Seanad debates

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Syrian Conflict: Statements


6:00 pm

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

We are meeting to discuss the devastating humanitarian crisis in Syria and neighbouring countries. I am heartened that Members of Seanad Éireann have taken the time and interest to request an update on the situation. During my recent visit to Jordan, I was able to witness first-hand the enormous humanitarian consequences that the crisis is having on innocent civilians and the pressures that it is placing on host countries such as Jordan. I am most appreciative of the opportunity to share my insights with Senators today and I look forward very much to hearing their contributions.

When the revolts across the Arab world began to put unprecedented pressure on long-standing authoritarian regimes, we all hoped that this would mark the beginning of a move towards democratic reform and respect for the rights of citizens. However, progress has been varied and in Syria, the future remains highly uncertain. All of us, I am sure, have been shocked and terribly saddened by the relentless onslaught on the Syrian civilian population in the past 18 months. The brutally repressive actions of the Assad regime and an increasingly militant armed resistance from elements of the opposition have resulted in extraordinary human suffering.

It is very clear that while this is a humanitarian crisis, it is driven by politics and will only be solved with a political solution. From the beginning, Ireland has recognised this, striving to respond to the humanitarian needs of the populations affected by the violence while working for a sustainable political solution based on accommodating the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Syrian people.

I would like to focus my remarks on three key areas. First, I will provide an update on the current humanitarian situation within Syria and in neighbouring countries; second, I will summarise Ireland's response to the humanitarian crisis; and, third, I would like to touch on the highly complex and uncertain subject of what may happen in the coming months and years.

In regard to the humanitarian situation in Syria and neighbouring countries, the headline figures speak for themselves. More than 19,000 people were killed in the violence, 2.5 million people in Syria are in desperate need of assistance, more than 1.2 million Syrians are displaced within their own country and approximately 283,000 Syrians are now refugees in neighbouring countries. More than half of the refugees are children.

My visit to Za'atari refugee camp, 80 km north of the Jordanian capital Amman, close to the Syrian border, allowed me to hear the human stories and suffering behind such statistics. In the camp, I heard powerful testimonies from Syrians who had recently fled the violence. Many had been displaced up to four or five times within Syria before finally crossing the border into Jordan, with little or no possessions to their name. I saw how the staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, the agency responsible for the camp, were struggling with limited resources to provide even the most basic services such as shelter, food and water. It is a race against time as the numbers of refugees escalates. At the time of my visit, there were approximately 16,000 refugees in the camp. In only a matter of weeks, this has doubled to nearly 32,000. It is important to note that this is in addition to more than 55,000 refugees who are already living with host communities in Jordan and many more who are understood to have fled the conflict but have not registered as refugees.

When I met the Jordanian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Nasser Judeh, and the Jordanian Minister for Planning and International Co-operation, Dr. Jafar Hassan, they impressed on me how this refugee burden is placing a huge strain on the country which has a high pre-existing refugee population coupled with severe resource constraints. They even went so far as to express fears that this could jeopardise a fragile political equilibrium and may pose a threat to national security and stability.

In Syria violence has intensified and spread across the country. Recent weeks have seen most of the fighting centred on the country's main population centres, Damascus and Aleppo, further endangering civilians populations. There is no safe place for those innocent civilians caught up in the conflict and protection is a major concern.

Recent reports have described indiscriminate shelling of densely populated areas, excessive use of force, including utterly unacceptable use of air strikes by aeroplanes and gun ship helicopters against civilian areas and random targeting of innocent civilians. As the humanitarian situation deteriorates, there is urgent need for food, medical care and shelter. The school term was due to start last week, yet more than 1 million people have taken refuge in schools and public buildings across the country, particularly in Jordan.

There is particular concern for the 500,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria who were already poorer and more vulnerable than the general population.

While they have originally been spared the excesses of the violence, the camps where they reside in Dara'a and Damascus have recently been severely affected. Any significant move of Palestinian refugees outside Syria is likely to create very serious political problems in the neighbouring countries.

The aid operation in Syria is extremely complex. During my discussions with the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, humanitarian access, limited information and lack of funding were cited as the biggest challenges. While the United Nations and non-governmental agencies have recently been able to considerably scale up the delivery of humanitarian assistance, the operation continues to be hampered by the administrative control of the Assad regime and by violence on the part of Government forces and the armed opposition. The reality on the ground is that agencies respond on a day-to-day basis, delivering life-saving supplies and services as and when the security situation permits.

