My Lords, it is essential that we keep focused on Syria, because it is possibly the greatest humanitarian tragedy since the Second World War. In a message only this week, a girl, Siham, who was in the Aleppo hospital and was suffering from 70% burns, said, “Please let it be over now. We have to find a way out. We’ve had all we can take”. Seven years of civil war have slaughtered 500,000 of the country’s most vulnerable people and driven nearly 12 million Syrians from their homes, with many thousands more missing.
A few weeks ago at Westminster, we had a coach-load of the wives of some of those who are missing in Syria. They did not know whether their husbands were alive, whether they had been tortured or killed. This very week I had a group of 10 young Syrian refugees here at Westminster. They were glad to be here on an English language course, which of course is essential. We shared many of their problems, from accommodation to the need to learn English so that, if the opportunity comes—and I hope it will be made available in legislation very soon—they will be able to take up a job here in the UK.
Mesopotamia was once the cradle of civilisation, yet now of those cities which were part of our historical legacy all we have is pictures of destruction. That irreplaceable heritage is no longer secure and important historical and cultural landmarks, of which Palmyra is one, are being reduced to rubble. Not only are the buildings being reduced to rubble, but the psychological effects on those who lived there or live there still, especially the children, has yet to be contended with. People will be scarred for the remainder of their lives.
Every child should share the right which we enjoy to have a balanced life with opportunities and with laughter—a life where people say, “I believe in you; I have faith in you; you have got a potential there”. Of course, that does not happen. It is a complete violation of everything in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, whether the outrages come from the ruling regime or opposition forces. A time must surely come when those who are responsible for such outrages will be prosecuted for war crimes.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can remember that we ourselves are partly to blame for the situation in the Middle East at the present time. Who drew the lines on the Middle East map after the First World War? France, Turkey, the remnants of the Ottoman Empire and ourselves—we drew the lines, not for their advantage but for ours. They were the proxies, in a way, for the disputes that were going on in Europe and elsewhere. Later, of course, we were at the mercy of the oil producers. Times have changed, but I think that the old imperialism must never be allowed again to reign supreme. We were imposing our beliefs and structures on people whose culture, whose history and whose needs were very different. We have a historic debt to Syria, and we have a responsibility to Syria: we sowed the wind, and they have reaped the whirlwind.
The challenge of the present day is not to deal just with countries but with peoples—peoples of different traditions who respond in ways that are different from our own. Of course, the Syrian people must decide their future for themselves, and this is our great difficulty at the present time. Our opportunity is to facilitate, not to impose. The co-operation and the settlements must be of their bidding: they will decide their own future.
I thought once, as many of us did, that the troubles in Northern Ireland were sufficiently complicated, and they were, but they were nothing compared to the catastrophe of the Middle East. Mind you, Europe has been in similar positions. I remember during the last war, I was only a young lad in Conwy when, standing on the steps of the house, we saw the searchlights over Liverpool as the German bombers were going to target Liverpool—and they did. The destruction of Liverpool has been recorded and it is a very sad story. Who would have said that, some years afterwards, we would be talking to Germany and would be in harmony with one another? Who would have said that we would think the world of Angela Merkel? Who would have said those things? But it happens. I think it was Nelson Mandela who said:
“It always seems impossible until it’s done”.
Our debt to Syria is to unite its peoples. In doing so, we must not impose on them; they must decide their future. We saw that miracle happen in Northern Ireland and we only hope that it continues. In Europe, the Second World War brought about a situation where people were enemies destroying one another. The division was easy to see, and when you saw it you abandoned all hope that we would talk, discuss and laugh with those we had been trying to destroy. But it happened. Someone said it was Winston Churchill who said, “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war”—others say it was someone else and he has just been credited.
I am a devoted fan and a fervent supporter of the European Union because it has achieved what could have been impossible. We have discussed trade ad infinitum over the past few weeks, along with other important things, but to me the great advance and achievement of the European Union is peace and understanding. I am so sorry that we are leaving and I hope there might still be time left for the Government to change their mind, because withdrawing from the European Union and weakening that Union just when it is so necessary is a great tragedy.
I am a dreamer. For some time, I thought we could have in the Middle East the sort of federation, union or understanding that we have in Europe: if we can do it in Europe, can we not try to do it in the Middle East? Can we not try to get the various people, tribes and cultures, with their various histories, talking and working together? I am sure it is not easy—it was not easy in Europe or in Northern Ireland—but I repeat Nelson Mandela’s words:
“It always seems impossible until it’s done”.
This could be one of our contributions. We have had ceasefires in the Middle East that have misfired; that is, they do not seem to hold the peace. Should we not give some sort of vision for the future? In doing so, we must not impose; we must facilitate.
We praise the efforts of those who have devoted their time and resources to bringing hope and stability to this area. Refugee camps have been a home for so many millions of people, and we praise the work of the tens of thousands of people from our country and many others, some of whom have put their own careers on hold so that they can give aid to those in the most desperate of need. We back them all the way; we have a terrific debt to them and thank them for all that they are doing. In Syria itself, organisations like the White Helmets battle on. I am told it has saved 99,000 lives. Could we not somehow nominate it for the Nobel Peace Prize? If any organisation deserves it, this one does.
What can we at home do to improve matters in Syria? It is easy enough to say that the UN should do this and somebody else should do that, but what can we do? I am not sure if this is a true story, but there was a farmer in Wales whose field was full of stones. A workman asked him, “How shall I start to clear these stones”, and the farmer replied, “You must start at your feet”. Can we not be an example? Every week, the voluntary organisations in the UK try to resolve the problems faced by asylum seekers. They want to work, and we are denying them that opportunity. They just want to earn a living and be able to live a decent and independent life. We will have an immigration Bill at some point, but I hope that even before then we can resolve some of these problems that deny asylum seekers that respect that every human being needs. They have skills and potential that could enrich our communities. These are families, children, women and men, just like ourselves. I look forward very much to the Minister’s response. He and I have spoken of these things many times. I hope that we can at least see a way ahead to overcome some of the obstacles in the present regulations that deny them that respect.
I came across a poem by Warsan Shire. This is what it says:
“you have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land no one burns their palms under trains beneath carriages no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled means something more than journey. no one crawls under fences no one wants to be beaten pitied no one chooses refugee camps or strip searches where your body is left aching”.
