Seanad debates

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

4:05 pm

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister of State for his attendance. As other Members have noted, he has given them a good account of his visit, which has brought home to them the importance of being on the ground. I believe Senator Mac Conghail referred to how there is a sense of powerlessness. When something of this scale involving thousands of people in such difficulty takes place, it is very hard to believe Members speaking up can make a difference. However, of course it does because were they to stay silent, they would appear to acquiesce and, consequently, they must continue to speak up and to maintain the pressure and must continue to remind themselves, other Irish people and the world of their concern in this regard.

The word "crisis" is too small to describe the devastating situation in Syria. However, it is extraordinary to discover the matter of Syria is not on the formal agenda of the United Nations General Assembly meeting that opened yesterday. I find this to be beyond belief. The Minister of State may know the reason - I do not necessarily expect he does - and may be able to tell Members the reason. I note this did not prevent the envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, from expressing his views and thoughts, albeit in an informal manner. His statement that matters are bad and getting worse gave Senator Mac Conghail the opportunity to mention that feeling of resignation. This is a man of enormous experience who has worked in Haiti, Afghanistan and Iraq and who is a member of both the Elders and the Global Economic Forum. Even though he has only been in the job for a mere month, if such a man returns from Syria to make such a statement, he really is saying much more than that. While there is no easy answer to this, what he did was to make a real plea and a real cry for help. Senator Healy Eames referred to a visit to Rwanda and as she noted in respect of the events there involving 1 million people and the Hutu and Tutsi, people stood aside and let that happen. However, 18 years later, we are doing the same thing again for the past 18 months. Today's report from the Save the Children charity is full of stories. They have named the children in order that people can understand this is not merely bunches of thousands or hundreds of people. This involves real children with real parents in real places being treated appallingly in the bus queue, buying bread, in the shops or in hospitals and schools. They are being abused, tortured, kidnapped, imprisoned, murdered or bombed. It is the same story from Amnesty International. As a huge quantity of material is available, we are actually doing the same thing that was done previously in Rwanda. I refer to Senator Healy Eames's comments on the legacy there 18, 28 and 30 years on. Moreover, I note Kofi Annan, who was Secretary General of the United Nations at the time, has acknowledged he was wrong. He played a considerable part in the decisions that were taken in that instance to do very little or nothing.

In this case, Ireland's role is smaller. While it has punched above its weight in the United Nations, as other Members have noted, not being on the Security Council leaves it with a ringside seat only. However, we must make use of that and it is clear that Syria is a political football. I refer to the role of China and the Russian Federation on the one side and while Lakhdar Brahimi is stating things are getting worse, he effectively is stating that while the fighting is getting worse, the relationships on the Security Council also are worsening. I do not know whether the Minister of State is in a position to tell Members whether Ireland, during its forthcoming Presidency of the European Union, has the capacity or willingness to use it as a wider platform to take on that debate at a political level. I acknowledge this would not be not easy and do not suggest Ireland should simply go out and do it. The matter is far too complex and I would not insult anyone's intelligence by suggesting that but I wonder where Ireland stands or whether it would be able to do this. I acknowledge the Minister of State and others have called for many measures in support of human rights, such as referring Syria to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court for investigation of crimes. This should have been but has not been done by the Security Council of the United Nations. The Government of Syria continues to not allow proper international human rights monitors into the country. While these measures should be taken now, they are merely part of the immediate crisis. As for the bigger political picture, however, while Ireland is small it will be stuck right in the middle of Europe -for want of a better way of putting it - in the next six months.

I would like to believe the Government will not shirk from the responsibility and find a way to play a role in this matter. Many of us have been on our feet in this House about this issue, and we will go on. However, as Senator Mac Conghail says, sometimes we feel very powerless in this situation.


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