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Tánaiste's address to Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, on Syria

International relations, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Speech, Middle East and North Africa, 2013

Chairman, Members of the Committee, I want to thank you for inviting me to discuss the issue of Syria with you at this time.  The conflict in Syria is a tragedy and a humanitarian disaster, but it is also a complex challenge, touching on international law and issues surrounding the spread of chemical and other weapons. The scale of each of these challenges is huge and their resolution will not be simple in such a difficult and unstable environment.

We have all been witness to Syria’s agony for far too long. I know some Committee members travelled to the Middle East this summer to witness the dire situation of Syrian refugees in Jordan. I myself visited refugee camps in Turkey earlier this year. You will have seen the terrible effects of that conflict, and you know full well the appalling suffering which those who have escaped the war are still enduring. The circumstances of those who have not fled, and are still in Syria in the middle of appalling violence, are unbearable.

Over 4 million Syrians – out of a population of 20 million – have been driven from their homes and are now internally displaced within Syria. A further 2 million refugees have fled to Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon. More than 100,000 Syrians have been killed since this conflict began, and  almost 7 million Syrians are in dire humanitarian need. These figures are so large they are difficult for us to fully comprehend, masking to some extent the horrific scale of this crisis.

Almost 40 percent of registered schoolchildren have dropped out of school – this in a country which had close to full enrolment in education before the conflict. The UN reported that half of the children aged 6-12 years old from displaced families in Aleppo were forced to work because their fathers were dead, disabled or missing. These are the equally shocking and under-reported consequences of war – the destruction of future generations.

We have received reports of a health system in crisis, with the UN reporting that a third of health workers in some areas have left the country. The Syrian-Arab Red Crescent has lost 22 volunteers since the conflict began – medical volunteers killed while performing humanitarian tasks. The UN has lost 11 of its own staff. This is a merciless conflict, and the misery it is inflicting is unacceptable.

This is a conflict in which there has proved to be precious little respect for the duties and responsibilities of all parties to protect civilians, to support the work of humanitarian agencies and groups, to protect those providing medical or other essential needs for the civilian population. Irrespective of whether they fight for the Syrian state or opposition groups, all parties to this conflict are bound under international law, to say nothing of basic humanity, to uphold those duties. These failures, and the growing reports of groups of foreign radicals affiliated with Al-Qaeda or other extremists becoming involved in Syria, are profoundly worrying for the future of Syria. Syrian society needs not just an end to combat, but the promise of a stable and free society in the future. Respect for international law means a society which protects its people and upholds humane values. Syria’s future stability and prosperity are dependent on the survival of those values.

The attack on Ghouta and other areas around Damascus on the morning of 21 August represents a new low in this endless litany of horrors. We all saw the images of children lined up on the floor of hospitals, wrapped for burial. This cowardly and cynical attack was aimed at opposition controlled suburbs of Damascus. This is not a battlefield, but a residential area. The video and photographic evidence of toddlers gassed to death in the middle of the night is proof enough for us to know that this was aimed at a defenceless civilian population, sleeping in their beds.

We don’t know exactly how many people died, but some estimates speak of over fourteen hundred killed and several thousand injured that night. The UN inspectors’ report issued earlier this week shows clearly that they died from exposure to the Sarin nerve agent, delivered by surface to surface missiles. The information available points very clearly towards Syrian state forces as the responsible party for this horrific crime.

As I have stated previous, this is a very serious war crime. It is true that many more people have died already in the course of this conflict. It is also true that for those victims, it is no consolation to have been killed or wounded by conventional weapons, rather than chemical weapons.

But the world has long agreed that the use of chemical weapons is a crime. It has been illegal since 1925, when the nations of the world decided following the terrible human cost of the First World War, that these weapons were too terrible to use, in any circumstances. There is no use of chemical weapons which is legal. Syria is a signatory to that 1925 agreement, and is in breach of the commitments it owes to the international community.

I have stated that this new violation of international law, just the latest in a long list of abuses perpetrated upon the Syrian people, must be addressed by the international community. There cannot be any impunity for leaders or anyone under them who carries out these crimes. The use of these weapons has been viewed with horror by the international community and we cannot allow those who would seek to introduce their use anywhere to succeed.

I, and many other Foreign Ministers, have previously called for the Security Council to refer the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court. The long list of violations of international law in the course of this war is all too clear, and the legal means for Syria’s people to seek accountability and justice is non-existent. There can be no long-term peace for Syria without justice for the victims of this war. I believe that it would be far better for Syrians to have recourse to an accountable and fair justice system in Syria, and maybe this can be achieved in the future. However, until such time as Syria can provide legal redress for the suffering of the victims, the International Criminal Court remains the only path to justice for the Syrian people.

On Saturday last, I welcomed the news of the agreement by the US and Russia of a framework for the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons.  The implementation of this agreement will improve the security of the Middle East region as a whole, for whom the existence of Syria’s chemical weapons was a threat, and above all of the Syrian people, who have suffered at the hands of their own Government’s use of chemical weapons.