No one chooses to be a refugee or a victim of inhumane actions wherever they live. Can we not change our own culture on welcoming people here? It is easy to say, “Let us reduce the number who come in from this number to that number”. Is it not time we welcomed people with a smile, not a frown? The qualities of the Government and of Members of this House will be tested in our response. I thank noble Lords for the opportunity to open this debate. I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, on securing this very important debate, and his very moving opening speech. Violations of human rights by President Assad and his Government are widely reported and condemned, and certainly not condoned by me. Yet many Syrians and people in this country are concerned by the one-sided nature of such condemnations.
I have visited Syria twice at the invitation of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch. I and colleagues met faith leaders, including the Grand Mufti; representatives of diverse political parties, including opposition parties; internationally renowned artists, musicians and intellectuals; NGOs; internally displaced persons; and members of local communities in Damascus, Latakia, Saidnaya, Maaloula and Aleppo. Everyone to whom we spoke expressed deep sadness and often anger at the devastating impact of British foreign policy, highlighting, for example, the horrendous effect of sanctions on the humanitarian crisis. These sanctions greatly harm civilians, for whom it is very difficult to obtain employment, adequate supplies of food, medicines and medical equipment.
The crisis is highlighted in the Lancet:
“The economic losses of the country at the end of 2014 stood at US$143.8 billion, with more than 80% of the population living in poverty, of whom a third … were in abject poverty, unable to obtain even basic food items … Life expectancy has been reduced from 75.9 years in 2010 … to 55.7 years in 2014—a loss of 20 years … The cost of basic food items has risen six-fold since 2010, although it varies regionally. With the exception of drugs for cancer and diabetes, Syria was 95% self-sufficient in terms of drug production before the war. This has virtually collapsed as have many hospitals and primary health-care centres. Economic sanctions have not removed the President: as with other countries under siege … Sanctions are among the biggest causes of suffering for the people of Syria and a major factor perpetuating the conflict”.
Many Syrians are also deeply concerned by the continued commitment of outside powers to imposing regime change rather than listening to what the Syrian people want. Her Majesty’s Government are wedded to the mantra that President Assad must go. This is despite the fact that his military capacity, supported by Russia, has achieved the virtual expulsion of ISIS and related Islamist forces and, as there is no moderate armed opposition, his removal would result in inevitable chaos. To quote three former British ambassadors to Syria, who wrote a letter to the Times, forced regime change,
“risks creating a chaotic situation similar to, or perhaps even worse than, those in Iraq and Libya”.
The ambassadors urged the UK Government,
“to respect the right of the Syrian people as a whole to choose their own future”,
a point emphasised so appropriately by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts. All those whom we met believe that Syrians should have that right to determine their own future and elect their own leadership, without foreign interference. As the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch told us:
“No regime in the world is perfect. Of course, we want reforms. But change has to come from the Syrians, for the Syrians”.
Another cause for widespread concern is the British Government’s financial support for so-called moderate opposition forces, spending as much as £60 million of taxpayers’ money per year on groups that oppose Assad’s regime. However, we heard time and again, including from those previously opposed to Assad, that opposition groups are now dominated by jihadist militants. The vast majority of these groups have extremist Islamist ideologies, with no intention of creating democracy in Syria.
The UK has Special Forces on the Jordanian border and in the Al-Tanf enclave. These forces are ostensibly assigned to anti-ISIS missions; in reality, their mission is believed to involve the training and equipping of anti-Assad forces. The UK also has officers embedded in headquarters in coalition-occupied Syria. How is this compatible with assurances given to Parliament in 2015 about our forces’ mission being limited to fighting ISIS and there being no ground presence? This issue has certainly not been clarified by the Answers given to my Parliamentary Questions. Will the Minister clarify the situation regarding the legitimacy of the involvement of UK military forces in the war in Syria without any invitation from the elected Government? The response given in the Answer to my Parliamentary Question was that the legal case for having a British military presence in Syria is based on “the self-defence of Iraq”. This seems highly problematic. It is surely a pernicious doctrine to claim that a mandate to act in one country automatically gives an entitlement to take military action in a neighbouring country.
Can the Minister also explain the apparent gross double standards of Her Majesty’s Government’s policies? For example, they are promoting trade with Sudan, whose president has been indicted by the International Criminal Court and whose Government are responsible for the deaths of 3 million people, including their genocidal policies in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile—I have witnessed those myself—and the displacement of 5 million people, while still perpetrating gross violations of human rights in Sudan. However, Her Majesty’s Government will not even consider opening an embassy in Damascus.
I have received a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Bates, for which I thank him very much, but I am afraid it raises a number of questions. For example, I was puzzled to read that, “the people of Eastern Ghouta are desperate for a break from the regime”, presumably the Assad regime. This needs to be seen in the context of their experience of life under the jihadists in Eastern Ghouta, where there are widespread reports of food and medical assistance being withheld from civilians by the jihadists, of civilians saying they were held as human shields, of the execution of anyone who opposed the militants, and of the widespread theft of property by those militants. Is this really the choice that the people of Eastern Ghouta would prefer? It is not, according to those who have recently escaped.
There has also been widespread condemnation of the Syrian army’s offensives against Eastern Ghouta. However, these also need to be seen in context. Since 2012, an estimated 11,000 civilians have been killed in Damascus as a result of shelling from those rebel-held areas, including 1,500 children. Around 30,000 have been maimed and disabled. I have not seen this toll of death and injury in Damascus reported in the UK media. Ninety per cent of Eastern Ghouta is now in the hands of the Syrian Government. The main remaining group of Islamist militants is the Saudi proxy, Army of Islam, based in the town of Douma. It is being offered conditional surrender. There remains another small pocket in the south-west, in Yarmouk, controlled by a few hundred ISIS fighters. These are not moderate opposition forces but jihadist militants with extremist ideologies.
Her Majesty’s Government and the UK media have also failed to acknowledge the policies adopted by the Syrian Government to mitigate the tragedies of war, such as the maintenance of humanitarian corridors for the delivery of aid and the exit of civilians. They did this in eastern Aleppo and 75,000 civilians have availed themselves of this facility in Eastern Ghouta. They have also given permission for militants to leave with their families. That is in stark contrast to the fate of Syrian army soldiers captured by jihadists, who are regularly slaughtered.
The initiatives of Dr Ali Haidar, a former prominent opponent of President Assad and now the Minister for National Reconciliation, are also totally ignored by western media. Although at great risk, those involved in reconciliation initiatives have facilitated more than 1,000 local truces, bringing peace to hundreds of towns and villages. Her Majesty’s Government often applaud the work of the White Helmets. I regretfully have to say that there is a lot of evidence to prove that they are not always the heroes of humanitarian aid and peace, as widely portrayed. There is now an abundance of evidence to indicate their support for jihadists in many parts of the country and of their complicity in many atrocities. Civilians who have recently escaped from Eastern Ghouta report that the White Helmets did not help civilians but worked with the jihadists, including on the production of propaganda footage for western media.
