Seanad debates

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

4:05 pm

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour) | Oireachtas source

It is vital we stabilise the Palestinian issue because it could have a knock-on effect throughout the Middle East and further afield.

A number of Senators asked how we would address the issue of human rights. We have raised the issue at every level, including at European Union level where we have sanctions. We have raised it in respect of the International Criminal Court at the United Nations. Unfortunately, as Senator O'Keeffe mentioned, we cannot get the issues relating to Syria referred to the International Criminal Court. It can only be done through the Security Council, which must agree to it. We are working with other countries to get such agreement.

The same problems have arisen in regard to getting agreement on intervention in Syria and on the arms embargo and so on. There are countries that are sending arms into Syria on both sides and using Syria for their own political purposes. It is difficult to move forward while this continues. The Security Council is not agreed on a way forward. We will continue to raise the matter at the United Nations. While the issue is not directly on the agenda of the United Nations, which I do not understand, en marge there will be substantial meetings in regard to the Friends of Palestine getting together to try to agree a formula for progress in that respect.

I have mentioned that the Human Rights Council is meeting in Geneva. While I do not wish to be over-enthusiastic about a possible resolution it is encouraging that the Russian federation is, for the first time, engaging with the Arab League, which is the body more likely to have some clout in this area than would perhaps some other countries. Russia is an important player in this. In many ways, China is taking its lead from Russia. Russia has important strategic interests and wants to see how they are going to be protected. As far as I can gather, none of the countries are carrying a torch for the Assad regime but are all concerned about what will happen if that regime collapses. For this reason, it is very important - we have also been calling for this - that the disparate groups in the opposition, of which there are so many, come together and agree a cohesive position which ensures they are seen as a negotiating group. Negotiation will probably be the solution to the problem. Substantial parts of the population of Syria and substantial other countries support the Assad regime. As such, it is likely there will eventually be a negotiated solution. It is important in this regard that there is a transitional process and an opposition within Syria that can negotiate that process because there will be no internal intervention.

There is no question of military intervention in this case because there is no agreement among the various powers. The situation in Syria is not at all like that which pertained in Libya. There was no problem in regard to the Security Council. If there is any interference in Syria, Russia and China will view it as military interference in respect of which they are not in agreement. That in itself could create its own problems. The general opinion abroad is that unless there is a movement on the chemical weapons in Syria it is unlikely there will be military intervention. The fear in this respect is that the situation would only go from bad to worse. As such, that is not going to happen, particularly in the short term.

While there might be prevailing air of powerlessness, that does not mean we will not continue to argue strongly for a humanitarian exercise in Syria. There have been improvements in this area. Currently, 19 local and eight international non-governmental organisations are granted access by the regime. This means that the United Nations now has much greater access than it had. For example, the United Nations world food programme, which is by far the largest humanitarian food aid programme in the world, which deals with the humanitarian hubs and aid depots and so on, is reaching 850,000 people each month in all of the 14 governor areas in the country. It is reaching government and opposition controlled areas and aims to reach 1.5 million people through food distribution by the end of this month. That is huge progress on the situation which prevailed a couple of months ago, when there was virtually no access granted to any international organisation other than the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. When we spoke to those organisations a few weeks ago, they expressed the concern that despite the fact that they had official approval by the regime to access all areas of Syria in practice that was not the case. They said that security was a major issue for them in accessing certain areas.

Senator Mullins asked about the Syrian-Irish humanitarian forum. I have met that organisation on three or four occasions and I am sympathetic to what it has to say. There is a fine bunch of people involved, some of whom are Irish and others of whom are Syrian, including Syrian medical professionals. In the early stages, they were anxious that mechanisms be found to get food and medical supplies and equipment to areas of greatest need because this could not easily be done by other organisations owing to the limited access being permitted by the regime. We explored this and learned that even the mechanisms which they used in terms of mobile hospitals within Syria had been seized of their supplies. We could not go down the road of providing supplies unless we were working with accredited organisations. We took up this matter directly with the United Nations, which argued the case in respect of the world food aid programme and secured access points. The supplies we provide are delivered through accredited organisations such as the United Nations and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Mention was made of having an air, food or humanitarian corridor, which would be impossible to do because they could only be protected through military intervention, which itself was a problem. We will continue to examine by what avenues it is possible to get aid, supplies and medicines to civilians in need of it, regardless of what part of the country they are located, be they controlled by the regime or some of the opposition free Syrian army groups and so on. As I stated, there is currently greater access to both areas. We hope this will continue. It is always useful to hear what is happening from people engaged on the ground, to whom we will respond as best we can.

On the question of what Lakhdar Brahimi will do, Mr. Brahimi is a person with huge credentials. He was very candid about the fact that it was an uphill struggle, that he was operating with a redundant six point plan and that the Security Council rendered him powerless. However, he is talking to people and is endeavouring to talk to the Syrian regime. He has been in dialogue with the Arab League in particular, including Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran and is seeking to leverage their influence in relation to the crisis. Mr. Brahimi is trying to organise inclusive dialogue - he is also talking to the Russians and Chinese - on the subject. He is a man with considerable political skills. I hope he makes some progress in that respect. In the meantime we will continue to do what we can.

A major OSCE meeting is taking place on 6 and 7 December, with 56 countries present. That will be a feature of the debate. The Presidency will begin in January and it is an issue on which we hope to make progress in terms of what the European Union can do. The EU is the only organisation with sanctions at present and we will try to extend them and introduce an arms embargo in respect of Syria. We will also try to make progress on humanitarian aid and gaining full access to Syria in that respect. There are other aspects that people forget. Schools are occupied by refugees and we must then consider where children can get education. Today, I heard that the Zaateri camp I was in will have sufficient prefab units to enable 2,000 children to start education tomorrow. That is only a drop in the ocean. Winter is coming and that camp was chosen because Jordan is a country with so little water and that it is one area where adequate underground water can be accessed. It is in the desert, close to the border with Syria. It is a bad spot in the winter and can get very cold. It is a tough area and the same applies to Turkey and Lebanon.

I am delighted to come to the Seanad to deal with the major conflict and Syria. It could become the next major world conflict and we must do whatever we can. We will continue to monitor the situation and use every avenue at our disposal to make a contribution to dealing with it.


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