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Volume 777: debated on Wednesday 14 December 2016

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the conditions for civilians in eastern Aleppo and what prospect there is for humanitarian relief to reach those people.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Private Notice Question. In doing so, perhaps I may remind the House that I am the chairman of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce.

My Lords, Aleppo is a humanitarian catastrophe. We are providing food, shelter, blankets and healthcare to fleeing civilians through our UN and NGO partners, but the regime is preventing aid reaching those who are still trapped. Pro-regime militia appear to be blocking the recent evacuation deal. It is paramount that the aid agencies get access to save lives and protect civilians.

My Lords, despite all that, it is almost four weeks since food or medical aid got into eastern Aleppo. Yesterday, the United Nations said that the Assad regime and its allies had executed 82 civilians, including 13 children. The ceasefire negotiated at the UN yesterday evening broke down this morning and the buses which were to evacuate people to places of safety have been withdrawn. We have heard what the Government have done. My question is: what is the Government’s next step at the UN or with allies to do everything possible to get food and medical aid to the civilians and to evacuate the people of eastern Aleppo, particularly the children, to places of safety? As the US ambassador to the UN asked yesterday, is there no way in which this regime and its supporters can be shamed into facilitating this vitally needed humanitarian aid?

I agree absolutely with the analysis which the noble Baroness, with her great experience, has brought in asking this Question today. We are of course working with partners at the UN Security Council, but she as a distinguished former Minister in the Foreign Office will know of the complexities and difficulties there, particularly with the Russian veto stopping us from taking action. We are trying to raise the issue at the European level—this was done last week. There is also the international Friends of Syria group, which continues to meet and do its work—task forces are involved in that. Our greatest influence at the present time is probably in meeting the humanitarian needs of people on the ground. That is something of note and of which we can be proud: that in the face of this “meltdown of humanity”, as the high commissioner described it, the British people are there as the second-largest donor in cash terms and stand ready to help more when that is possible. But this is a human conflict between human actors, and it is within human hands for it to be resolved and stopped. That is what we are urging.

The Minister is absolutely right, but Assad said earlier today that the ceasefire request would simply “save the terrorists”—and, of course, this is one of the problems we have. Children and families are suffering. We need evidence from this Government that they will seek international co-operation, especially through the UN, for protection, evacuation, aid and, not least, evidence, because there is clear evidence of war crimes being committed. This Government must commit to those four things.

That is absolutely right. We are collecting evidence with other agencies on the ground. One problem that we face in this situation is that there is a difficulty in obtaining real, credible information, because so many international actors, ourselves included, are not able to operate in and get access to east Aleppo, as we want to in order to verify what is happening there. We are collecting evidence. There is no question on the basis of the evidence at the moment that what we are witnessing here is a prima facie case of a breach of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention—and the people who are responsible will in time be brought to justice.

My Lords, as we see the terrible events in Aleppo, what are we doing to make sure that men, women and children in the 16 other besieged areas in Syria are not also subjected to surrender and slaughter? Is Aleppo going to be a precedent?

That is a great concern. We have not yet seen the besieging tactics adopted by the Assad regime in eastern Aleppo being used to the same degree in other cities, but he has gone on record with a menacing pledge that, as east Aleppo appears to fall, he will move the fight on to other cities. That urges all those who have influence over the people involved in this conflict to use all their powers to bring it to an end before we see it continuing on the same scale, and actually increasing in its brutality, in years to come.

My Lords, did the Minister see the statement from a United Nations spokesman yesterday, in which he described this as the darkest day in the history of the United Nations? With more than 5,000 dead in Aleppo in the last month —and returning to the Question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Symons—did he see the report about the 100 unaccompanied children who have taken refuge in one derelict building? Do we know anything more about their fate or about the eight who were shot in their home for refusing to leave? In February, this House debated a Motion from all parts of your Lordships’ House that those responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity should be brought to justice. It is not just a question of collecting evidence; it is about setting up the mechanisms necessary to do that. When will the Government do what the noble Lord said a few moments ago and bring those responsible to justice?

That is right. The situation on the ground is horrific and we are now getting credible reports of summary executions. We have heard the reports about the children caught in that building, but unless people are given access to that area—it is in the control of the Assad regime and the Russian President to bring that about—we cannot get access. It will not be us directly, of course; we cannot be the actors involved in that situation. However, the agencies of the UN, the NGOs and those courageous, heroic people who are putting their lives at risk to protect other humanity in that situation should be allowed in. It is within people’s hands to do it and they should do it.

My Lords, thousands of children—we are talking about that many—are suffering so much in Aleppo. The regional director of UNICEF has said:

“It is time for the world to stand up for the children of Aleppo and bring their living nightmare to an end”.

When will it be safe for those children to be taken to safety? What is being done to deal with the plight of unaccompanied children, who I do not think have been mentioned, and separated children, who must surely have the right to be united with their families?

Reception centres have now been set up in western Aleppo. The Red Crescent is operating these, with some UN supervision so that we can verify who is there. Sadly, a lot of those who are fleeing are not choosing to register, so we cannot track their situation. They are too fearful of the situation on the ground. We know of situations where convoys and exits have been planned for people to move out through certain corridors. Buses have been laid on but these have been turned back by Shia militia who did not feel that they were part of the deal. It is, as I say, a catastrophic and tragic situation of human making. I often stand at this Dispatch Box and respond for DfID to crises such as disease, a hurricane blowing through the Caribbean or an earthquake in Nepal. This crisis is entirely of human making and that is what causes outrage among the whole world and all of us. It needs to stop.

My Lords, there is a strong argument that the inaction of the United Kingdom and the United States in 2013 created a vacuum, but the existence of a vacuum, exploited by Russia, can never justify the indiscriminate bombing by Russian aircraft, flown by Russian or Syrian pilots, of children, hospitals and refugees. This is wholly contrary to the Geneva Conventions. Will the Minister repeat, once again, with the same authority as previously, that everything will be done to seek out those responsible and ensure that they are brought to justice?

I can certainly give that reassurance. The noble Lord is absolutely right that we should engage in some soul searching over our responsibility. A very powerful debate took place in the other place yesterday: I commend it to all Members of this House so that we can bear it in mind when we face similar situations in the future.