The letter written by the noble Lord, Lord Bates, also said that “only one side in this conflict has deployed all the machinery of war, including chemical weapons”. Yet despite claims from the jihadis about the Assad regime’s use of chlorine, which have repeatedly been highlighted by western media and Governments, there has not been one recorded instance verified by a credible witness such as the UN. However, in areas that have been liberated, jihadi workshops used for making chlorine bombs have been found. The letter also states that “overwhelming responsibility for the heart breaking human suffering … lies with the Assad regime”. As I have already said, one cannot condone atrocities committed by the regime, but responsibility for human suffering must predominantly be attributed to the insurgency of ISIS and other Islamist groups who have perpetrated genocidal policies and atrocities on a massive scale, including abductions into sexual slavery, torture and beheadings. I will never forget weeping with a Muslim woman in Latakia who had been forced to flee her home by Islamist fighters after she had had to watch them behead her husband and son. She said, “War is tragic and people die from shelling on both sides. But on one side, you die from shellings, on the other side, you die from shellings and beheadings, and we don’t want the beheadings”.
The UK Government’s current approach risks oversimplifying a very complex war. Moving forward, it is crucial that the people of Syria be allowed to decide their own future without any external political agendas or conditions, so that the country can recover and maintain and preserve its plurality and diversity as a place of freedom of faith, deep culture and historic civilisation.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for securing this debate and for keeping the focus of this House on the suffering of Syria. I also thank him for the deep compassion of his words.
On this holy day in the Christian year, my mind is full of memories of spending Maundy Thursday 2006 in Hasakah, in north-east Syria, and sitting in the archbishop’s residence as community and religious leaders, mainly Muslims, came to give their greetings to the Syrian Orthodox Christian community in a custom of civic conviviality that was entirely normal and was reciprocated by Christians during Muslim festivals. It was a sign, among many, of the diversity of Syrian society and the deep bonds of mutual affection between the peoples.
Later in the day we travelled to Qamishli on the Turkish border for a foot-washing service and Holy Eucharist. The large church was heaving with people of all ages rehearsing the foundational events of their faith with a devotion and joy that you could almost touch. It was a sign, among many, of the vitality of the Syrian Orthodox Church in those not too far distant days, and of the great contribution of Christians to the social fabric of the land, as well as of their critical role in Syria’s professions and businesses and of the great work of their hospitals, schools and projects of care serving the whole of Syrian society.
So much of that lies—literally, as we know—in ruins, and will take great efforts to rebuild. I am confident that the Minister will want to join me and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox—and, I am sure, others in this House—in saying to the now-beleaguered Christian community, who, with their fellow Syrian citizens, have suffered so much, that their future in their own land matters to your Lordships’ House and that we respect the churches’ commitment, even now, to reconciling communities that have become divided by the violence of civil war.
As the Church in the west this night enters more deeply into the suffering of a Middle Eastern person 20 centuries ago, and as the Church of the east prepares for its own commemorations next week, I hope that your Lordships will allow me to frame my own comments today around Jesus’s own plea to the city of Jerusalem only a few days before it became his place of execution:
“Would that you knew the things that make for peace”.
That question has an urgency when it is voiced by the victim.
The number of victims—living and now dead, those still in Syria, those exiled abroad, young and old, Muslim and Christian of all shades—is beyond our imagining. I have tried to spend my Holy Week this year—some of it, at least—listening to Syrian victims in my own city of Coventry and beyond. Very many to whom I have spoken had terrible and terrifying stories to tell about the persecution they had suffered at the hands of the Assad regime. They told me of the ever-present danger faced by their friends and family in Syria, whether in rebel areas or not. Others spoke of the protection that they had experienced from the regime and their gratitude that their family and friends had been saved from the chaos and carnage that have come in the wake of the forces of the opposition. They were the sort of testimonies brought to our attention by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox.
Whatever their personal experience and political perspective, however, every Syrian I meet tells me that what they want most is peace—“Let it be over”, as we heard. Beautiful words. They are deeply grateful, of course, for the humanitarian assistance that they receive, but what they desire above all else is peace, and the safety that comes from peace: a safety that they long to see so that they can return to their own land. That is what they desire. “It is our land”, they say, and that is their greatest humanitarian need. They know that peace and safety will come only when foreign fighters leave and when foreign powers use their power to broker peace.
Today, I left a service in Coventry Cathedral early to take part in this debate—but not before we had blessed the oils of Christian ministry to be used throughout the year. The oil of healing was brought to me—uniquely in Coventry—from the ruins of the old cathedral that now stand as permanent memorial to the suffering of humanity, especially innocent civilians, through violence and war. We call it the Cathedral of Crucifixion.
Some years ago, Pope Francis said:
“Pray for peace … there is no military solution for Syria”.
I printed out his words in large type and they have hung in my house ever since, waiting for the world to recognize their wisdom. What have the bombs and bullets of all sides in Syria accomplished and what has the fuel of the nations’ weaponry, thrown on to the fires of civil war, brought to this beautiful land? Have they brought its people any closer to peace or nearer to justice?
The call of Coventry from the devastation of its cathedral in 1940, from the civil war that raged across Europe, was to have hope in humanity: hope even in the darkest time, hope that said, “We will build a new cathedral and we will call it the Cathedral of Resurrection, because we will not give up on hope for humanity and its capacity to break out of the cycle of violence and find peace”. Now, as a Coventrian, I was much moved by the personal stories of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, about the war and the peace that came out of it.
I know that the cause of Syria’s peace and the needs of its victims weigh heavily on Her Majesty’s Government, and I would not be surprised if the complexity of Syria’s situation and the lack of levers that we have on this international stage of war, with powers fighting their proxy wars, do not, at times, become a counsel of despair for our Government. That despair haunts my own heart also. But on this Maundy Thursday, the day of the Mandatum—the commandment to love one another—let this House and Her Majesty’s Government not give up hope. Let us rather call the nations to a new form of international conversation that, away from the glare of publicity and the lure of political grandstanding, creates a common, ethically driven narrative that appeals to the deepest humanitarian instincts of every person and nation and makes the Syrian people no longer victims of struggles for power, internal or external, but victors in a new war of words that will not cease until peace has come. In the interests of creating that common cause, perhaps I may ask the Minister whether he will assure your Lordships’ House that the Syrian people will not become victims again of the current disruptions in UK-Russian relations.
