Seanad debates

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

4:05 pm

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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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.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for trade and development to the House, of which he was a Member in the past. He is always welcome. He has two very important portfolios in overseas development and trade. I served as Minister of State at the Department of Industry and Commerce for some time. It is a most interesting and important Department as far as our future is concerned. I commend the Minister of State for travelling to Jordan and seeing at first hand the effects of the ravages on Syria, which is the most serious issue in the world. The Minister of State has also authorised ¤500,000 in emergency funding and ¤1.6 million in humanitarian aid and assistance to the ICRC. He is prepared to continue supporting it the best he can in very difficult times here. On behalf of this side of the House, I commend the Minister of State for his commitment to the region and refugees.

The situation is that Syria, as is well known throughout the region, has been a destabilising force for some time in respect of its support for and the establishment of Hezbollah, its effects in Lebanon and its supply of weapons to certain elements who targeted Israel. The position in regard to refugees is extremely serious because there are 500,000 Palestinian refugees who have nowhere to go. They cannot go back to Palestine as the state is not established. They are being housed in Jordan and surrounding areas, including Syria which gave them a home. However, they are now in a vulnerable position and it is vitally important that the United Nations, China and Russia bear this in mind. It is a catastrophe of huge proportions and the future is uncertain as the Minister of State pointed out.

The Assad regime was supported and used in the past by various countries in the region but is now in a vulnerable position. The Minister of State expressed concern about the future as there is not a united opposition. The situation is diffuse. There is concern about minorities in Syria such as the Christian minority. Under the Assad regime they were given support and, as far as I am aware, were not discriminated against in any way. If and when the new regime is put in place, their position will be vulnerable and they are concerned. Some are viewed as being on the side of the establishment but a civil war such as this is extremely dangerous. The position is that 90,000 people have gone into Turkey - 80,000 to camps and 10,000 to communities. The total number of refugees expected in the country is 250,000. Some 90,000 have gone into Iraq and it is not known how many others will travel there. Jordan has 77,000 refugees while it expects 250,000 in due course, and Lebanon has 56,000. Those are massive numbers of refugees as winter approaches and will create enormous pressure on the United Nations. That is the reason it is important that the Government and the Minister of State have ensured that funding is provided.

The civil war in Syria has worsened and the humanitarian crisis has deepened because of the violence and refugees threatening to spill out across the region. The instability of the Arab spring is all too apparent in the wave of violence against American embassies and the threat against French embassies, following the publication of inflammatory material depicting the prophet Muhammad. The reaction of countries to these publications is enormous. It was irresponsible, to say the least, knowing the effect it would have, to publish the cartoons, and the film depicting Muhammad which was made in America was outrageous. I heard some extracts from it and, frankly, any religion would be deeply upset. In the Christian community we have tolerated the depiction of biblical scenes in films and there has not been the same reaction but they have been condemned in a democratic way. The way in which these inflame the passions of the Islamic community is unbelievable. Irrespective of free speech in America, France and elsewhere, there is no excuse, knowing the effect it would have, for publishing such cartoons or making a film depicting Muhammad in a derogatory fashion. That is unforgivable and has caused an enormous number of deaths in the region, attacks and the murder of the US ambassador to Libya. Those are serious issues and must be borne in mind.

Some 20,000 people have been killed in the violence unleashed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad since protests erupted more than one year ago and Syria has slipped into the chaos of civil war. A report by the international charity, Save the Children, states that as Syria's civil war has intensified, thousands of children have died in brutal attacks and many more have been injured, traumatised or forced to flee their homes. It warns that boys and girls continue to be killed, maimed and tortured. These appalling violations against children must stop and those carrying them out must be held to account.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled the country to surrounding states. The Free Syrian Army has moved back into an area controlled by the rebels. At the United Nations General Assembly today, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, described the fighting in Syria as "a regional calamity with global ramifications". He called for action from the divided UN Security Council and said that the international community should not look the other way as violence spirals out of control. He said that brutal human rights abuses continue to be committed, mainly by the Government, but also by opposition forces.

President Obama has announced to the UN General Assembly that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad should step aside. The majority of people would call on that regime to step aside and try to put a transitional government in place. However, the United Nations Security Council has been unable to reach agreement on the Syrian crisis and on Monday, UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned that the situation was extremely bad and getting worse. While he did not have a full plan he said he had a few ideas. Mr. Brahimi had just visited Damascus as well as refugee camps in neighbouring Jordan and Turkey. Diplomats have played down expectations for the mission with no sign of fundamental divisions on the Council being bridged.

