Skip to main content


Volume 735: debated on Monday 6 February 2012


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I would like to repeat a Statement on Syria.

“Mr Speaker, the whole House will be appalled by the bloodshed and repression which continues at this very moment. Over the last 11 months, more than 6,000 people have been killed. The Syrian regime has deployed snipers, tanks, artillery and mortars against civilian protestors and population centres, particularly in the cities of Homs, Idlib, Hama and Deraa. Thousands of Syrians have endured imprisonment, torture and sexual violence, including instances of the alleged rape of children, and the humanitarian position is deteriorating. This is an utterly unacceptable situation, which demands a united international response.

Last Tuesday, I attended the UN Security Council debate in New York, along with Secretary Clinton, the French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe and other Ministers. We all spoke in strong support of a draft UN Security Council resolution proposed by the Kingdom of Morocco on behalf of the Arab League. The resolution called for the implementation of the Arab League plan to stop all the violence in Syria from all sides, and to begin a political transition.

There was nothing in this draft resolution that could not be supported by any country seeking a peaceful end to the tragedy unfolding in Syria. It demanded an end to all violence; it called for a Syrian-led political process to allow the Syrians to determine their future; and it set out a path to a national unity Government and internationally supervised elections. It did not call for military intervention, and could not have been used to authorise any such action under any circumstances. It did not impose sanctions. It proposed putting the weight and authority of the United Nations Security Council behind a plan to achieve a lasting and sustainable peace in Syria.

As I said at the Security Council, this was the Arab League’s plan; it was not a plan imposed by Western nations. It was co-sponsored by a large number of nations from the region, including Turkey, Tunisia, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Oman. Their leadership, and their strong understanding of their region, deserved our support. I pay particular tribute to the Secretary-General of the Arab League and to the Prime Minister of Qatar, who travelled to New York to brief the council and played a vital role in the extensive negotiations that followed.

On Saturday, the resolution was put to the vote. Thirteen of the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council voted in favour. Two did not; Russia and China both exercised their veto. They did so despite extensive efforts made to amend the draft resolution to address Russia’s specific concerns, and in the face of repeated appeals from Arab nations. Instead, they chose to side with the Syrian regime and implicitly to leave the door open to further abuses by them. They did so while President Assad’s tanks were encircling Homs and shells were pounding the homes of Syrian civilians, killing up to 200 people, and on the 30th anniversary of the massacre in Hama.

We regard this veto as a grave error of judgment by the Governments of China and Russia. There is no need to mince words about this. Russia and China have twice vetoed reasonable and necessary action by the United Nations Security Council. Such vetoes are a betrayal of the Syrian people. In deploying them, they have let down the Arab League; they have increased the likelihood of what they wish to avoid in Syria—civil war—and they have placed themselves on the wrong side of Arab and international opinion.

By contrast, I thank the other members of the Security Council for the principled stand they took, in particular the non-permanent members of the council—Morocco, Azerbaijan, Colombia, Germany, Guatemala, India, Pakistan, Portugal, South Africa and Togo—all of which voted in favour of the resolution. Pakistan’s representative to the UN Security Council spoke for all of us when he said:

“This resolution should not die; by being active and engaged, we should give hope to those who are expecting it from us”.

The Syrian regime may have drawn comfort from events at the United Nations Security Council, but we will do everything that we can to make sure that that comfort is short-lived. This is a doomed regime as well as a murdering regime. There is no way it can get its credibility back internationally or with its own people. The UN Security Council’s failure to agree a resolution does not signal the end of our efforts to end the violence in Syria, and I want to set out how we will now proceed.

First, we will continue our strong support for the Arab League. Earlier this afternoon I spoke to the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Nabil el-Araby, as well as the Foreign Minister of Jordan. I welcomed and encouraged the proposal to appoint a special envoy of the Arab League, and I commended the Arab League’s leadership and action so far. Arab Foreign Ministers will meet this weekend to consider their options. The Secretary-General was very clear about the urgency of the situation, the continued determination of the Arab world to act and the need to step up their efforts. I told the Secretary-General that the Arab League will have our complete support.