If it be said that my calls for a determined renewal of hope that peace is possible and need not be far off are the pious naiveties of a churchman beguiled by ancient stories of a dead man rising that belong to a very different world from the realities of 21st-century international politics, I say that history is on the side of hope, and that the things that make for peace prevail over the things that make for war. To act on the deepest humanitarian instincts to save the suffering, and to see that it is the common interest of nations, is the standard by which the greatness of the world’s leaders will be judged.
My Lords, I also voice my thanks to my noble friend Lord Roberts for securing this debate.
It is no doubt to be expected that many assessments of the provision of humanitarian aid to Syria have been couched in markedly politicised terms. I recently read several of the reports provided over the last few months to or through the UN Security Council, and in respect of many of the statements made in them it is often difficult, perhaps even futile, to form practical judgments, once one has made allowance for what is uncorroborated fact, what is bias, and what is based on flimsy testimony.
However, what seems incontestable is that first, in the villages around eastern Ghouta controlled by the jihadist militants, the plight of Syrian civilians has truly been pitiable. People have been so starved and emaciated that they can barely stand up, and live transmissions show them lying on the grass like weakened animals. Government and militant sources have given different accounts of the circumstances that restricted the movement of aid into Ghouta, but as regards final outcomes it is clear from developments in Aleppo, Homs, Hama and elsewhere that where the Syrian Government have retaken territory from the militants, the Syrian people are returning home in their thousands. According to UNHCR figures, in 2017 nearly half a million Syrians returned to their areas: 444,000 of them internally displaced people and over 30,000 from abroad. ISIL has now withdrawn from the last territory that it controlled near Aleppo city, and the UN’s International Organisation on Migration has seen a large surge of Syrians returning there. No one is claiming that this is the end to their problems—perhaps 40% do not have access to water and healthcare—but it is undoubtedly the case that the Syrian Government are working with the UN and its agencies to facilitate the provision of aid in these liberated areas.
Until recently, the UN assessed that about 95% of all those living in areas where they are trapped by militants are to be found in the Ghouta pocket, but there has also been a recent very large exodus of people, about 150,000 or so, out of the Afrin enclave in the north of the country. They are fleeing the Turkish Army attacks and moving into areas controlled by the Syrian Government. So the longer-term pattern seems quite discernible: where the Government are in charge, the refugees will try to find their way back. What has happened in Aleppo city is therefore likely to happen in Ghouta if the Government are indeed taking back control of the area.
At the moment, there are 27 international non-governmental organisations working in Syria, two international agencies—the International Committee of the Red Cross and ECHO, the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations—and nearly 1,600 local organisations and local charitable institutions. That is a lot of Syrian civil society groups. The other incontestable fact is that enormously significant work is being done by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the Syria Trust through the partnerships with many INGOs and with the UN. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent accompanies all the UN humanitarian aid columns. It plays a prominent role in rehabilitating infrastructure in the affected areas in order to restore life as much as possible to normality and encourage people to return to their homes. Meanwhile, the Syrian civil society groups that I mentioned earlier are in the lead in providing shelter to the displaced. At the moment, it seems they have insufficient shelters for all those in need and are having to resort to using tents instead. All this activity has little to do with international organisations or the UN; it is strongly driven by the local groups.
As I said, none of this should give any rise to complacency among us, but we should take note of the remarkable dynamism and determination towards self-help and reconstruction within the country itself. It is clear that the Syrians are not going to look for partners in this work from among those who have been involved in creating havoc in the first place. In terms of external involvement, the Indians, the Chinese and maybe the South Africans are going to play greater bilateral roles in rebuilding the country than, for example, Turkey or Saudi Arabia.
International assistance apart, we should note how much the Syrians are doing themselves. In this context, I should like to ask whether the time has not come when we should do more to support the direction of that movement. International aid of course plays a vital role but the Syrians can and are willing to help themselves. Their hospitals are willing to procure and import medical supplies and their municipalities wish to procure and import food supplies. The big obstacle in the way are the sanctions that control the transfer of money payments.
I have raised this question before and the Government’s response has been that there are perfectly satisfactory procedures for hospitals to apply for licences or exemptions from the sanctions regime, yet of those hospitals and surgeries with which I am in contact in Syria I have found none that has been able to avail itself of such a facility. So perhaps the Minister could in due course let us know which hospitals have found a means to obtain such an exemption, or at the very least what contact persons or agencies one can identify to assist them in this procedure. When we are debating the provision of humanitarian aid in Syria, there is something unbalanced if we are unwilling to take a closer look at the way that our own sanctions regime obstructs the procurement by Syrian representatives of their own medical and food supplies through their own resources.
My Lords, I begin by paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, who has been a friend for more than 40 years, for securing this timely and important debate today and for the compassionate and consistent way in which he has championed the cause of the Syrian people. It is a privilege to follow so many moving and powerful speeches.
In September 1980, during my first visit to Syria, I met Hafiz al-Assad, the Syrian President from 1971 to 2000, and father of Bashar al-Assad. The meeting took place on the day on which the eight-year Iran-Iraq war began—a forgotten conflict that claimed the lives of more than 1 million people. Since then, through wars and proxy wars from Iraq to Yemen and through the emergence of barbaric militias and violent ideologies, the region has been convulsed and disfigured by an orgy of unspeakable violence, and those responsible have believed that they will never be held to account.
For eight long years now, as we have heard, Syria has been ravaged, with an estimated 500,000 fatalities, of whom 200,000 are thought to be children. In his moving remarks, the right reverend Prelate told us that we should never give up on hope. He is, of course, right. The one thing left in Pandora’s box was hope.
The practical situation on the ground is this. Since 2011, this war has left more than 13 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, 6.5 million internally displaced and another 5 million clinging to life as refugees in camps and countries far away from their homeland, mostly in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. From Aleppo to Damascus, from Eastern Ghouta and Homs to Palmyra, and now in Afrin, we have watched as internal and external forces have reduced homes, hospitals, schools and communities to rubble. In particular, we have seen appalling depredations committed by ISIS and, subsequently, hundreds of Islamic State fighters fleeing Raqqa, once the group’s de facto capital, but their dispersal does not represent defeat for an ideology that continues to preach hatred and to practise genocide.
As Ministers have conceded, in 2013 the United Kingdom lost its ability to shape events, with Iran rapidly filling that void, followed by Russia in 2015. With Turkey’s intervention in 2018 in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, as we heard, a further 98,000 people have been displaced. Last week, Christian Aid, in a report issued to Members of your Lordships’ House said that there have been widespread reports of arbitrary arrests, threats of violence and looting of civilian property by the Free Syrian Army—a group the United Kingdom Government have previously told us that they support.