The implementation of this agreement is what matters most at this point, and the key factor for its success is the compliance of the Syrian regime. I am not labouring under any illusion as to the nature of that regime: it has repressed and murdered its own people and lied to the international community, denying until recently that it even possessed these weapons. The process must be quick, credible and comprehensive. Syria has used these weapons with deadly effect and they must be eliminated before their repeated use can ever again be contemplated.

I am not under any illusion either as to the scale and magnitude of the task which this will present – achieving the complete elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons programme by mid 2014 is an unprecedented challenge for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the body charged with the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Ireland, as it happens, is currently a member of the Executive Council of the OPCW and our Ambassador to the Organisation will express our full support for the adoption of this agreement at a meeting of the Executive Council later this week.  

The elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons will represent a major challenge for the OPCW and will entail significant additional resources on its part. In principle, I believe Ireland should be willing to make a national contribution in support of implementation of this historic agreement and this issue is now being actively considered within my Department. Ireland has long opposed the existence and use of weapons of mass destruction, and he elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons will bring us a step closer to that aim.

We must continue to do all we can to encourage a political solution to this conflict, which remains absolutely essential. Hopefully, much needed impetus towards finally convening the Geneva II conference will be provided by last week’s agreement and the prospect of some concerted action on the part of the Security Council in the coming weeks in endorsing the agreement and providing for its implementation. Such action on the part of SECCO is long overdue.

It is also crucial to remember the scale of the humanitarian crisis that we are facing in Syria and neighbouring countries and the urgent need for the international community to redouble its efforts to alleviate the suffering caused by this tragic crisis. In particular, it is imperative that the international community is united in demanding greater protection for Syria’s civilian population. Ireland has been consistent in its call for all parties to the conflict to fully respect, and be held accountable for violations of, International Humanitarian Law. We have also consistently supported Baroness Amos, the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, in her efforts to remove major impediments to the humanitarian relief effort. In this regard, there remain four key issues:

  1. First, is the need to facilitate increased protection and unimpeded access to people-in-need throughout Syria. This may involve the provision of cross-border assistance where necessary but should also involve humanitarian pauses in fighting and advance notice of military offensives.
  2. Second, specific measures to ensure the protection of humanitarian staff, vehicles and assets must be agreed. All parties to the conflict should allow for the free passage of medical supplies to all areas, and to safeguard all health facilities and ambulances which have most shamefully come under attack throughout this crisis
  3. Third, there is an absolute imperative to prevent the politicisation of aid, most fundamentally by insisting upon respect by all parties for the humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence, impartiality and humanity.
  4. Lastly, the international community must commit to ongoing emergency relief and, at the same time, stand ready to step up long-term assistance measures for all countries affected by this crisis  

In the face of significant operational challenges, including constraints imposed by the Assad regime, it is important to recognise the exceptional efforts being made by humanitarian organisations to meet the staggering level of need in extremely difficult circumstances and at great personal risk. We will continue to support the work of the UN in attempting to address the most pressing humanitarian challenges.

We must also acknowledge the huge pressure on neighbouring countries, which have made extraordinary efforts to accommodate the large-scale influxes of traumatised refugees. In addition to the burgeoning camps that are struggling to provide essential services for new arrivals, many host towns and cities, especially in Jordan and Lebanon, are stretched to their limits. This is exposing the refugee populations to significant protection risks, especially women and children. It is similarly increasing the risk of further internal tension in already fragile contexts, particularly in Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt. A comprehensive regional response – and increased support to host countries - is crucial to defusing the growing tension between host and refugee communities that could further exacerbate and extend this already entrenched and complicated conflict.

Ireland has been unwavering in its support to the international humanitarian response. To date, we have provided almost €11 million to the relief effort and are one of the world’s most significant donors – on a per capita basis - to the response to this crisis. Through trusted NGO partners here in Ireland, as well as the UN and the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement, we are playing a considerable part in the international effort to meet the massive needs both inside Syria and in the wider region. We stand ready to provide further assistance, within our means, to the humanitarian response. 

I want to finish my comments by referring to peace. I have spoken at length about war, international law and humanitarian disaster today. But the overall aim remains a Syria at peace. This will be one of my main messages when I deliver Ireland’s national statement to the UN General Assembly next week. The understandings between the US and Russia on the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria are not the only point which the world wants to see from these negotiations. The humanitarian crisis, the violations of human rights, the displacement of millions of Syrians cannot be addressed without peace and a sustainable political solution. I hope that the US and Russia will continue their engagement with a view to bringing peace to Syria. I call on all parties to that conflict to create the space needed for a political solution. This is not a conflict that will be resolved by force. The continuation of the war will simply kill, maim and displace more Syrians and destroy more of their country. We need to redouble our efforts to bring the parties back to the negotiating table and achieve a stable and durable peace for Syria.