The UN Secretary General is wary of interference with Russia and China wielding a veto over any Council mandate. Russia regards military intervention as an infringement on the sovereignty of Syria. The Council is further divided over whether the current regime has any role to play in a transition.

The deteriorating situation marks a clear failure of the United Nations which has been paralysed over the issue while thousands continue to die. Western states have been reluctant to give unilateral military support to the Free Syrian Army in the fear that the group will become more radical and that heavy weapons will ultimately be used to enforce an Islamic regime. The murder of the US ambassador to Libya has underlined the potential for a revolution to rebound on its supporters.

I thank the Leader for providing time for the debate and the Minister of State for a comprehensive response. I wish him well when travelling to the region and assisting in the humanitarian needs.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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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.

Photo of Lorraine HigginsLorraine Higgins (Labour)
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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 ¤2 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.

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Costello, to this Chamber. I listened on the monitor to his moving account of his visit to Jordan. It brings home to us in the Seanad what is happening in Syria. May I ask a personal question? It seems there is a sense of resignation, and the sense of the impotency of the United Nations. I read the oral update issued in June on the independent international commission of inquiry in the Syrian Arab Republic. We are witnessing a human catastrophe in terms of human rights. There is evidence of the sexual violation of children. The commission of inquiry acknowledges that the joint special envoy's six-point plan, supported by the United Nations mission in Syria offers the best framework for the resolution of the conflict. I would like to hear the Minister of State's political viewpoint. We are looking for a non-violent resolution to the conflict but at the same time we are also bearing witness to a catastrophe and, in my view, war crimes. I have been careful in my use of language. I know the Minister must be careful also.

I got a sense of resignation when listening to the Minister of State. He did say, however, and we might tease out this point, that the Russian Federation was beginning to get involved. We may look at how it might engage with the humanitarian side.

I feel very helpless about what is happening. There was a report in The Irish Times on Saturday which brought the situation home to us. Irish citizens from the Muslim community are involved in the fighting and are implicated in the anti-Government side. We have a moral responsibility to our citizens, which means that for all of us, Syria is not that far away. I would like to get a sense of reassurance or qualification on my feelings that what the United Nations is trying to do is not good enough, whether there is another way of resolving the issue or that we should stick to the framework suggested by the United Nations mission in Syria.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his presence in the Chamber. We are all struck by what we see on the television, and what we read with regard to the Syrian catastrophe. My reason for speaking today is as a result of my experience during my visit to Rwanda in August. There I saw the fallout of the genocide 18 years earlier, where 1 million people were killed in 100 days and the international community failed to act, in spite of the fact it was asked to provide 5,000 troops. Kofi Annan now admits he was wrong and did not listen. Some 18 years later, people are still devastated. Many of the men were killed, leaving widows and orphans. There are families headed by children. We are looking at a similar situation happening in Syria.

I support many of the views expressed by Senator Mac Conghail. I am concerned that we are happy enough with how the UN is dealing with the situation, but I do not think it is working. The UN is certainly not reacting fast enough. We are fortunate that a man of the deep humanity of Deputy Joe Costello is the Minister of State at the Department dealing with this issue. When the Minister of State responds to the debate will he outline whether Ireland is doing enough, in terms of the weight it can bring to bear on human rights abuses? We have always punched above our weight in the area of human rights. Some 19,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million people are in desperate need of assistance. The Minister of State described the plight of the refugees. To echo his comment, this is a timebomb. The civilian population, including children, are bearing the brunt of the conflict. The Government forces attack indiscriminately. The indiscriminate nature of the bombardments means there is little residents can do to protect themselves. There is clear violation of international humanitarian law. Amnesty has urged the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in order to ensure that the perpetrators of these crimes and other crimes under international law are brought to justice. The families of their victims would then receive reparations. In his speech, the Minister of State said he supported this call. Has Ireland formally referred the situation in Syria to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court? Are we just supporting others? We must step up to the plate and show leadership. We must act. If this was happening to Irish civilians, we would want the protection of the international community.

The killing in Syria is government-sponsored. As the independent international commission said, the human rights abuses by the opposition groups are not comparable in scale and organisation to those carried out by the state. This is state-sponsored war. It is similar to what I saw in Rwanda.