The consequences for Syria have been lethal for millions of people, not least in the slaughter of the region’s minorities. On Monday, I attended the opening of a poignant exhibition being staged here in Parliament highlighting the genocide against the Yazidis, who have been subjected to nauseating obscenity and barbarism, rape, enslavement and murder. Nearly 10,000 Yazidis are believed to have been killed or captured by ISIS, with more than 3,000 Yazidi girls and women believed to be currently enslaved in Syria. Christians have also experienced a genocide that began with the Armenians at the beginning of the 20th century and continues to this day.
The predators change but the existential threat to the minorities has not. The Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo says that two-thirds of Syrian Christians have either been killed or driven away from his country. I serve as a pro bono member of the board of the charity Aid to the Church in Need, and have been deeply moved by the accounts of many who have given evidence to the charity. The suffering that they have experienced was described last night at a Passiontide Wednesday service at St Patrick’s, Soho. One of those who spoke told me the story of a Christian family: a mother and 12 year-old daughter were raped by ISIS militants, leading the father, who was forced to watch, to commit suicide. One refugee described how she witnessed ISIS crucify her husband on the door to their home.
“the world must wake up urgently to the plight of the ancient churches throughout the region who are faced with the threat of mass murder and mass displacement”.
But as Yazidis fled to Mount Sinjar and Christians fled for their lives, the world chose not to wake up and the genocide continued. A 16 year-old Yazidi girl, Ekhlas, subsequently met parliamentarians, including myself, and described crucifixions, beheadings, systematic rape and mass graves.
Following the failure of your Lordships to pass an amendment laid before the House on
In 2016, David Cameron said,
“there is a very strong case here for saying that it is genocide, and I hope that it will be portrayed and spoken of as such”.—[
However, the Foreign Office has declined to do so and refused to act on that vote. This has made us derelict in our obligations under the 1948 convention on genocide, which places on us as a signatory a duty to prevent, to protect and to punish. It is the word genocide that could have changed the fate of the nameless thousands of victims and survivors of mass atrocities in Syria and Iraq.
Gregory Stanton, research professor in genocide studies and prevention at George Mason University, conducted a study on the perception and effects of determining genocidal atrocities using the words of “ethnic cleansing” or “genocide”. The results of the study revealed that:
“It was not until the term ‘genocide’ was applied to the crimes, that force was used to stop them ... When the term ‘genocide’ is used to describe crimes against humanity, use of force is possible. When the crimes are only called ‘ethnic cleansing’ or ‘crimes against humanity’, it is a sure indicator of lack of political will to take forceful action to stop them”.
“Genocide” is a word that makes so much difference. Only by recognising the mass atrocities committed as genocide will victims be able to receive an adequate level of justice. Furthermore, the recognition of genocide matters for their humanitarian assistance, justice and much more besides. The Minister will be aware of the impact that the current policies have had on issues such as, for example, asylum. Less than 1% of those allowed into the UK under the Syrian vulnerable persons scheme come from the groups that I have described as affected by genocide. Everyone affected by war suffers, but either genocide is a crime above all crimes or it is not. Labelling victims simply as “religious groups” is also, in terms of the implementation of things such as asylum policies, a form of reverse discrimination.
In addition to the failure to determine the ISIS atrocities perpetrated against religious minorities in Syria and Iraq as genocide, the atrocities perpetrated by other actors within the regime also have genocidal traits, such as the use of chemical weapons and the intentional starvation of the population. They are most certainly war crimes and crimes against humanity. But what links all these atrocities is a culture of impunity. Do we have the will or the capacity to hold those responsible to account and to bring them to justice? That is the central question. Genocide is the crime above all crimes, and it must be our starting point in upholding internationally agreed law and in determining our priorities in all areas of public policy.
The case of the ISIS genocide against these minorities is a simple one. Daesh fighters have been systematically perpetrating mass atrocities, including killing members of religious groups such as Yazidis, Christians, Shia Muslims and others, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of these groups, deliberately imposing conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction in whole or in part. Intent does not have to be inferred from these atrocities. Daesh has been expressing this genocidal intent through social media and in its recruitment and propaganda newsletters and videos. The crucifixion and death of one young man was boastfully posted on the internet. He was crucified for wearing a cross. From the same town local girls were taken as sex slaves. ISIS returned their body parts to the front door of their parents’ homes with a videotape of them being raped.
The UK Government cannot justify hiding behind the long-standing legacy of genocide denial. Ministers say, “It is clearly a matter for judicial authorities to determine whether a genocide has taken place”, and then fail to put in place a mechanism for doing that. They say, “Perpetrators will pay the price”. They have talked about “the long arm of justice” and give the example of Srebrenica, where 8,000 Bosnian men and youths were massacred. Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, who worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia between 1998 and 2006 and led the prosecution of Slobodan Milošević, spoke at a colloquium on genocide which I convened in your Lordships’ House last week. As Sir Geoffrey made clear, a trial of genocide is not easy, as is clear from the case of Ratko Mladić which, for reasons I shall give, was a surprising choice for the Government to cite. What options do the Government have in seeking to justify their position for leaving genocidal determination to the international judicial system? There is the International Criminal Court but vetoes and hostility by key members of the Security Council sadly make it unlikely that the ICC would be a realistic mechanism to deal with these events.
Another mechanism might be something like the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, whose role the Government regularly now cite. But, to be clear, the ICTY was an ad hoc tribunal with a limited jurisdiction. The court was established after a commission of experts, established by the UN Security Council, determined in its interim report that “ethnic cleanings” were perpetrated. This was before it prepared a final report confirming that genocide and other mass atrocities had been perpetrated. This determination of genocide by the commission of experts was the key to establishing the ad hoc tribunal and ensuring that the perpetrators were brought to justice. It was the interim determination by the commission of experts and not the ICTY’s final judgment that was the first and most important step towards justice. This point needs to be fully understood. If there is no special ad hoc tribunal or no existing court capable of making an adjudication, there will be no consideration of the atrocities that would result in a final judgment acceptable to the UK Government.
Secondly, as Gladstone once observed, justice delayed can be justice denied. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, confirmed in a reply to me last week that Mladić was arrested 16 years after he was charged and convicted only in November 2017—two decades after his genocidal atrocities had taken place. If a perpetrator is never charged with genocide, he will not be convicted of genocide, so the UK Government will not gain the final judgment necessary to make a genocidal determination. I have never argued that the UK Government should undertake the role of being a court to make the final determination. But they can make a qualified determination, subject to evidence and final judgment. It is the interim determination of genocide that can trigger further steps, as in case of the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and elsewhere. This is precisely the approach taken by the Dutch Government, now temporary members of the Security Council, and it is in the provisions of my Private Member’s Bill before your Lordships’ House.