Secondly, we will seek to widen the international coalition of nations seeking a peaceful and lasting resolution for Syria. We welcome the concept of a new Arab-led group of Friends of Syria, which I discussed with the Prime Minister of Qatar last Tuesday. The aim of such a group will be to demonstrate the strength of international support for the people of Syria and their legitimate demands, to co-ordinate intensified diplomatic and economic pressure on the regime and to engage with Syrian opposition groups committed to a democratic future for the country. Britain will be a highly active member in setting up such a group with the broadest possible international support.

Thirdly, we will intensify our contact with members of the Syrian opposition. The House will recall that in November I announced the appointment of an ambassador-level envoy, Frances Guy, to lead our discussions with them. We will continue to urge the Syrian opposition to come together and to agree a common statement of commitment to democracy, to human rights and to the protection of all Syria’s minorities.

Fourthly, we will maintain our strong focus at the United Nations, undeterred by Saturday’s vote. We will continue to raise Syria at the UN Security Council and we will consider with other nations a resolution of the UN General Assembly. Despite our disagreement with Russia and China we will continue to discuss with them any possibility of an agreed but meaningful way forward.

Fifthly, we will increase pressure through the European Union, following the discussions I had in New York with Ministers from France, Portugal and Germany. We have already agreed 11 rounds of EU sanctions and will hope to agree further measures by the Foreign Affairs Council on 27 February.

Sixthly, we will work with others to ensure that those responsible for crimes in Syria are held to account. At the UN Human Rights Council meeting in March in Geneva we will work to ensure the strongest possible mandate to scrutinise human rights violations in Syria, so that those responsible know that there will be a day of reckoning and that they will be held to account.

Seventhly, we will use our remaining channels to the Syrian regime to make clear our abhorrence at violence that is utterly unacceptable to the civilised world. The Syrian ambassador to London was today summoned to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to receive this message. Despite our deteriorating relations with the Syrian Government we remain committed to ensuring the safety of their embassy and staff in London. We expect that the Syrian authorities will provide the same protection to our embassy in Damascus.

In parallel, I have today recalled to London our ambassador from Damascus for consultations. He and his team work in extremely difficult conditions to ensure that we have an accurate picture of what is happening in Syria. I hope the House will join me in paying fulsome tribute to them and their families. Their safety and security is always prominent in our considerations.

The human suffering in Syria is already unimaginable and is in grave danger of escalating further. The position taken by Russia and China has regrettably made this more likely. However this Government, this House, our country and our allies will not forget the people of Syria. We will redouble our efforts to put pressure on this appalling regime and to stop this indefensible violence”.

That completes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement that was made by the Foreign Secretary. There is clear agreement right across this House, as I know there was in the other place, and I hope that the House will feel that the questions which I would like to ask contain no criticism whatever of the Government, because they do not. We are unequivocal in our condemnation of the continuing, mounting acts of violence against the people of Syria by a Government who have long since lost their legitimacy and, like the Minister and the Foreign Secretary, I congratulate our ambassador and staff on working in an environment of that kind.

President Assad is, plainly, not the ruler who is wanted by the people of his country and that is because of a history of brutal and murderous dictatorship. Between him and his father there are 40 years of dictatorship backed, for the larger part, by another dictatorship—in particular, the Soviet Union. All of us will have seen on our televisions horrific scenes, in many ways alike to those when Gaddafi made his push on Benghazi. Does the Minister have any firm knowledge of the numbers of deaths and injuries inflicted on the Syrian people? Estimates that I have seen run from between 6,000 and 15,000 deaths, and if there was just one week like yesterday that would add 1,400 deaths. How confident are the Government of the information that they have?

I welcome the efforts made by the Foreign Secretary at the United Nations Security Council and the coming together of 13 democratic nations in their expression of outrage. It is wholly disgraceful, in the view of the Opposition, that Russia and China vetoed the resolution. It is shameful that even when extensive efforts had been made to reflect and resolve their anxieties, they could not back a resolution which instigated no further sanctions, and certainly no use of force. In Russia’s case, it had circulated a draft resolution last December which described the regime’s concerted violence as no different from the protests on the street of the Syrian people—protests which have remained overwhelmingly peaceful. That draft resolution was of course inadequate to the needs of the situation and could not command support among leading western states in the Security Council.

