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Volume 749: debated on Tuesday 19 November 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have received relating to the creation of a humanitarian aid corridor in Syria.

My Lords, humanitarian corridors are temporarily demilitarised zones intended to allow the safe passage of humanitarian aid and the evacuation of vulnerable civilians. DfID supports many humanitarian agencies operating inside Syria. To date, DfID has received no requests or representations for a humanitarian corridor from these partners or other humanitarian agencies. We welcome any option that complies with international law that might save lives in Syria.

I have it on the authority of Dr David Nott, the distinguished London surgeon who recently returned from delivering front-line medicine in rebel-held Syria, that aid is not getting where it is most needed. Dr Nott made representations to HMG, to which he has not received even an acknowledgement as yet. Will the Government work with the international community to insist that a humanitarian corridor be opened to deliver life-saving medical aid and bring the severely wounded to safety? Safe passages have been achieved in other conflict zones. If chemical weapons inspectors can be given protection, surely protection is possible for humanitarian aid.

I have a great deal of sympathy for what the noble Baroness has said and for what the surgeon David Nott has said. I heard the appeal that he made and obviously pressed very hard within DfID to elucidate this, because it is obviously extremely appealing. The problem is of course, as the noble Baroness will know, that the situation in Syria is immensely complex. One needs only to look at the map of where various groups are, and how that changes from day to day, to see how complex this is and the number of humanitarian corridors that would be required. In order for those to be created, all groups in the relevant area would need to buy in. Alternatively, it would need to be enforced in a military fashion, which would require a UN Security Council resolution. I think the noble Baroness can see some of the challenges in my answer.

My Lords, some 18 months ago, Turkey was considering intervening in Syria to create a humanitarian buffer. At the same time, US State Department officials were mooting a similar no-kill zone. The massacre at Srebrenica tells us, with a very good example, why a humanitarian corridor would require a protective military presence. Who would provide it in Syria, and with whose collective agreement?

My noble friend is absolutely right, and that bears out the answer I just gave to the noble Baroness. We would require the buy-in of all the parties or that kind of military enforcement. That is why the major organisations working in the area—for example, the United Nations, MSF and the ICRC—have reservations about the proposal for a humanitarian corridor for the very reason that my noble friend referred to. Sometimes, these result in civilians being less safe. He pointed to the Bosnian example, but more recently, of course, there has been the Sri Lankan example. There are examples where not only civilians, who are supposed to be protected, are in greater danger, but the humanitarian workers who may appear to be shielded by particular military groups are also under greater threat.

My Lords, will the Minister clarify whether discussions are taking place in response to the view expressed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, that Syria should be referred to the ICC? Would an ICC referral not send an unequivocal message that such is the seriousness of the crimes—including denying the right to humanitarian aid—that strong measures to tackle impunity are essential and that criminal indictments of senior leaders, as was the case in the Balkans, can strengthen peace efforts?

It is clear that referring leaders in these situations to the ICC has, we hope, a chilling effect for other leaders thereafter. One can see that building in terms of leaders’ responses, and one has to hope that in the situation in Syria some of the rebel groups as well as the government groups will recognise the challenge there. However, at the moment, the most important thing is to try to bring about a political resolution to this problem so that the killing on all sides can stop.

My Lords, I think that everybody recognises the complexity of the situation, but just over a month ago, the UN Security Council itself called unanimously for humanitarian pauses. What contribution have Her Majesty’s Government been able to make diplomatically pursuing the possibility of more humanitarian pauses to bring relief to some of the civilians caught up in the fight?

Again, that is a case in point. The right reverend Prelate makes a good point in referring to those humanitarian pauses which were politically agreed but not delivered. That is the challenge. This is a very complex situation with many groups fighting each other, and enormous efforts are being put in—not least by UN special envoy Brahimi at the moment—to try to push forward some kind of agreement, but it is immensely difficult.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that as welcome as the statement recently produced on humanitarian access was, the perception on the ground is that access to Syria is not being permitted as it needs to be? Will the Minister seek to encourage her colleagues that, no matter how frustrating it may be to deal with the authorities in Syria, in order to move further forward with greater humanitarian access, one needs to persevere in communicating with the senior Syrian leadership?

The noble Earl is right. The presidential statement called for unhindered humanitarian access, including the granting of visas and permits, which is something that the Syrian Government can do, and pressure is being put on them to do that.

My Lords, in response to the noble Earl’s question, is it not made rather difficult because we do not recognise the legitimacy, or even the existence, of the Syrian Government?