Under the genocide convention, the Government have a duty in law to act, and act they must. Syria desperately needs an end to violations against the civilian population, including summary executions, hostage-taking, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence. It needs the release of children, women, the elderly and the disabled from detention centres. It needs an end to siege tactics, to ensure that there is immediate and timely access to, and provision of, humanitarian assistance. One day it will need both the right to return and protection. If ever future genocides and crimes against humanity are contemplated, the world needs to see that perpetrators of such crimes will be held to account and that any final settlement will not include amnesties for gross violations of human rights, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. All those who have suffered in Syria’s bloodletting deserve nothing less.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, has made some very interesting points, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
It is with great glee and enthusiasm that I thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, for launching this debate. He and I came into the Lords at the same time in 2004. We have been friends for many years and I was in the same party group for a while. It has always been a pleasure to work with him and to listen to his natural proclivity to be a man of peace—peace in Europe after the Second World War and peace in the world. He has done great work in that field. A notable feature of the Liberal Democrat Party is that that is one of its priorities, as we know.
It is also a great pleasure to speak in the same debate as my good friend, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry. We have at least one shared interest: we are both patrons of the Dresden Trust, which works for peace between Coventry and Dresden. The right reverend Prelate knows far more about the symbolism than I do, but that body also helped in the rebuilding of the Frauenkirche by paying for the orb and the cross on the top of the dome, as well as other things. It is a great pleasure for us to reflect on those things from time to time. Again, that sends out a message of peace in a place that experienced what he called a ferocious European civil war. I think there were 22 years between the first instalment, the First World War, and the second instalment, the Second World War. Fortunately, after the Second World War, the victorious allies handled the situation much better than they did after the First World War, when Germany was humiliated beyond all measure.
It is also a great pleasure to follow the excellent speech of a good friend and colleague on the Cross Benches, my noble friend Lady Cox, who is an expert on the Middle East. It was interesting to hear about her church-sponsored visit there. The right reverend Prelate, too, spoke about what he did when he visited on a separate occasion.
So many complications in this situation are created by local elements and by international actions and mistakes. I first went to Baghdad in 1988, when the city was full of American and British businessmen and officials and supporters of the United States and Britain saying that Saddam Hussein led the finest Government in Arabia. He was popular with America at the time. America supported him very strongly against Iran in the terrible tragedy of the Iran/Iraq war. Even after the gassing in Halabja, I remember vividly that the Americans publicly said that the Iranians had done it—because they were the devil then whom the Americans disliked and hated, and they thought Saddam Hussein was fine. Subsequently, Saddam Hussein made a mistake by not consulting the Americans before he invaded Kuwait, and was quite rightly driven out by the international community a year later.
A good friend of mine who lives in Israel has great experience in these matters. He holds moderate views and his support for international peace is well known. I will not give his name as he has not given me permission to quote him. However, he remarked that the man and woman in the street in Arabian countries see double standards in the international community, because Saddam Hussein was rightly expelled from Kuwait a year after the invasion but Israel is still in the West Bank, 50 years or more after the 1967 war. That double standard is one of the elements in this terrible tragedy of the conflict in the near East and the failure to resolve it.
I had enormous sympathy with the United States after the 9/11 attacks, as I am sure does everyone here. However, in its response after those attacks, America made mistakes in the near East and Middle East. Having worked with the Taliban in the old days to get the Soviet Union to leave Afghanistan, the Americans then fell out with the Taliban, or the Taliban fell out with them—and look at what is happening now in that tragic country.
Over 1 million people marched down Piccadilly to protest against the UK’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq. It was the first time I had ever been on a march. Millions of people thought that the UK’s involvement was a mistake, but the march was ignored by the then Prime Minister. However, by then, of course, we were devoid of proper information about the invasion, and we wondered about some of the details. I was then in the Liberal Democrat group, trying to monitor some of the effects of the war on civilians in Iraq. As we know, it was an illegal war and we admired France’s resistance to it—although it was vilified in the United States for that.
We tried to monitor what was happening to civilians but we could not get any names. A leading defence figure in the Liberal Democrat group, who, sadly, expired many years ago at the very young age of 62, managed to get the numbers that were going into mortuaries and hospitals. The figures were huge. But even now we do not know how many casualties there were in the Iraq war. No information has ever been given by the then Government or by the current American-sponsored Government in Baghdad.
Iraq remains a broken country—and so does Libya, because of the mistakes that were made, not so much by America this time but by France and Britain with the final NATO attack on Gaddafi, which caused his death following the previous judicial murder of Saddam Hussein. Perhaps he should not have been hanged—I do not know. There are lots of arguments about these things.
Then we come to the current tragedy of the Syrian civil war. Has the West sufficiently understood that it has to be careful in handling the response to this? In this case, France under François Hollande was too fierce. I did not expect that but that, too, was a mistake. However, the Americans and the British decided that they could continue their historical primordial right of having a presence in those areas—mainly for oil, of course, in the case of the United States but for other reasons too. There was the Sykes-Picot agreement and other events in the history of that tragic development. We thought that we ourselves would decide who would be in charge of those Middle Eastern countries, with the exception of Israel, which we are leaving alone. The United States had 35 vetoes to stop Israel behaving and following international law. I am a friend of Israel but I think that that was a great mistake; the situation would otherwise be very different now.
In Syria we now see the effects of those mistakes, and the West, either deliberately or accidentally, continues to misunderstand the details of what is happening. It is a classic civil war, much of it between Sunni and Shia, although the media hardly ever mention that—in fact, the BBC has never mentioned it. Various elements from outside have come in, and we know the tragic history. More recently, the Russians have come in with the Iranians. What a mistake by the West was the isolation of Iran. I am so pleased that Britain and others in Europe decided to end that and not to go along with the United States, which still wants to pursue Iran’s isolation. How ridiculous that is when it is such an important country.
Iran has resisted the efforts of Saudi Arabia to create hegemony in Syria, and we now see the last elements of this tragic, awful war. I have never been there; I am simply talking about what I see in the commentaries in the press, in social media comments and on the internet. It looks as though the Syrian Government are now winning as a result of assistance from Russia and support from Iran, with subsequent groups coming in from Lebanon and so on. That may be the best result—I am not enough of an expert to say—but it is a tragic civil war. You can always cite crimes on both sides and among all the groups, but it has to be resolved.
