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House of Lords Hansard
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03 May 2016
Volume 771

Statement

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My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made a short while ago in another place by my honourable friend Tobias Ellwood.

“The Syrian conflict has entered its sixth year. As a result of Assad’s brutality and the terror of Daesh, half the population have been displaced and more than 13 million people are in need of humanitarian aid. The UN special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, estimates that as many as 400,000 people may have been killed as a direct result of the conflict.

Our long-term goal is for Syria to become a stable, peaceful state with an inclusive Government capable of protecting their people from Daesh and other extremists. Only when that happens can stability be returned to the region, which is necessary to stem the flow of people fleeing Syria and seeking refuge in Europe.

We have been working hard to find a political solution to the conflict. There have been three rounds of UN-facilitated peace negotiations in Geneva this year: in February, March and April. The latest round concluded on 27 April without significant progress on the vital issue of political transition. We have always been clear that negotiations will make progress only if the cessation of hostilities is respected, full humanitarian access is granted and both sides are prepared to discuss political transition.

The escalating violence over the last two weeks, especially around Aleppo, has been an appalling breach of the cessation of hostilities agreement. On 27 April, Al Quds Hospital in Aleppo city was bombed, killing civilians, including two doctors, and destroying vital equipment. More than a dozen hospitals in Aleppo city had already been closed because of air strikes, leaving only a few operating. The humanitarian situation there is desperate. According to human rights monitors, at least 253 civilians—including 49 children—have been killed in the city in the last fortnight alone.

At midnight on Friday, following international diplomatic efforts between the US and Russia, a renewed cessation came into effect in Latakia and eastern Ghouta in Damascus. We understand that this has reduced some of the violence in Latakia but remains shaky in eastern Ghouta. The situation in Aleppo remains very fluid. The Assad regime continues to threaten a major offensive on the city. There were some reports of a cessation of attacks overnight, but we have received reports indicating that violence has continued this morning. We need swift action to stop the fighting. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is speaking to Secretary Kerry today to discuss how we can preserve the cessation.

We look to Russia, with its unique influence over the regime, to ensure that the cessation of hostilities does not break down. It has set itself up as the protector of the Assad regime and it must now put real pressure on it to end these attacks. This is crucial if peace negotiations are to be resumed in Geneva. Those negotiations must deliver a political transition away from Assad to a legitimate Government who can support the needs and aspirations of all Syrians and put an end to the suffering of the Syrian people.

We also need to inject further momentum into political talks. We therefore support the UN envoy’s call for a ministerial meeting of the International Syria Support Group to facilitate a return to a process leading to a political transition in Syria. We hope that this can take place in the coming weeks. The UK is working strenuously to make that happen and we will continue to do so”.

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My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. The dreadful and appalling attacks and the scenes that we have seen in Aleppo appear to be a deliberate attempt to jeopardise the ceasefire and undermine the peace talks. As recognised by the Geneva Conventions, there is never any justification for attacking hospitals. I hope that the noble Baroness will assure the House that the UK is taking all steps, including gathering evidence, to ensure that those responsible will be held to account in future. As a member of the Syria support group, as she highlighted, Britain has a crucial role to play in the peace talks. US Secretary John Kerry yesterday met the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, along with the UN special envoy, who agreed to make maximum efforts with the opposition to make certain that they are ready and prepared to go back to the table the minute a cessation is in place.

What steps are the UK Government taking to work with Saudi Arabia and other allies to encourage the Syrian opposition to recommit to the peace process and to ensure that all component groups of the coalition recognise the ceasefire agreements when they are in force? Finally, what progress is being made to ensure that humanitarian access is at the heart of any new ceasefire agreement?

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My Lords, I give full assurance that we see it as our duty and that of our allies to ensure that evidence is gathered to ensure that perpetrators of breaches of international law and international humanitarian law are held to account. The UK is doing that specifically through projects which we support where very brave people are collecting and preserving information, and I applaud their personal courage in so doing.

The noble Lord is right: it is critical that we ensure that we work with our allies across the International Syria Support Group and generally to recommit to the political process, to ensure that it is taken forward. In particular, he mentions work to persuade the opposition to the regime in Syria to recommit to that process. We shall continue to do that, but I note that it is very difficult for them to recommit to that political process while the Assad regime—and, it appears from reports, the Russians—are showing that they have no care for the process of cessation of hostilities in Aleppo. If reports are correct that Russia itself is involved in bombing hospitals, the noble Lord is right to say that in no circumstances is there justification for the bombing of civilians.

