number of levels. First to be considered is the issue of accountability for the atrocities that have been committed. There has to be accountability and I have been saying for some time that it should be secured through the International Criminal Court. That is why we have been arguing that the UN Security Council should refer the issue to that court. People who have been responsible for atrocities committed in Syria, at whatever level, must understand the day of reckoning and account will come some day through the International Criminal Court.

The next issue concerns determining the approach in circumstances in which the UN Security Council cannot agree and the veto is being used, as it has been sequentially. If one goes back over all of the various attempts made to get the UN Security Council to respond, one will conclude that everybody must understand the world is different than in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War when the United Nations was established. The interconnectedness and interdependence of states are different. The communications are different. It is increasingly becoming unsustainable for any country, irrespective of its levers of power, to adopt a position at the United Nations that it can say "No" repeatedly. There are economic, communications-related and other influences that can be brought to bear on a country other than military strength and sheer might. It is a different world. To some extent, it is the understanding that we live in a different world that has brought about circumstances in which the immediate issue of chemical weapons and their use has been subject to an agreement. I very much welcome the agreement, but we must see it implemented.

The immediate priority is to halt the violence and the war immediately for humanitarian purposes and to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid. It is a question of getting the Geneva II process going and securing a political solution to the problem. The world must continue determinedly and doggedly to try to bring this about. That is the overwhelming will of people in this country and pretty much every country where the national will has been measured in some way or another. People want to see the conflict brought to an end soon and a political settlement. They want work to continue on dealing with the humanitarian consequences. Ultimately, they want those in refugee camps or who are displaced from their homes to be able to return home to rebuild their lives and country.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Tánaiste and his officials. I would like to be associated with the generous donation from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to Syria. The sum is in the region of €10 million which is very generous considering our economic woes. We wish well all sides, including the United States, Russia and the European Union. We hope the Geneva II talks will go well and that people can be brought to the table to prevent the dreadful atrocities that are occurring in the beautiful country of Syria, particularly in Damascus. I hope the conflict will not spread to other areas.

We have had a wide-ranging discussion. It was most interesting and I have no doubt but that we will be returning to this issue in the very near future. It is our duty as parliamentarians to keep it on the agenda while parliamentarians elsewhere in Europe are discussing it.

The joint committee went into private session at 6.10 p.m. and adjourned at 6.40 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Wednesday, 25 October 2013.