Russia and China have now shown their hand. They have prioritised their own interests over any fundamental duty to the world community. They have ignored the vital participation of the Arab League, critical to any potential for success in the region. It was, as the Foreign Secretary said in the Statement, an Arab League initiative and the Government are right to pursue all of their work with the league. The Arab League, deploying a relatively small number of observers—far smaller than was really needed because of Syrian objections to the proper delegation—took its decisions when it had made an assessment on the ground. It was painfully aware that it could not provide physical or political protection to the citizens, or even soften the brutality of the regime.

We are under no illusion. The consequence of this veto is to sanction greater violence and more blood-spilling. Yesterday’s events were the first instalment of the liberty granted to President Assad to murder more of his own people. I note that the Foreign Secretary used the word “betrayal” of the Syrian people. That is the right word. I take the Russian and Chinese decision as being still more regrettable because we have all laboured hard, right through the UN millennium process led by Kofi Annan, to build into the United Nations mandate the responsibility to protect people whose Governments were the aggressors. Where does the Minister now think that UN obligation lies?

The international community must plainly plan a co-ordinated and coherent response. It may be unlikely but efforts to bring Russia and China onside, as the Statement says, must continue. They cannot sidestep their obligations and duties. Do the Government have a view on how to engage with these two recalcitrant powers? Does the Minister agree with me that whatever the obvious shortcomings of the United Nations machinery, the United Nations remains the major theatre for diplomatic effort and international co-ordination? Does he also agree that the EU continues to have a vital role? Will the Government consider seeking a joint EU/Arab League summit to get a greater degree of co-ordination? If the Minister does agree, how will Her Majesty’s Government now approach the work at the UN, recognising that there has obviously been a significant set-back?

We support the extension of sanctions by the EU regarding travel bans and asset freezes so long as they can bring into scope a wider group of individuals and organisations. The EU is to be congratulated, as are the Government of the United Kingdom. We are keen to know what potential anybody feels there is to draw the Russians into the application of these sanctions. Are there elements of the Danish presidency programme in the EU which the Minister believes might assist?

I appreciate the difficulties of embarking on such a course but it may well be that the evidence of crimes against humanity or, to use the wider generic expression, crimes of concern to humanity has so obviously placed President Assad outside and beyond international law that other steps may become possible. Has the Minister a view on how Her Majesty’s Government might obtain international support, if possible, for international warrants against those named in the EU sanctions list? In the event that they travelled outside Syria in those circumstances, it might be possible in due course to seek their arrest and their trial at The Hague for international crimes. What scope is there for one of the clearer courses of actions that may be available to us—detailed investigation of all of the assets held here or, as I understand it in one or two cases, on the Côte d’Azur?

As regards the assessment the Government make of the issues inside Syria, I understand that the Syrian air force has not flown missions since the start of the conflict. Were it to do so and use military airplanes against the Syrian people, would the Government consider seeking the support of the Arab League for a no-fly zone? It is sometimes said that the Syrian opposition are not in the same state of readiness as was the case with the opposition in Libya. It is not entirely clear to me—perhaps it is not clear to everybody in your Lordships’ House—that the new Government of Libya are entirely united in all their purposes. I make no criticism of that; they are a new Government operating in difficult circumstances. However, it certainly seems to me that the Libyan opposition were united in one respect—they did not want Gaddafi to continue to rule Libya; they wanted that regime out. The Syrian opposition plainly want Assad out, but that might not be enough to convince the world that an alternative government are in waiting.

What is the United Kingdom Government’s assessment of the cohesion or otherwise of the Syrian opposition? Has Frances Guy formed even a preliminary view at this stage? The opposition, through the Syrian National Council, have also called for safe zones to be created. I have read of the potential for that, with several regions being named. I claim no knowledge of the practicality of this proposal. I make no pretence of knowledge in that regard. However, have the Government considered possible non-interventionist methods of securing the safety of Syrians on the ground where they are being pursued to their deaths?