Finally, with regard to humanitarian access, we give our full support to regaining it. For example, the regime is blocking access to humanitarian aid even to places such as Darayya, a few kilometres from Damascus and the UN. Road access is easy there; the UN could make it happen; the regime stops it.

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My Lords, it is difficult to imagine the effect of the kind of barbarity that the noble Baroness just described on a civilian population. It must be recognised that John Kerry, the Secretary of State, has strained every sinew to try to reach, if not an amicable, at least a temporarily stable solution. Does not all this give the lie to any suggestion—which apparently continues to be Russian policy—that somehow Mr Assad could be part of any kind of continuing Government in Syria?

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My Lords, the Russians clearly have some influence on Assad; I want them to use it in a way that can ensure that the Syrian people have the hope of having a transitional process to peace. Assad continues to attack the very people for whom he should have a care. It is the case that brutality occurs at every turn, every day. I met those doctors and nurses who are treating people in hospitals in Syria, who have come out of Assad’s detention centre, having suffered the most appalling and barbaric torture, and I recall their words. They trained to be doctors, but they are faced with seeing every day the horrific results of what Assad commits on his own people.

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My Lords, in seeking to persuade the Russians to change their attitude, has anyone confronted the Russian Ministers with the bald fact that their actions and Russian airstrikes have slaughtered a paediatrician and children in a children’s hospital in the latest attack in Aleppo? Have those facts been put to them at the level of trying to make the Russian people and Government understand that they are tarnishing themselves by pursuing these actions? Could the Minister say anything about reports that President Bashar al-Assad is actually colluding with Daesh in various ways, over oil supplies and other arrangements, in attacking Aleppo with Russian support? Finally, could she convey somehow to the Russian people that they are a very great people—that they have understandable problems and have suffered greatly in the past—but that their leadership now is taking on powers such that many people are coming to question whether Russia is a serious contributor to the society of nations or whether the leadership has gone completely mad?

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My Lords, I understand, with regard to presenting to Russia the facts of the impact of its support and direct action in Syria, that that information has been transmitted. Staffan de Mistura is travelling, or has travelled today, to Russia to speak to Foreign Minister Lavrov, and I have no doubt that he will lay out those facts. We are concerned by patterns of co-ordination between the Syrian regime, Russian air forces, and indeed by some of the Syrian Kurdish forces, in their direct conflicts with elements of the moderate armed opposition. My noble friend is right to raise those concerns. It is important that the regime and Russia recognise that, in playing a part on the international stage to bring peace to Syria, it does not then kill the peace off at the start.

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My Lords, has the Minister had the chance to consider not just the appalling and shocking attacks on the hospitals and the killing of the last paediatrician in Aleppo but the specific targeting and revenge attacks on minority communities in Aleppo—particularly the attack on 26 April, which I mentioned in a Parliamentary Question that I tabled to her last week, where again several children were killed in an attack on the Syrian Christian quarter there? Has she had a chance to consider also the resolution of the Australian House of Representatives at the end of last week, joining the American House of Representatives, the British House of Commons, the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, in declaring these events to be a genocide, joining her ministerial colleague, Tobias Ellwood, who has said precisely the same thing? Would she consider arranging a meeting with the Foreign Secretary, Members of your Lordships’ House and Members in another place, who would like to see the judicial review of these events brought right up the agenda in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, indicated in his intervention, so that those responsible for these events will be brought to justice?

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My Lords, wanting to bring people to justice is, of course, a long-term commitment, not achieved by short-term statements. It is important that the noble Lord has raised today the issue of the targeting of groups within Syria and, particularly, Aleppo. I have looked at that. Indeed, in the past I have discussed with groups collecting information about the atrocities exactly what it means to individuals who are under attack—particularly the White Helmets, who make such a valuable effort in retrieving people from the rubble and who, while they do so, find themselves barrel bombed by Assad for trying to save lives.

This Government share the House of Commons’ condemnation of Daesh atrocities against minorities and the majority Muslim population in Iraq and Syria. That is why we mandated the UN Human Rights Council to investigate Daesh in 2014, and why we are doing everything we can to gather evidence for use by judicial bodies.

The noble Lord referred to the personal view put forward by my honourable friend Tobias Ellwood. Some people are announcing that there has been genocide but, while the Government agree that there may be a strong case, our view remains that the courts are best placed to judge criminal matters. That is why we are committed to working with our partners in the international community to gather that evidence in order to get that judicial decision as a possibility—to provide an opportunity for the judiciary to make the decision that is rightfully theirs to make.