Seanad debates

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

6:20 pm

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Costello, to the House and thank him for a comprehensive report on his recent visit to Jordan. I compliment him on securing aid of more than ¤2 million which is badly needed by the people who are suffering gravely as a result of the Assad regime. It is timely that the debate is taking place in a week when the Tánaiste is attending a meeting of the UN General Assembly which will discuss the Syrian crisis and, I hope, make some progress.

As the Minister of State has outlined, several million people within the country and refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are in need of help and the crisis is growing. We have all been horrified and shocked by the scale of the crisis we have seen on our television screens and on various media outlets which have sent us information recently and we are frustrated at the lack of progress in bringing about a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

In a recent report on the humanitarian situation, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, painted a particularly grim picture when he said that the conflict has taken a particularly brutal turn with Government forces continuing their indiscriminate shelling of densely populated areas with heavy weapons and opposition groups stepping up their military activities. Civilians have borne the brunt of the violence and large-scale human rights violations have been reported. Prisoners on both sides have been subjected to harsh treatment, including torture, and there have been alarming reports of summary executions.

Government forces and the armed opposition had failed to protect civilians and respect international humanitarian law while more than 1.2 million people have been displaced inside Syria.

The UN Secretary General also said that the number of refugees registered in Turkey, Jordan, the Lebanon and Iraq was rising to above 225,000. While primary responsibility for ending the conflict lay with the parties, notably the government, there was a collective duty to help Syrians to resolve their differences peacefully. With that in mind, he again urged the Government and armed opposition to abandon military activities, engage in dialogue, protect civilians and abide by their obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law. The United Nations was committed to helping them come to the negotiating table and move towards a democratic and plural political system with equal rights for all. The Syrian people have waited too long, he declared. We all share his sentiments and call on all international politicians to redouble their efforts to resolve the conflict before any more innocent lives are lost.

Amnesty International, in a recent briefing, said: Indiscriminate air bombardments and artillery strikes by the Syrian army are killing, maiming and terrorizing residents of Jabal al-Zawiya, Idlib and north Hama regions. Every day civilians are killed or injured in their homes or trying to shelter from the bombings. Hundreds have been killed or injured in recent weeks, many of them children, in indiscriminate attacks.

Some towns and villages have been virtually emptied of their residents, many of whom are now camping out in surrounding countryside or hiding in caves; others are crowding in with relatives in what they hope are safer areas, while others have sought refuge in Turkey - or are currently stuck at the border with Turkey waiting to flee the country.

With the attention of the international media mostly focused on the fighting in Aleppo and the capital, hardly any news reaches the outside world about the horrors of daily life for the residents of Idlib and other Hama regions. It is particularly worrying that while we there is a high profile coverage given to the atrocities in highly populated areas much is happening in the smaller regions and communities.

The Irish Syrian Solidarity campaign has lobbied the Government to prioritise the distribution of aid to field hospitals in areas of Syria controlled by the opposition. These hospitals, I am told, are the only sources of medical aid for civilians living in the areas. Recently a Syrian consultant interviewed on RTE - he now works in Ireland - said that during his work in a field hospital over the summer almost all of his patients were injured civilians. So far the Government has declined to assist field hospitals but I ask the Minister of State to review the situation. Perhaps he will comment on it during his response. A serious concern is that Irish aid may not be reaching the areas in dire need in Syria. According to Dr. Banan, the Red Cross and other large NGOs are only able to distribute aid with the agreement of the Assad regime. The Minister of State referred to the matter in his speech and I ask him to elaborate further on the matter.

The Syrian conflict is a humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions. There is a responsibility on the international community to force a solution and the Assad regime and armed opposition groups must be held accountable for their actions. The UN Security Council must show some muscle by referring the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court and I welcome the Government's support for the stance.

The Government will hold the Presidency of the EU from 1 January and I hope that significant progress will be made during the period to resolve the crisis. I welcome the Minister of State's closing remark when he said that some progress may be made with the united Arab League and the Russian Federation beginning to engage in the process.

As I said, we are horrified at the enormous loss of life and the displacement of so many innocent people in Syria. It is incumbent on all of us, as politicians, to redouble our efforts to ensure that the situation can be resolved or improved. The Minister of State indicated that the grave uncertainty about the future of the Assad regime makes the entire situation uncertain.

I welcome the appointment of the Joint Special Representative Brahimi and hope significant progress will be made during the coming months. The conflict will take a considerable amount of time to resolve and there will be a significant opportunity for Ireland and its EU partners, during our Presidency, to assist in the process. I look forward to the Minister of State's response to the issues I have raised.


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