Wednesday, 25 September 2013
Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Office of the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to raise once again in this House the very important issue of the very desperate situation in Syria. I have raised the matter in Topical Issue debates on a number of occasions. This is the first opportunity I have had in this House to congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Donohoe, on his appointment and wish him every success in his important work as Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs.
Everyone in this House will welcome the fact that Syria is about to become the 190th state party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, thanks to a US and Russia-brokered deal. This convention bans the acquisition and use of chemical weapons and requires state parties to destroy existing stocks and production facilities on joining. This is a significant development given the recent deadly chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, a rebel-held Damascus suburb on 21 August. The return of a team of UN chemical weapons inspectors today to the Syrian capital of Damascus to complete their investigation into "pending credible allegations" of chemical weapons use in Syria's civil war is also to be welcomed.
It appears as though some parties are beginning to engage in constructive dialogue to stop what has been an international tragedy, resulting in the death of more than 100,000 Syrians. Some 2.5 million Syrians have been displaced from their own country and more than 4 million are displaced within their own country. Unfortunately, it is the humanitarian issue of this generation.
The situation remains very precarious. The fact that several Syrian rebel groups, including a powerful al-Qaeda-linked faction, said today that they reject the authority of the western-backed opposition coalition shows that a stable and settled peace is still far from secure. Further international engagement is, therefore, vital. Any progress that has been made must be consolidated by increasing pressure from international powers, including the European Union and the United Nations, whose Security Council has, to date, been totally ineffective in dealing with this issue. The lack of a coherent strategy coming from Brussels on this issue is disappointing and shows that despite many EU institutional changes, increased competencies and, indeed, increased staff in recent years in the European External Action Service, we still find ourselves searching for common cause when it comes to our approach for foreign affairs.
I very much welcome the Tánaiste's announcement today that Ireland will help to facilitate the destruction of chemical weapons from Syria through the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. This commitment is reflective of our long-standing opposition to the use of weapons of mass destruction. I have raised this matter to seek further clarification as to how this commitment will work in practice. Under what budget will this funding come from in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade? What commitments have been received from our international partners in regard to their participation in and support for this very worthy endeavour?
I put on record my concern that it appears it is the international community which will have to shoulder the full cost of these measures and that the Syrian regime will have to pay nothing towards the destruction of these weapons. Will Minister of State clarify this point or come back to me subsequently on it? Was the Syrian regime approached to fund the destruction of these weapons at all?
I thank the Deputy for the kind words at the start of his contribution, which I appreciate. I also thank him for the number of times he has raised this vital issue. What was a beautiful summer for many of us was haunted by those awful images we saw of the use of chemical weapons on those poor communities. Whether those weapons would be used was a fear many people had and it was truly horrific to see them being deployed by a state against its own people.
The Deputy touched on a number of areas which are very relevant to the scale of challenges we face. He very accurately said that this is the largest displacement of individuals in modern times. I had a meeting with a delegation from Turkey today. It has almost 500,000 Syrians within its borders who have been displaced by the degree of violence and civil war to which the Deputy referred. The Deputy was correct to identify the scale of deaths which occurred before the terrible events we are discussing. He identified a deep complexity within this situation which is that it is a highly fragmented political situation. The Deputy also identified the great difficulty any outside groups have in regard to playing in a role in it. As he noted, if any group in that environment is seen to get support from the outside, it can only lead to further instability.
The Deputy articulated concern regarding the inability of European institutions to play a firmer role in putting together a response in this regard. I point out that many members of the European Union have the same concerns we do regarding the delegation of sovereignty in the areas of foreign policy and defence policy to European institutions. Many of the issues on which we have touched are those which governments decide for themselves. They try to reach agreement. We would be sensitive to an outside body having a role in regard to the deployment of our armed forces elsewhere.
It is understandable that other countries would feel the same.
I would like to respond to some of the particular points raised with me by the Deputy. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, which was established under the Chemical Weapons Convention, will be playing a role in this regard. I think the Deputy referred to the convention. Ireland is currently a member of the executive council of the OPCW. Through that body, we will reach an understanding on how and when our funding will be deployed and what decision-making process will be used when these weapons are being destroyed and decommissioned. I understand that Ireland, along with other members of the executive council of the OPCW, is awaiting a draft decision from bodies that are involved in this negotiation. It is foreseen that the inspectors will inspect all chemical weapons storage and production facilities in Syria. This will begin very shortly as a first step. Subsequently, a detailed destruction plan will be developed. I cannot confirm for the Deputy the detail of the discussion with the Syrian authorities on the cost plan. I can confirm, however, on the basis of comments I have seen elsewhere, that the cost involved in this exercise will be truly gigantic. That is why countries like Ireland are playing a role in the hoped-for destruction of these weapons.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. His commitment to using every opportunity to highlight the huge humanitarian disaster that has taken place over the past two years is obvious. He will be aware that the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade had a detailed discussion on this issue with the Tánaiste last week. Many non-governmental organisations and sister organisations of some of the Irish non-governmental organisations are doing outstanding work in exceptionally difficult circumstances.
I appreciate the fact that significant funding from our overseas development aid budget has been allocated for this worthy humanitarian effort. In fairness to Europe, it has been the best contributor to the humanitarian effort. As I have said to the Tánaiste during previous debates on this matter during Question Time and Topical Issues, Europe needs to keep reminding the rest of the international community of its serious obligation to help out and try to alleviate the horror, suffering and nightmare that is so prevalent in Syria and, as the Minister of State mentioned, in adjoining countries. In particular, the EU must remind the UN Security Council of the need to fulfil its obligations. I thought Commissioner Ashton was extremely quiet on this issue during the summer months, so I was interested to read the statement she made about a week ago in which she quite rightly stated that the chemical attack was a blatant "violation of international law, a war crime, and a crime against humanity". Her statement, which was issued after the Council of Ministers meetings, also called "on the UN Security Council to assume its responsibilities". I think every Parliament that is concerned with human rights and with the dignity of every individual must send a clear message to that effect.
I thank the Deputy again for raising this issue. I would like to make a point about our attitude towards European institutions. We should not criticise European institutions for not deploying powers which member states have chosen not to give them. While the Deputy did not make such a criticism, the point is worth making all the same. Many of the areas which are most sensitive to us are still matters of national competence and decision-making. The Deputy rightly picked up on the role of Commissioner Ashton and her organisation, the European External Action Service. It is worthwhile to make the point that Commissioner Ashton and her colleagues in the service were the first people to have the ability to meet very important individuals in Egypt in the aftermath of the difficulty that happened there. The centrality of the Commissioner and her body in the work that is taking place in the Middle East is also worth pointing out. Indeed, I remind the House that they orchestrated and delivered the recent massive breakthrough in the Balkans. The service is dealing with the aftermath of terrible tragedy there as well. The Deputy referenced very well the outstanding work of many Irish organisations in that area. I suggest this is the clearest example of the huge value of neutrality to a country like Ireland. Neutrality is not just a policy choice of pragmatism, it is a principle of absolute value. One of the reasons our organisations can do this kind of work is that they are associated with the neutrality of this country. This is also the reason we hope to be in a position to be able to deploy troops to an area adjacent to this terrible difficulty and protect vulnerable people who need help to ensure they can live their lives safely. I thank the Deputy again for his remarks. He referred to the fact that the Government has contributed €200,000 to this. Ireland has now contributed a total of €11 million to this tragedy. The Deputy can be assured of our continued focus on doing all we can in this regard.