President Assad has no future. He has lost the legitimacy to rule and he cannot reassert it through the barrel of a gun indefinitely. He is backed internationally at present by nations which should know better. Although I suspect that on balance it remains better to have a Syrian ambassador in London, under what circumstances would Her Majesty’s Government consider the issue of that ambassador’s future? As regards that ambassador, from these Benches I congratulate the Metropolitan Police on their efforts at the Syrian embassy—never an easy undertaking but conducted with typical professionalism, as we would all expect.

As this crisis matures—and it certainly will—I hope that the Minister will feel that it is appropriate to report back to this House on appropriate occasions. I do not ask for a running commentary, of course, but a chance to review matters if they deteriorate. Once again, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement.

I thank the noble Lord for his very robust support and expert analysis of the overview of the situation, which is very welcome. To take his last point first, I would be very prepared to keep the House as fully informed as possible, as I know my colleagues would in both Houses, on the unfolding tragedy and situation. I will, if I may, take his questions in order. On the number of those who have been killed, we have the figure of 6,000, which seems to be a fairly widely accepted estimate, but of course I cannot possibly guarantee that that is the precise number in the blood, smoke and horror of what is going on. There may be many more; there may be cover-ups or hideous atrocities going on at this moment that are not recorded. We just have to accept that as the figure for the moment, but it could be larger.

The noble Lord’s next question was about how we engage with Russia and China and bring home to those great powers and to the policy-makers in Moscow and Beijing that they have misjudged the situation. It is now a global order, brought together by the miracle of modern communication—a transformed world in which the upkeep of certain basic standards must be supported by all responsible nations. If they want to be in that category they must take a responsible position. We know that Russia has its interests, such as its huge naval base at Tartus, and its long-standing commitment to Syria. We know that China has its interests, which are rather different but broadly in sympathy with the Syria of the past. I believe that the time has come for them to rethink their position and we will remain in constant contact, indeed almost every day, with Russian and Chinese officials and Ministers to bring home to them the inadequacy—more than inadequacy: the unacceptable nature—of the position into which they have driven themselves in opposing the Security Council resolution.

Meanwhile, given that opposition, we have to operate outside the United Nations. We have to look for every possible means of mobilising pressure outside the UN framework for the time being in the hope of getting the process back there some day. The noble Lord raised the question of a joint summit with the Arab League and the European Union. Our thinking is that any such summit should be wider than that. I repeat that this is a global issue and that all responsible nations are ready to step up to the plate, as it were, and voice their views in favour of increased pressure on the Syrian regime and the need for the present killer authorities to go. My right honourable friend would certainly look for wider participation than just the Arab League and the European Union.

The next meeting on 27 February, mentioned in the Statement, is an opportunity to turn the screws further. Of course, an enormous range of sanctions has already been introduced. There are targeted sanctions and every kind of detailed sanction on the Syrian regime. There is a ban on imports of Syrian oil, of course, and on any investment in the Syrian oil industry; a ban on European Union investment construction of new power stations in Syria; and a whole range of other financial and detailed embargos on the export of Syrian banknotes, coinage, and so on. It is possible that there could be more, and we will constantly search for more, and tighter, sanctions, but we must bear in mind the enormous range already in place. A no-fly zone is possibly a read-across from Libya, which may not be entirely relevant at this point because the Syrian air force is not flying. These horrors are being conducted without aircraft overhead adding to the strafing and the killing. There are no operations in the sky to be checked at this stage.

On the Syrian opposition, my right honourable friend met leaders of the Syrian oppositions—in the plural—in November. We are in touch with them, and we are constantly urging them to become more united and to formulate a coherent position, but we are not yet there. The opposition in Syria is many sided and does not yet have the coherence and organisational power to give it the semblance of an alternative, replacement Government. However, we shall continue to work on that.

On safe zones, this would be difficult given that it is not the policy to work for any kind of detailed military intervention. Of course, our Turkish colleagues and allies have considered that idea in view of their position right up against the Syrian border. However, that is not in our catalogue at the moment.