On the issue of why the UN is not acting more resolutely to stop this, there is the veto situation with Russia and China, and they have a great deal to answer for in this regard. What contact has the Minister of State had with the Russian and Chinese ambassadors to Ireland to reflect the serious disappointment of the Government with the repeated vetoes used by Russia and China of Security Council resolutions on Syria to resolve this conflict? I understand that we are trying to build trade relations with China, but that does not mean one cannot express one's deep concern about its actions in this regard. We must be very clear about what is right and wrong. Has the Minister raised with the ambassadors the call from Amnesty International and others for arms embargoes, referrals to the International Criminal Court and Ireland's position in that regard?

In summary, is the Minister satisfied that Ireland is doing enough? Ordinary people on the street regularly ask me what they can do. It is an interesting question from the people in Galway. They are really asking on whom they can put pressure. They know they can donate, but it is not enough simply to donate when there is a political crisis in this case and where political interests are put ahead of human rights. Children are being used as human shields, people are being tortured and killed and the displacement described by the Minister means there will be fallout for many years to come. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I extend a hearty céad míle fáilte to the Minister of State, Deputy Joe Costello, who is very familiar with this Chamber. I applaud him for the initiatives he has taken so far on behalf of the people, particularly his recent visit to Jordan which was widely publicised. He brought home to the people the horror of the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding just a few hours away by aeroplane. In fact, the UN envoy, Mr. Brahimi, warned on Monday that the situation was "extremely bad and getting worse."

I will take up the theme of Senator Healy Eames's contribution regarding what the Government can do and the issue of the UN and its lack of capacity to move forward on this issue at the Security Council. What political dimension is the Government bringing to this? I compliment the Government on the fact that it moved very quickly. As a result of initiatives taken over the last number of years we were able to move resources from within the region. Heretofore, we would have been obliged to send them directly from Ireland, which would have taken a great deal of time. Goods to the value of ¤400,000 were moved from Dubai and there has been a total donation of ¤2.1 million. That is an example of joined-up thinking in terms of the manner in which we provide humanitarian aid internationally.

What else is the Government doing, for example, in terms of lobbying at the United Nations? Ireland has a proud record in the United Nations. It is not seen as an aligned country, although the complexities of the Middle East might limit our capacity in that regard. It should also be remembered that Ireland currently holds the chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE. As Russia is a leading player in the OSCE, have there been bilateral discussions with the Russian Federation regarding the stance it has taken so far at the United Nations? Obviously, Russia has a vested interest given that its only port on the Mediterranean is in Syrian territorial waters. China always has its own agenda and it is keeping a watching brief. Obviously it is scared silly, as is Russia, of any type of military intervention because they say it would infringe on the country's sovereignty. When one has the Chechen problem in one's backyard, as Russia does, and a Taiwan problem, as China has, one will obviously take that position anyway. However, that does not help the situation. Like Senator Mac Conghail and others, I ask the Minister of State to elaborate in his final comments regarding the Russian Federation now engaging in terms of putting forward a concrete proposal. It would be helpful to hear if the Minister of State has any further information in that regard.

The humanitarian crisis is overwhelming when one considers the numbers. As the Minister of State outlined them, I will not repeat what he said but 2.5 million people, which is equivalent to two thirds of the population of the country, are in need of humanitarian assistance. The biggest problem is the impact it is having in terms of the destabilising effect on neighbouring countries, particularly Lebanon. There are more than 56,000 Syrians in Lebanon who are registered or awaiting registration. However, there is also the Palestinian refugee issue, which has not been highlighted to any great extent. Syria hosts nearly 500,000 Palestinian refugees. It has offered assurances that they will not be attacked but the camps have been attacked. As a result the Palestinians have been fleeing to Jordan and Lebanon. In Jordan there is a real destabilising impact because of the sensitivities surrounding the Palestinians already in situ who came there following the expulsion of Palestinians from Kuwait in 1992 and the exodus from Iraq during the war. In Lebanon it is even more problematic because those who are fleeing Syria are seeking shelter in the Shatila refugee camp, which is effectively a slum and where there are 455,000 Palestinian refugees already registered. The question is whether that country has the capacity to absorb any more without destabilising it.

