Seanad debates

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

6:30 pm

Photo of Lorraine HigginsLorraine Higgins (Labour) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. He has been a regular visitor to the Seanad since he took up his portfolio, for which I commend him. I also compliment him on securing ยค2 million in aid for the war torn area. It is great that he is here to listen to our views and statements on the humanitarian crisis arising from the regrettable conflict in Syria. The conflict appears to be intensifying and, as a consequence, is devastating for all civilians who reside there and whose lives have been utterly changed since the catastrophe began.

The conflict has taken on a particularly brutal and violent character. We have all been privy to horribly distressing images on our television screens that show ordinary women, men and children being caught up in the midst of it all. Lives have been, and continue to be, devastated and families are being decimated. People are being killed at a rate of over 20 per day and well over 100,000 citizens have been arrested or detained. The regime's totalitarian tactics have reached a pitch of unparalleled savagery in the history of the Arab world.

Part of the problem in the country is due to the fact that the traditional political opposition in Syria has not been strengthened over the years and the Assad regime has squashed any such development in the three decades that it has held power. As a consequence there is no meaningful political participation in the country given that the people and state employees, in particular, are expected to slavishly follow the rule of politics laid down by the Ba'athist regime. For those opposed to Assad's political views they can expect to forgo their freedom and languish in prisons or in exile so it has proved difficult to garner and foster any real opposition. There have been attempts to unite all opposition groups into a single front but given that their geographical position is outside of the country it has been hard to do anything meaningful.

A beacon of hope shines in the grassroot organisation known as the people's movement. This gathering can be confident of its achievements to date and with every passing day it grows and advances the people's cause, the citizens of Syria. In hot spots such as Homs, Hama, Deraa and the Damascus hinterland it has won over the majority of inhabitants. Thousands of civilians are now participating in hundreds, if not thousands, of organised demonstrations, rallies and sit-ins which aim to highlight its attempts at rebellion and speaking up for the ordinary citizen. They have shown heroic courage and continue with their protests unabated despite a real threat to their safety. It is worth noting that from the first day the Assad regime has encouraged the uprising away from its non-violent principles and towards militarisation. It was a cunning political move by the regime because it was aware that the opposition would be militarily inferior and easily squashed and at the same time it would legitimise, or attempt to legitimise, Assad's use of violence and thereby gain some degree of international support. The move is worrying.

A potential stumbling block in the desire of the grassroot popular movement to advance is the regime's remarkable cohesion. It is in stark contrast with the Libyan crisis where significant elements declared internally that they had broken with the regime and displayed a degree of fragility, albeit behind the faux portrayal of public solidity.

Syria's armed forces remain obedient to the regime to a fault. Their unwavering loyalty to a despotic regime can be explained in the context of Assad's response to any perceived lack of commitment. Reports from the battleground mean that it is not unusual for soldiers to pay with their lives for refusing to open fire on civilians or attempting to flee clashes and demonstrators. Moreover, all senior government employees are forbidden from leaving Syria without first obtaining special permission from the security services. All of this means that there has been a clear and flagrant breach of international humanitarian law. The most fundamental protection offered under these laws is the protection of civilians. Ireland must do its bit to highlight the crisis, keep highlighting it and to raise it again with the appropriate officials within the EU and the UN.

We must do something further to increase our humanitarian assistance to the men, women and children who are facing the terrible consequences of this crisis. It is clear from international reports that the humanitarian situation has worsened considerably since it first began. People are displaced and homes are abandoned. According to the Syrian Government's figures, up to 1.2 million people are sheltering in public buildings. Others are seeking refuge with their relatives and friends and all concerned urgently require humanitarian intervention by the necessary agencies due to the widening impact of the crisis on the economy and people's livelihoods. There is a clear and present requirement for health care, shelter, food, water and sanitation. There are serious public health issues in many of the public buildings that are being used as shelters.

There has been significant disruption as well to the education of thousands of Syrian children, as the Minister of State, Deputy Costello, alluded to, since the beginning of the academic year in September. The future seems very bleak. I commend the UN and its partners on reaching more people each month with emergency aid. I commend the countries in Europe and throughout the world that have contributed to the aid programme. In spite of difficulties accessing people in most need as a result of heavy fighting, the World Food Programme distributes food through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. The local partners reach more than 820,000 people across Syria. While this goes some way to alleviating hunger problems, it is merely a drop in the ocean, considering there is a real and pressing need to deal with 2.5 million people. While the current situation in Syria is becoming more severe, we must find a new solution to the issue. I commend the efforts being made by the UN and other agencies in this regard. As an EU country we must continue to lobby the UN and other agencies to keep the pressure on the various factions and call on them to enter talks with one another. We must urge them to co-operate with the mediation efforts of international peace envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi. Furthermore we must aim to get diplomatic support for an agreement between the government and oppositionfor the formation of a transitional government.However, as a caveat, we must fully ensure that any movement is championed by the Syrian people and is not imposed from outside.

The brutality associated with the war has transformed most Syrian citizens into tragic figures and it is high time that stopped. As an Irish observer in the conflict I reiterate that Ireland must make it very clear that we reject in its totality all forms of violence and breaches of human rights. We must ensure that we are more vocal in urging the different factions to ensure a successful ceasefire, which should include the release of all prisoners and the granting of humanitarian access unhindered.

I repeat my call to those engaged in the conflict to respect civilians and abide by international humanitarian law.


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