I was told that the Syrian Government were always very accommodating towards Christians—both those from abroad and the large Christian community of various kinds living in Syria, who were always a big feature. However, they are now reluctant to accept that the West has much of a role to play, and that is a tragedy. In view of what has happened in the past, they are suspicious of the West’s attempts to become involved in these matters. The West had a one-sided approach of saying, “We’ve decided from outside that this incumbent Government is a rebel Government without any legitimacy”. That is not what outside parties should do. Leading international countries should let the local people decide these things themselves. The final outcome in Syria will be what the Syrian people want it to be —they know best. There are faults and mistakes on all sides but we must encourage a decision by the Syrian people; otherwise, once again, the West will be seen as flimsy and inadequate and its response will be badly received. Israel will remain without a solution to a problem that should have been solved years ago. Mahmoud Abbas is incompetent. He is now 85 years old; he has ruled for 11 years beyond his election mandate and Hamas is still locked into Gaza. The whole thing is a grotesque tragedy.
Given its use of vetoes, the United States’ recent criticism of Russia and China for trying to veto what it is doing is grotesque hypocrisy. The United States bears a heavy responsibility for misbehaviour in the Middle East and for the way it has abused the United Nations, particularly the Security Council. Years ago it was a member of the high-level panel which wanted to reform the Security Council and the rest of the UN, but that was vetoed by the US. It refused to allow the Security Council to be examined and the high-level panel could only initiate other reforms—but even then the United States responded by saying that it did not agree with those either. It put forward 600 suggested reforms and amendments for the proposed modernisation of everything but the Security Council, and the initiative just petered out. No reforms were carried out, apart from to agencies—a few details at the margin.
The West must learn these lessons. Until we get a real, solid and lasting peace in Syria, with all its complicated elements, and until the Sunni/Shia element is pulled out of the situation which has been created at the expense of the brave Syrian people who have suffered so much, the more difficulties we will find in the future. The West must rehabilitate itself and its reputation by now being intelligent, open-minded and pragmatic, and genuinely seek peace, including with the incumbent Government in Damascus.
I thank my noble friend Lord Roberts for introducing this important debate to your Lordships’ House. His opening speech setting the scene of how dreadful the humanitarian situation is across Syria was touching. However, his message of hope and that of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry has motivated me to make the speech I am about to make, because seemingly intractable conflicts around the world have reached resolution, My noble friend mentioned the conflict on our doorstep in Ireland and the Second World War, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned the conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda. I am hopeful that with the passage of time even this seemingly intractable conflict, with its many different layers that add to the complication, will one day result in the people whose future really matters—the Syrians—sitting down at the table and negotiating their own peace.
I shall concentrate the remainder of my remarks on the humanitarian situation in Syria. The figures speak for themselves. Since the start of the repression of Syrian civilians by their own leader—we have heard of number of theories about who is to blame and who is more culpable than anyone else—there have been faults on all sides. On the facts that I have seen, the conflict started by President Assad bearing down harshly on peaceable demonstrations by students. He sought to avoid the instability he had seen unfold around other parts of the Middle East and north Africa but, in doing so, he unleashed forces that he never imagined. This created a situation in Syria which made it easier for the dreadful organisation spawned by al-Qaeda—ISIS, which we now call Daesh—to perpetrate its atrocities in parts of Syria and Iraq.
Since the start of that repression in 2011, 5.6 million people have fled Syria to become refugees in neighbouring countries. Another 6 million have remained in Syria as internally displaced people, living in desperate conditions. Recent figures from the UK Government and the European Commission indicated that more than 400,000 Syrians have been killed since March 2011. That number has escalated in the past year, despite the announcement from Assad’s Russian sponsors of the creation of de-escalation zones. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, recently stated that more children were killed in Syria last year than in any other year since the conflict started.
UNOCHA—the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs—called this the “world’s largest displacement crisis”. The 6 million internally displaced people in Syria face acute humanitarian needs, with 750,000 people living in what have been termed “last-resort sites”. I wonder whether the Minister can tell your Lordships’ House more about the definition of last-resort sites. Where are they situated and who runs them? Other challenges to internally displaced people include the disruption of livelihoods, such as the destruction and contamination of agriculture-related infrastructure. Can the Minister tell us what efforts are being made to help with stabilisation and reconstruction in areas outside the control of the Assad regime? This question is very pertinent in the light of the Statement by the Secretary of State in another place this morning, which welcomed the fact that 98% of territory held by Daesh across Iraq and Syria has now been liberated; small pockets of strength remain in Syria. We know that it is a matter of urgency that the liberated space is not left devoid of humanitarian leadership. We saw what happened in the aftermath of our lack of support for President Obama when he sought it in 2013. A vacuum of leadership is soon filled; in this instance, by Iran and Russia.
UNOCHA has also expressed concern about the 8.2 million people it estimates are exposed to explosive hazards in the country. One area of grave concern is Raqqa, liberated from Daesh last year. What progress has been made in removing landmines and unexploded devices from in and around Raqqa? The UN humanitarian response plan—HRP—operates to address the crisis in Syria. The sums committed fall woefully short of the $3.5 billion sought for 2018. The three largest donors in the current funding period are Germany, with $101 million, Canada, with $45 million, and Belgium, with $16.5 million. How much has the UK contributed? The need is very great, and I am curious as to why our Government do not value the work that the HRP carries out to the extent of giving it substantial support.
Of the 5.6 million refugees in the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, only 8% are in UNHCR refugee camps. The remainder live in urban areas of the countries I have mentioned, and the majority of them live in very desperate circumstances. Although I recognise that across the piste the UK contribution of £2.6 billion since the start of the Syria crisis is a large sum of money—spread across many years, however—the need is immense. Are the Government looking to do more? We have various resettlement programmes operating in official refugee camps, and the Government say that they are on track to meet their pledge to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. In the light of current events, does the Minister agree that we should accelerate the rate at which we are working and look to increase the numbers that we are willing to resettle? The truth is that when that pledge was made—many years ago now—we did not foresee that the situation would become increasingly desperate.
I end with what is happening in Syria today. The hell on earth that besieged Eastern Ghouta represents has been graphically described by a number of speakers in this debate. The siege started in 2013 but tightened significantly in 2017. Malnourished civilians and those in acute medical need were denied medical evacuation. We have heard many different theories about what has happened, but it is the Assad regime that controls entry into and out of Eastern Ghouta, and it has denied medical evacuation and prevented humanitarian assistance coming in.
The brutal regime of President Assad, supported by Russia and Iran, has broken rules of international humanitarian law with impunity, destroying healthcare centres and hospitals, schools, utilities, and water and sanitation systems. Historic landmarks and once-busy marketplaces have been reduced to rubble. We have heard from my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry that this destruction is taking place in what was once the cradle of civilisation, where different religious minorities lived in peace and harmony. It is doubly sad to see it reduced to this.