I make a plea to the Minister of State in the context of humanitarian assistance. I understand that while Syrian refugees receive assistance from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, to which we have contributed ¤2.1 million, Palestinian refugees fall under the mandate of UNWRA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which has a smaller budget. UNWRA has appealed for an additional ¤21.4 million for its consolidated regional plan but has so far received less than a quarter of that sum. It has appealed for the ¤21.4 million to assist Palestinian refugees, who are falling between the cracks in this growing humanitarian crisis. Perhaps the Minister of State has an opinion on this. We contribute to UNWRA and as I am sure the Minister of State has already visited the UNWRA camps, he will be familiar with this matter. Given his background he will already be aware of the important work UNWRA is doing in the Palestinian territories.

I will conclude my contribution with one stark fact. In the context of any attempt being made by Mr. Brahimi, the UN, the Government and others to try to solve this problem, it is estimated that there are more than 2,000 armed groups operating on Syrian soil. Most of them are fragmented and disparate. I wish the Minister of State well in his efforts.

Photo of James HeffernanJames Heffernan (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State back to the House. I strongly welcome the information he gave the House towards the end of his statement regarding the initiatives being taken today by the Arab League and Russia. This conflict has dragged on for 18 months and has claimed 20,000 lives, and violence continues to spread to more parts of the country. In August alone, 100,000 people fled Syria. The initiatives by Russia and the Arab League are a chink of light in what has been a period of utter desperation for the ordinary, innocent Syrian population. I hope the new peace envoy, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, will have a more successful mission than his predecessor, Mr. Kofi Annan. Both sides in Syria have until now rejected any type of compromise and the international community has been deeply divided. Mr. Brahimi said recently that the support of the international community is indispensable and urgently required. I hope, as a result of what has happened today, we will see some progress.

Last month's flood of refugees is certainly not a coincidence given that Bashar al-Assad appears to have upped the ante, to use a crude phrase.

His regime controls the skies, although I do not believe it has control on the ground, and it uses this advantage to indiscriminately bomb towns and villages, schools, hospitals and homes with absolute impunity. As a result of this bombardment, according to an article in The Washington Postyesterday, most people now sleep in the fields at night. While that option was viable in warmer temperatures and while food was plentiful, cushioning the blow somewhat for the displaced, the arrival of near freezing winter temperatures will mean greater suffering and a deepening of the crisis. Last winter was bad and this winter will be worse, in my opinion. Last winter people had savings and food but the situation is now completely different because those savings are exhausted. While food might be plentiful in the north of Syria, it is not affordable for many.

The Minister of State acknowledged Ireland's response. I wonder, however, about the humanitarian aid hub that was mooted for Shannon Airport some time ago. Perhaps a project like this would give a shot in the arm to the region and we could see it speeded up or realised during our Presidency of the European Union.

Following the European Union lead recently, the United States today has agreed to delist from a terrorist database a group styling itself the People's Mujahidin of Iran. As far as I can gather, this group is considered suspect and has styled itself as a government in waiting. Will the delisting of such a group by the United States have a destabilising effect on the region?

Photo of Kathryn ReillyKathryn Reilly (Sinn Fein)
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Like other Senators, I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The media and some commentators regularly use the term "Arab spring" but the reality is that each country must be looked at differently. There are similarities and many positive things happening throughout the Arab world but in the case of Syria we should not rush to simplistic conclusions.

Our position in Sinn Féin is clear - we want to see Assad gone. The regime is brutal, we have heard numerous examples of that brutality throughout this debate, and it has no respect for human rights. That is not a recent change in the nature of the regime. In 1982, Assad's father brutally cracked down on a rebellion, killing between 20,000 and 40,000 people.

We are not, however, prepared to blindly throw support behind any particular opposition group. The aims and origins of many of these groups can be shadowy and diverse. Both sides to the conflict have been involved in the torture and assassination of prisoners, the indiscriminate targeting of rival ethnic religious groups and we should not be naive to the fact there have been foreign influences and interests in Syria and they are not entirely benign to say the least. It is a fractured opposition that includes Islamic fundamentalists as well as ordinary Syrians who want civil and political rights. These groups are then further subdivided, with some funded by America, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, while the Government is allegedly receiving military and financial support from Iran.

There has been an undoubted intensification of the fighting in recent weeks, with the Syrian Government increasing its bombing of residential areas and using its superior air power to bomb the rest of the population into submission. In addition, rebel groups have grown stronger in the north and control certain border areas with Turkey. This points to a protracted military stalemate, the last thing the ordinary people of Syrian want or need. There is an immediate need to end this and for peace and reconciliation to start as soon as possible but that is easier said than done. We do, however, want to see Assad gone and the introduction of democracy and the rule of law, with respect for all ethnic, religious and racial groups in Syria.

