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Volume 736: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for providing humanitarian aid and security assistance to help relieve the unfolding crisis in Syria.

My Lords, we continue to fund humanitarian organisations working in the region to provide help to those in need and have already given £2 million to that effect. We have also increased core funding significantly to humanitarian agencies this year to cover their ongoing work. The stabilisation unit operated jointly by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence is looking at what future support Syria might need from the UK and the international community to make a political transition to an open, democratic and stable state. It has also organised the recent deployment of an expert team to the region to collect evidence of human rights violations and atrocities committed by the Syrian regime.

I thank my noble friend for that full reply. However, following reports on Australian television by the director of Human Rights Watch, Nadim Houry, confirming that the Syrian army is now sowing landmines along its borders directly in the path of fleeing refugees, threatening yet another atrocity, will the Government redouble their efforts to persuade other nations, particularly Russia, China and Turkey, to try to press Assad into allowing independent observers into Syria? As an extension to my noble friend’s Answer, will he give me more detail on timing in relation to deploying the stabilisation unit and security resources when the transitional period has started?

My noble friend is quite right. Access for independent observers or, indeed, access for humanitarian relief is the problem in this very dangerous situation. We have been working hard at the United Nations. My right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary has been working extremely hard and taking the lead in trying to persuade Russia and China to take a more positive and co-operative attitude in all aspects, including, of course, getting a more effective UN resolution forward which would, we hope, increase the heat and pressure on Mr Bashar al-Assad. That is what is going on at the moment.

As for the mine situation, I have seen the reports of mines being laid. Syria is not—regrettably but perhaps not unsurprisingly—a signatory to the international prohibitions against land mines. This is yet one more area where we will increase to the maximum volume and ability our pressures on the Syrian regime to behave in a less uncivilised and more understanding way.

The Minister referred to the human rights mission that has been sent to the region. Would the Foreign Office classify decisions by the Syrian regime to prevent humanitarian access to the areas that need it most as a breach of international humanitarian law which may, one day, need to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court?

That is certainly possible. The position vis-à-vis the International Criminal Court is that the commission of inquiry of the UN, as I think the noble Lord will know, clearly stated its concerns that crimes against humanity have been committed in Syria and that this may be a matter for the International Criminal Court. The United Kingdom will not rule out referral to the International Criminal Court, as suggested by Mrs Pillay, the human rights commissioner. The COI report does not specifically recommend a referral to the court, 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. That is the formal position and I must stick closely to those words about it.

My Lords, is not the difficult thing that human rights abuses are being carried out every day? Does the noble Lord have any information about the appalling report that boys over the age of 11 are being arrested and face a very uncertain and horrible future in the city of Homs? Does he agree that, without the courageous reporting of people like the late Marie Colvin, we do not have the information on a day-by-day basis? We have it only retrospectively. What we need to know is what is happening while it is happening. Can the Minister give us any information about what our colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, has been able to say following her visit to President Assad?

I have to agree with almost all that the noble Baroness says. Our friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, has, indeed, been there and did get some access to Baba Amr. She has reported back to the United Nations in very grim terms about what she found; practically every building had been destroyed. As for the other news we get— inevitably not directly because of the access problem and the fact that not a single journalist alive remains in the area—that may well be true. There are clearly horrific events and horrific murders and atrocities taking place. Not every one can be corroborated, but it is unquestioned that there are evil doings almost beyond the power of words being conducted in the name of the Syrian Government and perhaps on the opposition side as well. These are revolting events and in due course I hope all responsible will be held to account for them properly.

Can the Minister confirm that the Government still support the efforts by the former United Nations Secretary-General, Mr Kofi Annan, to bring a peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria? I am delighted to hear from the noble Lord that we are channelling our assistance through international organisations and humanitarian organisations. Does he agree that we should also be sure that any assistance given to Syria does not complicate the mission of Mr Kofi Annan?

My Lords, I am sure that that approach is right, but the difficulty is, as Mr Kofi Annan himself has found in his most recent discussions with Bashar al-Assad, that the Syrian President seems very reluctant to move from his present policy of giving certain reassurances while the violence and killing carry on. That is the difficulty. As the noble Lord knows, Mr Lavrov was there, accompanied by other senior Russian officials. They thought that they could get some undertakings from Bashar al-Assad; and, indeed, words were given. However, even while they were speaking, the killing was continuing. So I am afraid that at the moment, while one appreciates that there has to be a twin track of trying to get this man, this president, to desist from his all-out violence of the most atrocious kind, all efforts by Kofi Annan and others have so far not proved successful. This remains the line to go forward. We are working with the Russian and Chinese officials and ambassadors, and with the United Nations, to make them see that we must have a combined approach.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that in bringing Russia to the table it is important to recognise that Saudi Arabia’s and Qatar’s attempts to arm the rebels will only prolong the conflict, not help to bring it to an end? Does he further agree that Russia’s long-standing animosity to Saudi Arabia, not least as regards Afghanistan, will not make it come to the table unless we reduce the arms and hostility going into the conflict from other players?

My noble friend may be right. The Arab League as a whole has taken a strong lead. Some members of the Arab League—my noble friend mentioned Qatar and Saudi Arabia—say that they want to go further and provide arms. We are not sure at this moment whether they are doing so. They may have a case for taking that action in particular areas. However, our general approach is the same as that of my noble friend. We believe that the best course is to try to get peaceful transition, to get both sides to desist from the killing, and particularly and obviously to get the Syrian Government to desist from their atrocious and murderous attacks on communities in Homs and other cities. That must be the approach. Pouring in arms on a large scale would certainly not help.