Ireland has responded swiftly to the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the neighbouring countries. As early as March this year, I authorised ¤500,000 in emergency funding for the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UNHCR and the World Food Programme. The recent visit enabled me to see for myself how this support has provided life-saving services for refugees in Jordan. While I was there, the humanitarian needs were escalating on a daily basis. In response, I was able to mobilise an additional ¤1.6 million of humanitarian assistance to the ICRC - which includes the Red Crescent - the UNHCR, the World Health Organization and the International Rescue Committee for their response to the crisis. This includes non-food items such as tents, mattresses, kitchen sets, water tanks and jerry cans from our rapid response stocks in Dubai worth ¤400,000. Since March this year, Ireland has therefore provided ¤2.1 million in humanitarian assistance. In my discussions with the Jordanian Government, the United Nations and the ICRC, they all expressed their sincere appreciation for Ireland's generosity, particularly given the difficult economic climate that we face.

I have emphasised that this is a humanitarian crisis arising from an underlying political conflict. Over the past 18 months, our efforts and those of international partners have been directed at ending the violence and repression inflicted upon the people of Syria. Even if the reality on the ground is disheartening, we must continue to promote a peaceful settlement with the ultimate aim of political transition in Syria. Ireland is fully supportive of the newly-appointed UN-Arab League Joint Special Representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, and his efforts to negotiate a ceasefire and chart a political path ahead. In parallel, international pressure needs to be maintained to bring an end to the violence and compel the Syrian regime to stop its bloody repression. Ireland, with our international partners, has been advocating for a strong UN Security Council resolution. I believe this is long overdue. There is a need for effective leadership and action on the part of the Security Council, imposing sanctions on those who continue to wage war on innocent civilians and who fail to meet their international obligations. In particular, a comprehensive arms embargo remains absolutely crucial as the only real way to curb the ongoing flows of arms and ammunition making their way to Syria. There also needs to be full accountability for what has transpired in Syria, with the clear and incontrovertible evidence presented by the UN and others of serious human rights violations committed primarily by the Assad regime and its forces but also, to a lesser extent, by certain elements of the armed opposition. That is why Ireland continues to fully support the calls for the situation in Syria to be referred by the Security Council to the International Criminal Court.

The general view expressed by my interlocutors in Jordan was that while the Assad regime would eventually fall, this may not be imminent and indeed there is every possibility that Assad will hang on to power at any cost. Possible spill­over of the conflict into neighbouring states remains a serious concern, as recently reflected by ongoing clashes in northern Lebanon. With no early political solution in sight therefore, the prospect of continued displacement and humanitarian suffering within Syria and an escalating and protracted regional refugee crisis is very real. In Jordan alone, current predictions are that the number of refugees will reach 250,000 by the end of the year. As winter approaches, the pressure for shelter, fuel, health services and food will multiply. Coping mechanisms are severely depleted and vulnerability levels of both displaced populations and refugees increase as the conflict endures. We are now facing into missed harvests, missed schooling and lost economic opportunities - all of which will have a profound impact on the affected populations in the years ahead.

Without doubt, the biggest unknown is what comes after Assad. The opposition is clearly fragmented and concern is growing that fractures among the disparate elements of the opposition may contain the seeds of further instability. Ireland, along with its EU and international partners, has long called for all strands of the opposition to set aside their differences and agree a platform for democratic change reflective of the legitimate aspirations of all Syrians. Engagement with leading regional players and others, particularly Russia, which are in a position to exert influence on the Assad regime will also be of key importance in the efforts to broker a solution. This is a task which Joint Special Representative Brahimi is already clearly committed to undertaking. In the meantime, the grim reality remains that the suffering of Syrian civilians is growing with each day. The immediate imperative therefore is to respond to the humanitarian needs on the ground, while maintaining our international efforts to find a sustainable political solution that is so desperately needed. Ireland is wholeheartedly committed on both fronts and the visit to Jordan was an important demonstration of our solidarity with those affected by the crisis.

I have received information that the UN Human Rights Council is meeting in Geneva, the Arab League is putting forward proposals in respect of the conflict and, for the first time, the Russian Federation has put forward its own package. Therefore, there is likely to be some negotiations in respect of the proposals being put forward within the UN Human Rights Council by the Arab League and the Russian Federation. Russia plays a key role, as we know from its disagreement, along with China, with some of the positions taken by other members of the Security Council. I hope that by Friday, there will some progress in that respect.

There will be a meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York this week, for which the Tanáiste has already left; therefore, the issue is very much on the agenda of the assembly. Certainly there will be discussions by like-minded friends of Syria with discussions en margeof the General Assembly discussions. I have brought the House up to date with the present situation, which is the best information I can provide. I hope there is some possibility of the deadlock being broken and some progress being made in the not too distant future.


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