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Syria: Humanitarian Aid

Volume 750: debated on Monday 2 December 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to re-establish direct contact with the Government of Syria in order to facilitate secure access to the humanitarian agencies throughout Syria.

My Lords, the UK is working with our international partners, including in the UN Security Council, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Friends of Syria core group, to ensure full implementation of the UN Security Council presidential statement of 2 October to allow free and unfettered access for the delivery of aid to all Syrians. As stated by the UN, the primary onus is on the Syrian regime to comply with these measures, and we are actively engaging with Russia to reinforce this message to the regime.

My Lords, I hope that the Minister accepts that my call on the Government to resume contact with the Government in Damascus in no way means that I condone the appalling things that have happened in Syria on all sides—any more than I condone the many other breaches of human rights named by the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, during his astonishing debate on 21 November. Does the Minister accept that nearly all the Governments named by the noble Lord enjoy diplomatic contact with Her Majesty’s Government, and that with one of them, Iran, we have recently resumed diplomatic relations? Given that the Syrian Government appear to have restored their authority over most parts of Syria in recent weeks, is it not time to resume our diplomatic presence in Damascus, both for the reasons mentioned in my Question, and to perform the necessary consular functions to protect the remaining British community?

I of course hear the point that the noble Lord makes. There has been some limited contact in relation to consular matters. We have not formally broken all diplomatic ties with the Syrian regime. It has withdrawn its people from the embassy here, and we have done the same in relation to our people in Syria. We have maintained some contact via other embassies that still have personnel within Syria. We have felt that, in terms of progress on humanitarian work and in relation to the chemical weapons work that is going on, the UN is the right body through which to engage. That is the process that we have been adopting.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that 500,000 children have not been vaccinated against polio over the past two years because of the conflict and the lack of humanitarian access? What is the UK doing to secure guarantees of respect for what Save the Children calls a “vaccination ceasefire” that which will allow unconditional, safe access by humanitarian workers, before this highly infectious and crippling disease becomes an epidemic across the whole of the Middle East?

The issue of providing access specifically to vaccinate children was raised at the high-level meeting chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, on 26 November. So far, about 10 cases of polio have been confirmed and 12 more potential cases have been identified, but it is thought that hundreds of children are carrying polio in a country where it had been completely eliminated. This is one of a number of humanitarian issues that we are hoping will be dealt with in the run-up to the Geneva 2 meeting in January.

My Lords, just a few minutes ago I spoke to the staff of Médecins Sans Frontières, who emphasised that it is essential to establish many more humanitarian corridors, especially in the disputed areas, to allow the entry of essential antibiotics and anaesthetic agents. Will the Government continue and, indeed, redouble their efforts to establish these corridors?

My noble friend makes an important point. This is one of the ideas that have been put forward. However the noble Lord will be aware that humanitarian corridors are not defined in international law and, although there have been some successes in the past, such corridors require all parties to agree to their establishment. In the absence of such agreement, establishing these zones usually requires foreign military intervention, which is not on the table at the moment. The noble Lord will also be aware that humanitarian corridors and safe areas have not always worked in the past. A case that comes immediately to mind is the Srebrenica genocide, which occurred in a safe area.

Does my noble friend agree that the most enduring solution to the humanitarian crisis in Syria is a successful conclusion of the Geneva 2 talks and the implementation of the Geneva communiqué’s plan for a transitional Government? In the light of that, have the Government moved on their position on the attendance of Iran at the Geneva 2 talks and on the continuation of President Assad in any form of transitional Government?

We have very clear priorities in Syria. The first is to ensure that we alleviate humanitarian suffering. The second is to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons on his own people again. However, this is against a backdrop of finding a political solution that brings the conflict to an end. It is good that the date of 22 January 2014 has now been set for Geneva 2. In relation to Iran, parties to Geneva 2 are those that have formally endorsed the Geneva communiqué. Iran has not yet done so publicly. There is a sense that Iran is not playing a positive or helpful role in the current crisis.

My Lords, have the Government yet formed a view as to what part the Assad regime should play at Geneva 2? If they have formed a view, are they yet in a position to be able to inform the House?

We expect the regime to play a part in Geneva 2, which is all about coming forward with a proposal to establish a transitional governing body. This has to be done with mutual consent, so the regime must play its role. However, it seems incredibly unrealistic to expect real progress in Syria if Assad has any role in a body that has full executive powers and, therefore, control over the military, security and intelligence apparatus. Large parts of Syria do not accept him or expect him to play such a role.

My Lords, to what extent do the Government actively support the efforts of the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, head of the United Nations office for humanitarian assistance, to set up a humanitarian corridor in Syria? What, if any, are the objections expressed by any member of the UN Security Council to the establishment of such a project?

Of course, we fully support the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, who is another great example of a Member of this House playing an incredibly important role on the international stage. We pushed and worked with the noble Baroness on the UN Security Council presidential statement during the UN General Assembly meeting in October this year. That asked specifically for humanitarian agencies to have immediate, unfettered access to all parts of Syria. Therefore, the establishment of a humanitarian corridor is part of a process; it is one of a number of options that could bring that about. However, first and foremost it is about having unfettered access. We have access to all 14 governorate regions of Syria, but unfortunately not to all the populations within those regions. Tragically, millions of people still have not had any humanitarian support for nearly 12 months.