Neutral countries with no strategic interest in the region have an important role in trying to broker a peace but post-war settlements should be decided by Syrians and it is up to the Syrian people to decide what government they will install when the fighting stops. It should be done democratically. We are against any country providing military or financial support to any side in the war but countries should use their resources to help those displaced and wounded in the fighting. We have heard repeatedly this evening about the number of people who have been killed, injured and displaced and we call on the Syrian Government to open its borders to NGOs and humanitarian organisations to help the civilians who are drastically affected by the war.

We welcome the Minister of State's decision to visit the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan recently and commend the Government for its recent decision to contribute an extra ¤1.6 million in aid to the UN agencies and humanitarian organisations. We call on the Government to use its influence during the Presidency of the European Union in 2013 to help broker a peace deal and to ensure humanitarian assistance continues to flow into Syria to help those affected by the humanitarian crisis and those refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries. Senator Healy Eames talked about our human rights record and it is important we use the EU Presidency to highlight the ongoing humanitarian situation in Syria and put our weight behind it because of our credibility in the area.

Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, in his first interview, said that the point he wanted to make as strongly and seriously as possible is that the situation is bad and getting worse, it is not improving. According to him, Syrians on both sides say from time to time that victory will be won soon but that is not true, no side is winning now and the situation is getting worse, and that is a huge threat to the region. Does the Minister of State think the new UN-Arab League envoy to Syria can help broker a peace deal and will he get any more respect from the Syrian regime and the fighters than Kofi Annan did when trying to broker a peace deal?

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for the contribution he made. I commend him for taking the initiative to visit the refugee camps. It is only when one visits the refugee camps that one can see the difficulties on the ground. In 2008 I visited Chad and the Sudanese border area to see 500,000 people in refugee camps and IDP sites, where people lived in fear because within a short distance of the camps there were people carrying arms and the danger was constant. Going to the refugee camp means we can see the difficulties.

The difficulty during a war is getting access to food, water and medical supplies.

As for my experience back in March 2008, I recall speaking to the people who were organising the importation of food. They needed to bring in something like 57,000 tonnes by the start of June and trying to so do was a huge effort. The same problem arises in this case, as the refugee camps are getting bigger by the day. As the numbers seeking a place of safety continue to grow, trying to service such sites and ensuring people who require medical treatment can get it are major problems, as are trying to bring in the required expertise to the sites and making sure those who provide that expertise are secure and protected, which also is an important issue. The Minister of State's visit highlights the importance Ireland is placing on trying to deal with the issues involved.

One major concern is the American presidential election campaign will take place in the next three months. People who wish to gain power tend to make use of this time because people in America - this is not a criticism of United States - are greatly focused on the next four years of government. In particular, Members should consider what happened in January 2009, when Israel decided to bombard Gaza. The interesting point is this bombardment took place during a changeover of the United States presidency, when little or no action would be taken against Israel. Similarly, because of the aforementioned three or four-month timeframe between now and Christmas, I am concerned by what people on all sides in Syria may attempt to do in the full knowledge there will be little international response, particularly from the United States. The Minister of State referred to the more than 500,000 Palestinians living in Syria, which is another issue of concern. It is a huge number of people to which one can add the 900,000 people in Gaza who are being supplied from food stations at present and are reliant on getting food from them. One thing I did as a member of the committee on foreign affairs of the European Parliament was to visit Gaza four weeks after the Israeli bombardment to see the kind of conditions in which people were living. The difficulty with Syria is the problem is growing in that the number of casualties is growing and lack of care and access to medical treatment unfortunately is also a huge problem.

One issue that always is of concern to me in respect of all international conflicts is the manner in which the arms trade is the real beneficiary and how very little has been done on an international basis to place restrictions on how the arms trade behaves. This issue has never been tackled by the United Nations or internationally. The arms trade has been given an absolute free hand and Europe must do something in that it plays a part in contributing to that trade. Many countries within the European Union, including Ireland, make contributions to the arms trade and I reiterate the real beneficiaries in wars and conflicts are those who manufacture the arms and provide the munitions. People have failed to face or stand up to this issue and Ireland should examine it during its Presidency of the European Union. While I acknowledge it is not a very popular issue to raise, I believe it can no longer be ignored. When one considers what is happening in Syria, where arms and munitions are coming in from all directions, many people are making much profit from that trade. This is an issue we must face up to from a European perspective.

