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Seanad Debate on Developments in the Middle East and Ukraine, 27 November 2014


I am pleased to be back before the Seanad to report further on developments in the Middle East and Ukraine, following on the specially convened emergency debate held at the end of July.

Three months after the end of the latest Gaza conflict, the humanitarian situation remains dire. 24,000 people are still sheltering in UNRWA schools, and a further 17,000 families are still lodging with relatives or elsewhere, because their own homes are unusable. Water and electricity supplies are poor or intermittent. There is reconstruction, but at a rate that will take years to make progress.

Senators will recall that at the Gaza reconstruction conference in Cairo in October, I pledged €2.5 million for immediate humanitarian needs and longer-term recovery and reconstruction. Overall, very substantial sums were pledged at the conference, but everyone made clear that they would want to see a more permissive environment and longer term stability before releasing reconstruction funding.

Three months on, the ceasefire has proved lasting, but planned talks to address the wider political context, of an end to attacks on Israel and to the Israeli restrictions on Gaza, has really made very little progress. There have been some positive steps by Israel – an agreement with the UN on allowing in reconstruction materials, some movement on exports from Gaza and an extension back to six miles of the fishing limit, and – unexpected and very welcome – approval for 5,000 work permits for Gazans to work in Israel. These are welcome steps, but they are only the beginnings of what is needed. And frankly, similar indications in 2009 came to very little in the end.

I believe there may be some recognition in Israel that these conflicts with Gaza have become cyclical, and that the cycle needs to be broken. But for them, as for many of the donors at Cairo, the return of Palestinian government control to Gaza is the key to further progress on reconstruction and possible normalisation. And continuing suspicion and disagreement between Fatah and Hamas means there has been almost no progress on that front.

The Palestinian Government, Israel, and even Hamas may be willing in principle to try to find a new way in Gaza, but there is a grave danger that caution and suspicion on all sides may prevent this being translated in to real improvements for the people of Gaza. We have warned repeatedly that without this, the recent ghastly conflict will without doubt recur, and quite quickly. International opinion, and including ourselves in the EU, must try to persuade all parties to act more urgently and decisively.

Elsewhere on the ground, the position is equally worrying. There is no real prospect of political talks resuming any time soon, leading to a loss of faith on the part of some in political action as a way forward. The relentless announcements of settlement expansion continue, entailing as they do continued evictions of Palestinians to expropriate land and resources – including water – for settlers.

The result has been a worrying rise in demonstrations, in the use of lethal force by Israeli authorities against demonstrators, and most recently in a number of mostly random and deadly attacks on Israelis in the Jerusalem area.

I have issued a number of statements on behalf of the Government, expressing our clear condemnation of both settlement expansions and of the recent violent attacks and civilian deaths in Jerusalem and calling for restraint in relation to provocative efforts to undermine the existing status quo governing the highly sensitive Holy Sites in Jerusalem.

There is much soul-searching going on in the international community about what can we do to break the stalemate in the Middle East. Ireland has concentrated on pressing within the EU for a serious reappraisal of overall Middle East strategy, and in particular for stronger action against the policies on the ground which are making a two state solution harder and harder to achieve, principally those related to settlements. This is and will be a difficult discussion, and one on which member States by no means agree, but we are working to push it forward. Already we have seen how effective was the collective EU decision in 2013 that EU funding and research grants may not be spent in settlements.

And where there is no agreement at EU level there is still scope for Member States including Ireland to push ahead with further measures on settlements and settlement goods. This year Ireland and a large number of other EU members have published advice warning citizens and companies against investing in settlements. Work on another measure – guidelines for the labelling of settlement products – was put to one side while the talks were going on, but we have already raised the question of bringing them forward now, and we will actively pursue this issue at EU level. If these proposals are indefinitely stalled at EU level, we will look again at national guidelines.

Sweden’s decision to recognise Palestine has focussed attention on that as a possible new direction. I am fully aware of course of the view expressed by Seanad Éireann on this question. There is reflection now going on also within the EU on this issue, following an initial exchange of views at the Foreign Affairs Council last week. We will take part actively in that reflection.

It has been our view that recognition of a Palestinian state – something which we have looked forward to and worked to achieve for many years, under many Governments – should come about as part of a comprehensive agreed peace. At present that remains the view of the great majority of EU partners, and I am not sure yet that immediate recognition now would make a positive difference.

