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Syria: Chemical Weapons

Volume 782: debated on Wednesday 5 April 2017

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they are intending to respond to the chemical attack seemingly carried out by the Syrian Government on civilians in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

My Lords, we are appalled by reports of a chemical weapons attack in Idlib. We condemn the use of chemical weapons in all circumstances. If proven, this will again show the Syrian regime’s barbarism. Britain and France have called an emergency UN Security Council meeting for later today. We have circulated a draft resolution condemning the attack and urging a swift and thorough investigation. We welcome the investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that response. It is appalling to see terrible pictures once more of men, women and children in agony from what seems to be a further chemical attack in Syria. Chemical weapons were rightly banned after the First World War, nearly a century ago. Does the noble Baroness agree that we need to have a credible investigation into what happened in Syria? If it turns out to be sarin from the regime’s stocks, what actions will be taken to ensure that this time there is full destruction of all Syria’s chemical weapons?

Like the noble Baroness, I deplore events that cause such suffering. She is right to point to the action by the international community over the years to try to ensure that such vile use of chemical weapons cannot happen. It is essential that we work together to prevent these events. At 3 pm British time I understand that the debate at the United Nations should have started—I cannot confirm that because I have been here and so unable to see it. We will have to wait to see the decisions on what actions to take. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness that there must be a thorough and credible investigation.

My Lords, the key point that the Foreign Secretary made was that all the evidence points to the Assad regime. We have also heard from the Prime Minister, who called for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to conduct an investigation. Of course, it has been gathering evidence for some time on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. I welcome the Government’s intention to raise the matter at the Security Council—but, as the Minister has told the House on many occasions, it is sometimes difficult to reach a consensus in the Security Council. Can she tell us what the Government will do if there is a failure to reach consensus? Will we take it up in the full UN General Assembly? The most important point—I know she shares this view—is that the people responsible must understand that they will be held fully accountable.

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said a short while ago in Brussels:

“I would like to see those culpable pay a price”.

I do not want to predict the result of today’s debate. It is predicted not to conclude until around 6 pm or 7 pm. It is clear that we have to try to ensure that nobody will vote against the resolution. In the past, Russia and China have done so. I hope that they will think very carefully today before they take any action other than to support the resolution before the United Nations.

My Lords, in welcoming the swift response of Her Majesty’s Government and the reply that the Minister has just given to the Question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, perhaps I might press the Government further on the use of chemical weapons. We have now seen chemical weapons used twice in Syria, but they have also been used, allegedly, in Darfur by the regime of President Omar al-Bashir. We have seen a chemical weapons attack using a toxic nerve agent in an international airport in Kuala Lumpur. Does this not all point to a climate of impunity in which those responsible do not believe that they will be brought to justice? In pursuing the point that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, has just made, will we be pressing also for a referral to the International Criminal Court of all those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide?

My thoughts today are very much concentrated on the children and other civilians who suffered yesterday in Idlib. The noble Lord will be aware of my previous answers on this issue, to the effect that in the international field we bring cases before the International Criminal Court when we are able to do so, with the agreement of the Security Council. With regard to Syria, there have been more than two occasions when the regime has been proven to use chemical weapons—there have been three. The proof has been gained by the OCPW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism, and there are further investigations afoot.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria—assuming, of course, that the Assad regime is responsible—flows in part from the failure of the United States to use military action after Assad’s initial action in 2013? Does this not demonstrate the importance in foreign affairs of not promising or threatening that which you are not prepared to do? I express the hope that President Trump observes that principle in the context of his relations with North Korea.

My Lords, a principle that we should all follow is to consider carefully before we commit. All political parties in all countries sometimes fall short of that objective. Today we are working together as one with the United States to try to ensure that the United Nations can agree that we should put pressure on Syria, including from Russia, to ensure that these vile events should not happen, whoever commits them.

My Lords, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury said yesterday, we on these Benches mourn with the people of Idlib and we pray for justice and an end to violence. However, if and when peace is finally secured in the region, the scale of suffering and damage experienced by the people of Syria over the past six years will demand enormous and costly international effort if Syria is to be rebuilt. Will Her Majesty’s Government commit not just to supporting the people of Syria in the short term but to supporting the decades-long process of restoration that will inevitably be needed once the present crisis is over?

I welcome the right reverend Prelate’s question and I certainly give that commitment. At the moment my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is in Brussels at the Syria conference, where the objective is to get the international community not only to deliver on the commitments it made in London last year but to take those further, for the long-term support of the region.

My Lords, it is axiomatic that if these events came about as a result of deliberate action, they constitute a war crime. Will the Minister bear in mind that, even if they were not deliberate, they constitute a war crime, since they came about because of the indiscriminate bombing of civilians?

My Lords, there was no military benefit to the Assad regime from using chemical weapons in this circumstance—it did not help militarily—and there is no political benefit. Is there some internal dynamic that we do not understand within Syria? I cannot see any reason otherwise why these weapons would be used.

My Lords, who indeed can get into the mind of somebody who—it has been proven in the past—on at least three occasions used chemical weapons on his own people? We should all remember that the conflict started because there were those who wanted to see democracy in Syria.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the sentiments of the great human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, who said that there will be no progress on human rights until we are even-handed in condemnation? Having said that, does she further agree that the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Mosul should be equally condemned? For survivors and for the relatives of those killed and maimed, it is equally bad.

My Lords, where action is taken purposely to bomb civilians it is a war crime and something that we would condemn. I would mention, with regard to Mosul, that I am aware of the recognition there that the Iraqi forces have taken every step they could to avoid hitting civilians, against an enemy that uses civilians as human shields.

My Lords, is there not a case now for trying to talk to the Syrian regime? We have broken off all relations and refused to recognise the regime from the outset of the civil war. As we are not in a position to end this, would it not make a great deal of sense at least to have some diplomatic contact?

No, my Lords, because when we have engaged before we have been let down. Clear action by the regime has shown that we are right not to have diplomatic relations. What we are right to do and what we will continue to do—I give my absolute assurance to my noble friend—is to seek the path of political agreement through the Geneva talks. That is the only way forward to achieve peace.