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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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.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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I thank the Senators for their incisive and knowledgeable input. They have given me some awkward questions which I will answer to the best of my ability.

I thank Senators Leyden, Mullen, Higgins, Mac Conghail, Healy Eames, Mooney, Heffernan, Reilly, Colm Burke and O'Keeffe for their contributions. Rather than go over what each said, I will try to cover the themes as I introduced them.

I will cover the humanitarian aid side and give an idea of what is facing Syria. There is constant United Nations revision of the funding needs for the humanitarian aid response. It is seeking ¤347 million for the humanitarian response as distinct from the refugee response. It is only 30% funded. The UN has indicated that it requires ¤193 million for the regional refugee response, which is 54% funded so far. It is anticipated that by the end of this month the United Nations will again revise its figures on both the humanitarian and refugee responses and that the funding will be greatly increased. I will give a breakdown of where the Irish money has gone. In March 2012 we gave ¤500,000 broken down as follows: the UNHCR got ¤200,000, the International Committee for the Red Cross-Red Crescent got ¤100,000, and the World Food Programme got ¤200,000. In August we gave ¤1.6 million broken down as follows: the UNHCR got ¤500,000 plus ¤400,000 for non-food items, the ICRC got a further ¤300,000, the World Health Organization got ¤300,000, and the IRC got ¤100,000.

Already the United Nations has contacted us seeking further funding, in particular indicating it will need tents and materials for the winter, including blankets. I have asked my staff to try to arrange a further shipment of up to 300 tents, 2,500 blankets and 3,000 jerry cans for the Sasari refugee camp, which represents a value of up to ¤150,000. These items will be available from the Irish Aid stocks in Dubai. Senator Heffernan mentioned the humanitarian hub we are seeking to establish in Shannon. I have initiated a feasibility study of Shannon becoming a humanitarian depot, using the space available there to provide supplies of materials that can be used at short notice for humanitarian emergencies. I expect to receive that report tomorrow and will study it carefully. In due course I will let Senators know the outcome. Ireland is to the fore in the quest to have depots throughout the world to provide a rapid response to earthquakes, tsunamis, famines, etc. Ireland has a rapid response unit allowing us to immediately send into the field people who have technical abilities in areas such as medicine, tents, sewerage, civil engineering, etc. A depot would allow those supplies to be transported immediately to any part of the world.

Senator Mooney spoke about the Palestinian population in Syria. That area is very much a cockpit, with Syria right in the middle surrounded by countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Iran and Iraq, with countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia further afield. All have political interests in the area. Some of them are fragile states and some are states which feel they have strategic interests in it. In addition, the superpowers have strategic interests there. As it is such a complex situation, it has been impossible to get UN Security Council agreement on a resolution. Mr. Kofi Annan's six point plan begins with a ceasefire and the Security Council could not even reach agreement on that, which is outrageous. The Security Council has been pretty much stymied in that respect and the six point plan has been made redundant. Mr. Kofi Annan has resigned and has been replaced.

The Palestinian aspect is potentially quite serious because there are already 2 million displaced Palestinians in Jordan, for example. There are also displaced Palestinians in Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. However, Jordan is particularly affected, not to mention Gaza. There are 500,000 in the Damascus area, which is not far from either Jordan or Lebanon. If 500,000 Palestinians came into Jordan, it would result in Palestinians becoming the majority population in Jordan because Palestine is a small country. This would create a major logistical and political issue. There is real concern among the Jordanian population at the possibility of having such a massive influx of Palestinians and there is the real danger of them closing their borders because it would result in a disproportionate element to the population. That is quite serious and it is equally serious for Lebanon and could have a major impact on what are fragile countries in political terms.

Senator Mooney mentioned the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, and we are in contact with it. Representatives of UNRWA will visit the country shortly given the possibility of something along the lines of what we have been discussing arising. Mr. Filippo Grandi, the commissioner general of UNRWA, will visit Ireland shortly to discuss matters of this nature with the Tánaiste and me. He will seek funding and support, obviously, in dealing with that sort of displacement, particularly as it might affect the Palestinian community. There is flux in all these situations and we are addressing them as best we can.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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It might help to stabilise the Palestinian issue.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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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.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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Maidin amárach ar 10.30.