However, as I made clear to the Foreign Affairs Committee recently, I have an open mind on this. I am very conscious of the lack of political movement and the worsening situation on the ground, and I am not excluding any approach – including an early recognition of Palestine - that might help move things forward and advance what has always been our goal of a negotiated two-state solution. We will be exchanging views with our partners on this over coming weeks.

It is important to be realistic and aware that mere recognition of itself will not end the occupation. Most states have recognised Palestine for years without affecting the occupation at all. The key focus for me remains on trying to get substantive negotiations going to bring the occupation itself to an end, which is the most certain way in which we can help bring about a Palestinian state in reality.

The other major crisis which the Middle East has had to confront in recent months has been the growing threat posed not only to the region but indeed the wider international community by extremist jihadist movements such as ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria/Al-Sham to give them their full title.

All right-thinking people will have been appalled by the violence and sheer brutality which has characterised ISIS’s campaign of terror since it was intensified in June with their advance into north-western Iraq and the capture of the city of Mosul.

The ideology which ISIS and other extreme jihadists propound is an utterly bankrupt one characterised by hatred and intolerance and which respects the rights of no-one, whether man or woman, Sunni or Shia, Yazidi, Kurd or Christian.

We have to be clear that ISIS represent no-one but themselves in their efforts to establish a so-called Islamic State. The new Caliphate of which they and their leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi speak has been loudly condemned by respected Islamic commentators and scholars throughout the Middle East.

The international community cannot afford to be complacent about the threat which ISIS and other extreme jihadists represent. This threat was widely discussed during the Ministerial Week at the UN General Assembly which I attended.

During that week, the UN Security Council, chaired by President Obama, adopted a new Resolution, 2178, which specifically deals with the threat posed by those now travelling in large numbers to the Middle East to take up arms on behalf of extremist jihadist movements such as ISIS.

Coupled with Resolution 2170 adopted by the Security Council last August, these two Resolutions call on all Member States to take a range of measures to combat the growth of terrorism and extremism, including active steps to stop incitement of terrorist acts and the flow of foreign fighters to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq; prevention of recruitment and radicalisation of possible members of terrorist groups, including through community outreach initiatives; and tackling effectively the sources of terrorist financing.

It ultimately remains for individual Member States to determine in what way they can best contribute to the concerted international effort underway to tackle the threat posed by ISIS and other fundamentalist jihadists.

For the Government’s part, Ireland will continue to emphasise the importance of the political and humanitarian dimensions to the crises resulting from the ISIS offensive in Iraq and Syria. ISIS must be regarded as a symptom rather than a cause of the ongoing conflicts in both countries. Ultimately, both conflicts can only be resolved politically, and not militarily.

This will continue to be a hallmark of our policy as it has been since the onset of the conflict in Syria in March 2011. Ireland remains strongly supportive of the new UN Special Envoy, Steffan di Mistura, in his efforts to progress a solution based on the Geneva principles which provide for transition to a new, agreed form of government within Syria. We also need to engage all relevant regional stake-holders to use their influence in support of the UN-led peace efforts.

Equally, within Iraq, the new unity government led by Prime Minister Al-Abadi must be strongly encouraged to continue efforts to promote reconciliation and more inclusive policies within the country. All of Iraq’s minorities must be empowered to feel they have a genuine stake in the governance of their country. Sunni alienation has been the source which has enabled ISIS and, before them, Al-Qaeda in Iraq to develop their murderous campaigns and unless it is tackled through effective political actions, then it will continue to fester and promote instability.

Ireland will also continue its strong efforts to deal with the humanitarian consequences of both crises which are compounding the threat to the entire region. We have contributed over €29 million in humanitarian assistance to date in response to both crises, putting us firmly as one of the top European contributors to the Syria crisis on a per capita basis, and stand ready to do more as required.

Nor must we forget the need for accountability for all those, including the many members of minority communities, who have suffered grievously at the hands of extremists, be it ISIS or the Assad regime. That is why Ireland will continue to strongly support referral of the situation in Syria to the ICC.

The EU’s approach to the crisis posed by ISIS is fully consistent with our own. Last month, the Foreign Affairs Council agreed a new EU strategy on counter-terrorism and foreign fighters, as originally called for by the August 2014 European Council.

The Council has also continued to emphasise the ultimate need for a political resolution to the related crises in Iraq and Syria and has now requested the new High Representative, Federica Mogherini, to develop a comprehensive regional strategy for Iraq and Syria which looks beyond the immediate threat posed by ISIS. The High Representative has also decided that Iraq/Syria will be the main theme for discussion at the next Foreign Affairs Council scheduled for 15 December.