My right honourable friend described how the Syrian ambassador had been brought into the Foreign Office to see officials very recently—this morning, I think. His status is something we keep under review. On the whole, at the moment he is a line of contact and a line to pass through to the Syrian regime should it be prepared to listen for a moment to just how strongly the world feels and to just how determined we are to increase the pressure.

Finally, the noble Lord rightly praised the Metropolitan Police for their action in protecting the Syrian embassy. I make it absolutely clear that it is our policy always to protect foreign embassies in accordance with the highest diplomatic standards, and of course—as my right honourable friend said in his Statement—we expect that the Syrian authorities will do the same. I think that that covers all his points. I thank him again for his and Her Majesty’s Opposition’s strong and reassuring support in reaching a point at which we are all united.

My Lords, I remind the House of the benefit of short questions to the Minister in order that my noble friend can answer as many as possible.

My Lords, this is a serious, sensitive and solemn Statement from my noble friend, and I welcome it very strongly. As we have seen the standing of the Arab League rising in recent times, it is particularly disappointing that the standing of the UN Security Council has fallen because of the actions of Russia and China. Can my noble friend reassure me that while we cannot depend on the United Nations for the present, we will use our good offices within the General Assembly to help Russia and China understand the gravity of their mistake?

My noble friend mentioned co-operation with other European countries and with the Arab League, and I welcome that. However, we of course have our ally in Turkey right on the front line—as he has said. While I do not advocate any military adventures from us at this stage, can I be reassured that we will co-operate, in whatever way we can, with our allies in Turkey, directly as well as perhaps through the auspices of NATO? Can I also be reassured that members of President al-Assad’s family will not be permitted to use their close relationship with this country either to protect themselves or their assets at this time, or indeed for anything they might plan for the future? This is something for which our own Government can perhaps take some responsibility, and on which they can act.

My noble friend made three points. First, on how we can help to make the UN more effective, we are of course living with the legacy of the Second World War and a UN structure that is frozen in time. Many people, including many of your Lordships, have worked hard over the years to try to break the deadlock on UN reform to get a more effective regime that is not vulnerable to the kind of vetoes that we have seen over this affair. However, it is very difficult, and every time we have tried, people have disagreed with each other and no progress has been made. None the less, we will certainly keep trying.

Secondly, co-operation with Turkey will be close. We are working very closely with the Turkish Government on this and indeed on many other issues as well. We will certainly continue to do so.

Thirdly, President Bashar al-Assad’s family will get no special protection. There will be no special relationship, despite the fact that some of them have direct origins in this country. The matter will be kept under very careful review. However, there will be no special favours for the families of any members of the regime who are guilty of the kind of atrocities that are now occurring.

My Lords, first, I declare an interest as a former British ambassador to Syria and a member of the British/Syrian council. When the Minister responded to my intervention last Thursday, in which I talked about the precedents of Libya and Egypt, he rightly said that the cases of Syria, Libya and Egypt were very different. I will draw attention briefly to the precedent of Iraq. Before there is any question of intervening in Syrian internal affairs—I accept with gratitude the statement that there is no present intention to do so, and the fact that the resolution in the Security Council did not argue for military intervention—the matter needs very careful thought.

The precedent of Iraq is nasty. We did not take adequate account of what the outcome was likely to be. One outcome that is very relevant to Syria was the decimation of the Christian population of northern Iraq, where some of the oldest Christian communities existed. Half a million Christians are now refugees in Syria. Will the Minister assure the House that we have enough intelligence to know not just the figures for those who have died but the situation of the opposition? There are reports that the opposition in Syria is severely dysfunctional and that there is strong disagreement between its various parts. Do we have enough intelligence to work out what the consequence of the action against Syria will be? I ask the Minister to consider in particular the situation of the minorities there, including the Christian population, who are extremely nervous about the prospects of a change of regime, and the very small remaining Jewish minority.

