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Volume 541: debated on Tuesday 28 February 2012

6. What recent reports he has received on the security situation in Syria; and if he will make a statement. (96692)

I am horrified at the continued violence of the Syrian regime against its own people. We will use all diplomatic and economic means to bring an end to the violence. Those responsible for the shelling of homes, the execution of detainees, the killing of political opponents and the torture and rape of women and children must be held to account in the future.

Journalists in conflict zones risk their lives every day to bring us unbiased news, and that is why my condolences go to the family and friends of Marie Colvin. On that note, will the Foreign Secretary update the House on the whereabouts of the wounded British journalist who was in Syria?

My hon. Friend is quite right—the thoughts of much of the nation have been with the family and friends of Marie Colvin. I am happy to confirm, though, that the injured British journalist Paul Conroy is safely in Lebanon, where he is receiving full consular assistance. I pay tribute to journalists who ensure that the world is aware of the crimes that are being committed, which we are determined to document and seek justice for. Too many people have already lost their lives in Homs and elsewhere in Syria, and we will urge the Syrian regime to ensure both an end to the violence against civilians and safe access for humanitarian agencies.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the UK’s initiative to help gather evidence of the crimes against humanity in Syria. Will he update the House on the progress of that important work, and can he confirm whether other nations and international organisations are involved as well?

This work is progressing. We are sending teams to border areas and ensuring that people can come to a single documentation hub to bring together the evidence of the crimes that are being committed. I spoke about that at the Tunis meeting of more than 60 nations last Friday, to encourage other nations to join in that initiative or take initiatives or their own, and I believe that other nations will be doing so.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with Turkey, the Arab countries and our NATO allies about the idea of creating a safe haven in north-western Syria?

I have had many discussions over the last week with Turkey and Arab nations on the margins of our Somalia conference, in Tunis and at other meetings. That idea has been debated—in public, never mind in private—but the difficulty of establishing safe areas without agreement with the country concerned is considerable. Without such agreement, military force will be required—and sufficient military to force to be wholly effective, because one of the worst things we could do, I believe, is to tell people that they might be safe and be unable to provide that safety to them. None of those discussions, therefore, have led to the idea being adopted in the international community.

The Opposition welcome the fact that the EU yesterday announced further sanctions on Syria. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that those sanctions included travel bans on a further seven close associates of President Assad? If that is correct, does he agree that the public naming of many more individuals in that way, specifically including military commanders presently engaged in murder and slaughter in Homs, would help to sharpen the choice for individual members of the security apparatus?

Yes—I agree in general. We adopted a number of measures yesterday in Brussels, including sanctions on the Central Bank of Syria. As the right hon. Gentleman says, we also extended by another seven names the list, which is now more than 150 strong, of individuals and entities on whom we have restrictions, travel bans and asset freezes. We are entirely open to extending that list further, but we of course take care to ensure that we are sure of our ground and that those individuals are actually complicit in the regime’s repression. As further evidence accumulates, we will certainly want to add to that list.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the unpalatable fact is that we do not have many options in relation to Syria? Does he also agree that one option worth following is to persuade the Russians to give up their unquestioning support for Syria on the ground that it is deeply damaging to their long-term interests and should cease? Does he remember the impact on Milosevic and Serbia of the withdrawal of Russian support?

My right hon. and learned Friend is right that that would be a desirable piece of persuasion to accomplish. I have had discussions with the Russian Foreign Minister, including at length after the vetoing of our Security Council resolution, and it must be said that the Russians are not yet persuaded of that position. However, I hope others will join in that persuasion. I have spoken in the last hour to the new UN and Arab League special envoy, Kofi Annan, who is charged with promoting a political process and solution. I hope that he will bring his persuasive powers to bear on both Russia and China.

As the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, an estimated 70,000 Syrians are fleeing to Jordan and many more to Lebanon. What steps has the Foreign Secretary taken to put pressure on the Syrian regime to allow humanitarian assistance and to enable civilians to leave the country?

It is a constant cry of the international community, including among the more than 60 nations that met in Tunis on Friday, that humanitarian access needs to be granted, but the regime, which, in the view of the UN commission of inquiry, has committed crimes against humanity, is insensitive even to those demands for humanitarian access or for pauses each day in the conflict—it has refused to do that. We are doing our best to send humanitarian assistance. The UK has provided assistance that will amount to tens of thousands of food rations and other emergency supplies, and we are increasingly co-ordinating our work with other countries.