ISIS has been born out of a fundamental crisis of governance in both Syria and Iraq. They have nothing to offer but the assurance of more violence and terror. It is for the international community to now demonstrate the appropriate resolve to tackle this failure of governance through promoting effective political resolutions in both Syria and Iraq.

Turning to Ukraine, I regret to say that the current situation is very fragile and remains a cause of great concern. Since I was here in July, there have been a number of developments in the conflict, some encouraging, other less so.

There was some ground for optimism when, following the serious intensification of hostilities in eastern Ukraine during August, the parties agreed on 5 September in Minsk to a 12 point peace plan brokered by the OSCE, including a ceasefire. The ceasefire led to an immediate reduction in levels of violence and resulted in the release of large numbers of hostages by both sides.

Regrettably, hopes that the Minsk peace plan marked a turning point in the conflict have not been realised. Little progress has been made on some crucial elements of the plan, in particular the creation of a security zone along the ceasefire line, the permanent monitoring of the Ukraine/Russian border and the withdrawal from Ukrainian territory of all foreign forces, weapons and military equipment.

In addition, over the past few weeks violations of the ceasefire have increased significantly. Indeed, a recent UN report indicates that almost 1,000 people have been killed in the three months since the agreement was reached. I believe that a lasting ceasefire remains key to the success of efforts to reach a sustainable political solution based on respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and with clear guarantees on border security, disarmament of all illegal groups and the withdrawal of foreign forces.

The unilateral decision by the separatist groups to proceed earlier this month with parliamentary and presidential elections in the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk under their control marked a further serious setback to these efforts. The EU regards these so-called elections as illegal as they were not held in accordance with Ukrainian law, as required by the Minsk Protocol.

As I underlined at the Foreign Affairs Council meeting last week, the Minsk Agreements offer the only credible basis for resolving the crisis and ending the bloodshed. It is crucial, therefore, that all parties fully implement the commitments they signed up to. No actions should be taken to undermine the objective of a negotiated and peaceful end to this crisis that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The Russian Federation should use its undoubted influence over the separatists to encourage them to end the violence and fully embrace the Minsk process. However, there appears little sign so far of a willingness to play such a role.

Indeed, reports of convoys of heavy weapons, tanks and troops crossing into eastern Ukraine in recent weeks are deeply worrying. This development represents a re-escalation of the conflict and raises serious questions over stated commitments to the search for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. I urge the Russian Federation to take all necessary actions to prevent any further movement of convoys from its territory and to immediately withdraw any troops, weapons and equipment under its control.

When I was here in July, I mentioned that the EU had just agreed on a package of economic sanctions at the end of July which targeted sectoral cooperation and exchanges with the Russian Federation. The restrictive measures impact on Russia’s access to capital markets, arms supplies, dual use gods and technology relating to deep water oil exploration and production.

These sanctions were further strengthened in early September in response to the serious deterioration of the situation in eastern Ukraine. At the Foreign Affairs Council last week, Ministers decided, in light of recent developments, to ask the EEAS and European Commission to prepare additional listings of those subject to visa bans and assets freezes that targeted separatists. A decision will be taken on this proposal in the coming days.

I believe that the imposition of economic sanctions against Russia was necessary. The sanctions send a strong signal that the EU is ready to take determined action when required. The measures in question can be intensified or lessened according to how developments unfold. As the situation evolves, we will discuss with our EU partners what adaptations or further measures might be required. For the moment, however, there would appear to be little grounds for optimism that sanctions will be eased in the near future given recent developments in eastern Ukraine.

On a more positive note, on 26 October, millions of Ukrainians turned out across the country to cast their vote in parliamentary elections. The outcome saw parties in favour of closer relations with the EU secure a majority of seats. The elections marked an important milestone in Ukraine’s democratic development and I look forward to the formation of a stable, inclusive government. The new government can be assured of our full support as it begins the urgent task of enacting much needed reforms that are central to Ukraine’s future economic development and political stability.

There is no doubt that we must remain firm in our response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. We must also recognise the importance of keeping open channels of communication with all parties to the conflict. From the outset, Ireland has consistently underlined the need for dialogue in seeking to bring this tragic conflict to an end.

Ireland will continue to support Ukraine as it works towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict in the east and we will stand with the people of Ukraine as they seek to build a more secure, inclusive and democratic future.