The noble Lord is absolutely right to cast his expert eye over the internal complexities of Syria and the uncertainties of the outcome of the immense turmoil that is gripping its society. He is right to say that although there is no question of military intervention, the outside world is putting pressure on Syria for the very good reason that an imploded Syria, or a Syria turning one way or another politically, or into a rogue state, would have major implications for the entire region and would affect us all. There is a responsibility to put on pressure, but no one at this stage is proposing military intervention, although some members of the Arab League have certainly talked about assisting opposition groups.

It is a very delicate scene. I wish I could stand here and predict exactly how things will unfold. The noble Lord is absolutely correct that among the many minorities is a very large Christian minority. The numbers vary. I have heard a figure of 250,000; the noble Lord mentioned 500,000. We are encouraging Syrian opposition groups to reach out, engage with minority communities and maintain a clear commitment to a peaceful and non-sectarian approach. They should reassure all Syrians that they are working towards a Syrian state that is democratic, inclusive and respectful of ethnic and religious minorities. That is the point that we have realised and are urging, but I repeat that anyone who says that they can predict exactly how this will turn out will not be believed because the uncertainties are very great. Syrian society could fragment into many pieces and its unity could be destroyed for many years to come.

Does the Minister agree that Russia and China have put themselves on the wrong side of history by vetoing a very diluted UN Security Council resolution and that it must be very difficult for them now to retreat? I welcome the Minister’s six points on the way forward but these are, essentially, further diplomatic pressures at the United Nations and at the European Union and further potential sanctions. There is, however, great urgency in the situation. Delay surely means further carnage, particularly among the civilian population. What is the evidence of any intervention by Iran with military matériel or personnel to assist the Syrian regime? Where does its supply come from, or does it have sufficient stocks? The reality is that the rebels are massively outgunned. Will Turkey or the Arab League have on the agenda at their meeting this weekend the possibility of assisting in this disparity of weaponry? The Minister has said that a no-fly zone is not in the catalogue at the moment. May I express the hope that, if it is not in the catalogue at the moment, there is contingency planning in case the Syrians use their air power against the rebels?

I am grateful to the noble Lord. Information about Iranian supplies of weaponry to the Syrian regime is difficult to pin down precisely. There are certainly fairly substantial reports of such a supply of weapons. He asks whether, on the side of the allies, Turkey, Qatar or even Saudi Arabia, although he did not mention that country, could supply weapons to the opposition groups. They have said publicly that they are considering such moves. This is, however, a matter that the Arab League will have to deliberate on very carefully and reach their decisions on as soon as possible. As the noble Lord says, there is not much time. That is the position and I fully take the point that, as every day goes by, with delay more people are dying. This is an horrific pattern and although it is very hard to see how it can be stopped we have to find the best possible ways of doing so.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for repeating the robust and measured Statement of the Foreign Secretary in the House of Commons. As these appalling events are unfolded by the Syrian Government on the civilian population of that country, is it not remarkable the extent to which people are prepared to go, even at the risk of their own life, to make sure that their cry, their voice, their opinion, is heeded and heard throughout the world? Can my noble friend give any further information to the House about the attitude of Russia and China? Was it indicated, in their representatives’ comments in the United Nations—both in session and in the corridors—what, if anything, their end game might be? What are their objectives, or are they just making mayhem wherever the opportunity occurs?

My Lords, my noble friend makes two points. First, he drew attention to something that we are inclined sometimes to forget, with the tumult of pictures on the television and so on—the staggering courage of people who are prepared to go into the streets, knowing that bullets will be flying, knowing that murder and mayhem will take place. That staggering courage is something that we should all salute and brings hope that the Syrian people—as opposed to the regime that is oppressing them—have got a strength and endurance which will see them through in the end. It is indeed a remarkable thing.

As to the Russian agenda, Mr Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, is going to Damascus, I think either late today or tomorrow, and he is going to see Bashar al-Assad. He is going with his secret service chief, I see. There appears to be a view in Moscow that they have their agenda and their own path that they want to pursue for bringing some amelioration to this horrific situation. I think that they are mistaken. I think that that is a complete misjudgment, but that is what they are doing and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will be speaking to Mr Lavrov as soon as he returns from Damascus.

