Protection of Civilians in Afrin

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:56 pm on 12th March 2018.

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Photo of Kate Osamor Kate Osamor Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 7:56 pm, 12th March 2018

I welcome the Minister’s statement and thank him for advance sight of it.

Here we are again: Aleppo, Mosul, Raqqa, today Afrin, and perhaps soon Ghouta. Again and again, we stand here in this House while troops march into a city in the region with little regard for international law or civilian protection, putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk. Again and again, we express in this House our concern, alarm and anger, but it is never enough. It is just not enough. Time and again, those fighting in Syria are consistently failing to take precautions that protect civilians.

Just seven weeks ago, Turkey launched its so-called Operation Olive Branch, to remove what it saw as the Kurdish threat from Afrin. The Minister says that the protection of civilians must be balanced with “Turkey’s legitimate interest in the security of its borders”, but we must be clear: the incursion is neither legitimate nor justified. It should never have been allowed in the first place and has no basis in international law. An olive branch? There could hardly be a less suitable name for the assault.

Since then, even the most conservative reports estimate that several hundred Kurds have died. Shamefully, the Turkish forces have used artillery and other explosive weapons to target civilian areas. The Kurdish Red Crescent reports that in the month after the attacks started, 93 civilians were killed, 24 of them children, and 313 civilians were wounded, 51 of them children. UNICEF reported this morning that more than 1,000 children have died across Syria in just the first two months of 2018. The use of artillery and explosive weapons against residential areas is clearly prohibited by international humanitarian law. It is unforgiveable that they are still being used. This is not an olive branch. It is a stick to beat the Kurdish community with.

The situation is evolving rapidly, so let me set out three particular concerns for the days ahead. According to reports, Turkish forces are advancing on Afrin right now, so we must do whatever we can to protect civilians. First, there are real concerns that when Turkish forces enter Afrin, there will be widespread atrocities as they seek to root out those they call terrorists. It is particularly disturbing to hear reports that at the centre of the assault, working alongside the Turkish army, have been some of the very same jihadists whom the Kurdish forces worked so hard to drive out of northern Syria.

Given the call by those in Afrin for civilians to form a human shield around the city, a siege and an assault on the city are likely to cause severe civilian casualties. What are the UK Government doing to apply pressure on Turkey to stop the assault and to respect international law? Will the Government make it absolutely clear to Turkey, as a NATO ally, that anything less is unacceptable, and that we can never excuse throwing around the word “terrorism” to justify human rights abuses?

Secondly, The Washington Post has today reported accounts of thousands of Kurds already fleeing from the city of Afrin, fearing for their lives and what will happen if or when the city falls. What reassurance will the Minister provide that refugees and internally displaced people will be granted safe passage, and that the international community, including Britain, will step up to the plate and provide immediate humanitarian aid and long-term support?

Thirdly, let me turn to access for humanitarian aid and for the human rights monitors who can act as one of the greatest deterrents against civilian atrocities. What steps are the Government taking to urge Turkey to allow access for independent monitors to ensure that civilians are protected and that perpetrators of abuses are held to account? Now that UK-funded partners and UN agencies are suspending humanitarian activities, what steps are the Government taking quickly to restore full humanitarian access to Afrin, so that the UK and other partners can get aid in and save lives?

Those in the Kurdish community across the UK are watching, and they deserve to know that the UK is doing absolutely everything we can to help civilians in Afrin.