My Lords, I join others in paying tribute to our ambassador and his staff and their families in Damascus who are doing an extraordinarily good job in very difficult circumstances. In that context, will the Minister confirm that our ambassador has been withdrawn only for consultations and will soon be back in Damascus? It has always struck me as a curious diplomatic convention to withdraw ambassadors from post when situations get bad, which is precisely the moment when they can be the most use.

I fully share the noble Lord’s remarks about Simon Collis, our excellent ambassador. He is recalled here for consultation. We are not closing the embassy at this stage. Obviously it is a matter under complete review, as is the question of the security of embassy staff and everyone concerned. I can confirm what my right honourable friend said in his Statement—that the ambassador has been recalled for consultation. We are not closing the embassy at this stage.

My Lords, will the Minister also accept congratulations on the work of the UK mission in New York? To have got 13 people to vote for this resolution is no simple matter, particularly since some of the countries that voted for it are very careful not to get involved in “undue interference” in other countries’ business—so that gives the lie, frankly, to the Russians and the Chinese, who regard this as being that. Could the Minister perhaps say whether the Government are contemplating providing any humanitarian assistance to the rebels and to those who are wounded in this fighting, and also whether any thought is being given to the application of the convention on torture to people who are involved in the regime?

On the first point, the noble Lord speaks with experience, because he has done that job himself and knows exactly how difficult it is. His praise for the success of the UN team is very valid and very worth while receiving, and I hope that the team will note it. DfID is engaged and is working with the International Committee of the Red Cross on various aspects, and it is very active in seeing in what other ways it can help. I do not think that I can say more at the moment on that matter. I have to ask the noble Lord for the third question again. I wrote it down but I cannot read my writing.

I asked whether the Government are giving any consideration to the application of the convention against torture to those in the regime who are undoubtedly using that practice.

This is obviously one of the many matters under consideration. Of course, it is related to the broader matter of whether there will be a UN resolution in relation to the reference to the International Criminal Court. It requires a UN resolution because Syria is not a signatory to the ICC. As I have raised that matter, I should just make it clear that the commission of inquiry quite clearly stated its concern that crimes against humanity have been committed in Syria, which may be a matter for the International Criminal Court. The UK would not rule out referral to the ICC, as suggested by Mrs Pillay. The commission of inquiry report does not specifically recommend referral to the ICC, nor does the Human Rights Council have the power to refer cases. It would be for the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC prosecutor. I would add that I am absolutely sure that issues about torture and other gross human rights abuses would certainly arise in that context.

My Lords, perhaps I can ask my noble friend the Minister for some further clarification. In his response to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, on safe zones, I think he said that these had not yet been agreed or discussed. After the statement Turkey made over the weekend that its borders would now be open for people fleeing persecution, for refugees wanting to go across into Turkey for sanctuary, have there been any further discussions and deliberations on the creation of the buffer zone that was being discussed a few months ago?

I do not think there have. This is a matter that appeared in the public press some weeks ago but I am not aware of it coming up in the agenda of our discussions with the Turkish Government. I may be wrong about that, but I certainly have no reports in my briefing on that particular issue.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a major motivation for the Russian and Chinese vetoes is their fear of internal dissent in their own countries and of international eyes being cast upon their own misdeeds?

That is absolutely true. My noble friend is completely correct that both Governments have problems—shall we put it like that—with certain areas that are seeking either secession or a degree of autonomy that they do not want to accept, and they have this fear of fragmentation of their own national boundaries. That is a very strong motivation. On top of that, as I said earlier, Russia has huge interests in Syria, including its colossal naval base at Tartus.

My Lords, the terrible events in Syria may have consequences well beyond the borders of that country. Can the Minister say what discussions the UK has had, both internally and with its international partners, on the potential implications for the Lebanon, and how these might be mitigated?

Yes, we keep in very close touch with partners, and indeed the Lebanese authorities and the Lebanese Prime Minister, Mr Najib Mikati, over the situation. It is a delicate and very difficult one for the Lebanese Government, who have problems internally with Hezbollah and with their relationship with Syria, which is complex and has been in the past extremely difficult. These matters are under very close review at all times.