The UN commission of inquiry presented the findings of a fact-finding mission, confirming the systematic targeting of medical facilities by the Syrian Government in April 2017, as well as illegal use of chemical weapons. We have heard in the Chamber today that atrocities have been committed on all sides. We can only wait until we reach a resolution on these crises. When we have investigations into the perpetration of the atrocities we can finally pinpoint individuals and hold them to account. I look forward to the day that happens.
I understand that the Government are committed to doing all they can to ensure that the perpetrators of these heinous crimes will one day be held accountable, however long it may take. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, because I hope our Government will shoulder some responsibility themselves. Indeed, words are inadequate to express the despair we all feel, but in the end it is words that will bring an end to this outrage against the values of common humanity. The guns will finally be silenced and the talking will begin—talks that should allow Syrians to come to a conclusion about how they will put the events of the past years behind them, how they will hold to account perpetrators of atrocities, how detainees held by both sides will be dealt with fairly, and how they will rebuild their country and enjoy the prosperity that can be built only when peace comes.
The real question is how we will bring Assad to the negotiating table while he enjoys the support of Vladimir Putin. That is the question, above all, that I ask the Minister to address, particularly in light of the attack by Russia on UK soil. Surely we can all agree now that Russia has overreached itself and that an opportunity now exists to show united strength.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for securing today’s debate. He has been determined to raise these issues over the past few weeks, through Oral Questions as well as today’s debate. As we have heard, seven years of bloodshed has claimed more than 400,000 lives, driven 11 million people from their homes and caused a humanitarian tragedy on a scale unknown anywhere else in the world. Of course, since the beginning of the war the United Kingdom has had a proud record as the second-largest bilateral donor of humanitarian aid in Syria, providing life-saving support to millions of people. The UK has delivered 26 million food rations, 9.8 million relief packages, 8 million vaccines and 10 million medical consultations. Last year alone the UK provided clean water to more than 5 million people and contributed to the formal primary and secondary education of more than 700,000 children affected by this crisis.
However, as we have heard in the debate this afternoon, it is not enough simply to talk about aid for Syria, important and essential as that is: we must also focus on diplomatic efforts to support the peace process. I think the Minister is in a difficult position, as a DfID Minister. I know that he wears another hat, as a Treasury Minister, but perhaps this afternoon he should be wearing an FCO hat as well. I have no doubt that his response will focus on those diplomatic efforts. Of course, we have seen welcome progress in the fight against Daesh—although from today’s Statement in the other place the Government clearly remain concerned about pockets of Daesh elements in Syria—but for the people of Syria, as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, acknowledged last week, the violence continues and the humanitarian situation remains dire. When the Government made the case for military intervention in Syria three years ago they did so purely on the basis of the need to stop Daesh establishing a safe haven in the country. With Daesh losing 98% of its territory, as the Statement said, I ask the Minister what the current objective of our intervention in Syria is.
The Government have also confirmed that UK military personnel are involved in so-called stabilisation activities in what the United States calls, “liberated areas” in northern Syria. With that being the case, when do the Government intend to come back to Parliament to seek a fresh mandate for the new military involvement in Syria? As we have heard, Eastern Ghouta, besieged by the Assad regime, is a particularly tragic example of the ongoing violence. Only this week Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, became one of the few international observers to visit the bombed-out suburbs of Eastern Ghouta, describing it as, “one of the top five difficult places” he had been to over the past six years as president of the International Red Cross. In an interview for an article following the visit, he says:
“The residents of Eastern Ghouta are living an ‘underground life’, forced into shelters to escape the bombing. People are pale and cannot even manage the ever-growing number of dead bodies”.
The ICRC’s latest struggle, the article continues,
“is to get medical aid into Eastern Ghouta: The Syrian government periodically allows flour bags and food parcels but blocks trauma kits and basic medicine, such as insulin, from entering the area”.
In the interview, Maurer points out,
“the lengths that the ICRC goes to push the Syrian government to expand the scope of aid delivery”.
The article continues:
“The organization has provided 3 million people with food across Syria in the past year, and more than 1 million people have been able to access health care services … In Eastern Ghouta alone, tens of thousands of people benefit from food, clean water, and hygiene kits provided by the ICRC”.
In addition, the article says the ICRC are clear that this is,
“impossible to deliver without working with the Syrian government”.
However, it continues that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent —the ICRC’s local affiliate—is:
“On the one hand … legally linked to the government; on the other, it is part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement and committed to its principles”.
Finally, in the interview, Maurer says that it was always his assessment that,
“the chances of doing better assistance and protection to the Syrian people was outweighing the risk of having a leadership which was close to”,
the Assad Government.
Many UK NGOs have expressed concern for aid partners in Eastern Ghouta; one has already lost two staff members in recent attacks, and some are now displaced to the UNHCR camps and have had to surrender their ID cards. The NGOs are concerned that they, and others working for NGOs in those areas, will be considered activists by the Syrian Government and targeted by them. As we have heard, internally displaced people from Eastern Ghouta have been transferred to collective shelters run by UNHCR, and it has been reported that they have also been required to hand over their IDs to the Syrian Government’s army.
This is a potentially difficult and dangerous situation, particularly for those working for NGOs, who may be considered enemies of the state. I hope the Minister can reassure us that we are seeking assurances from the Syrian Government that NGO members working in opposition areas taken by the Assad army are not criminalised, and are allowed to carry out humanitarian and other life-saving work. I think we all want to understand that, on the part of our Government and our allies, the fullest effort is being made to ensure that there is full humanitarian access for aid relief to all areas of Syria. I hope the noble Lord can reassure us on that point.
Turkey’s invasion and occupation of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin has created a fresh displacement crisis in the north of Syria. The UK Government Statement that we considered said that the protection of civilians must be balanced with,
“Turkey’s legitimate interest in the security of its borders”.—[Official Report, 13/3/18; col. 1561.]
I hope the Minister agrees that this incursion is neither legitimate nor justified, and that it has no basis in international law. Around 98,000 people have been displaced from the area, the majority of whom are women, children or elderly. Meanwhile, both in Afrin and among the displaced population, humanitarian needs are very high and host communities are being stretched even further.
Alistair Burt, the Minister of State for the Middle East, has said—and no doubt the Minister will repeat this—that the best opportunity for peace and security is,
“to support the Geneva process … and to work as hard as we are diplomatically to get the parties to find a better answer to the conflict”.—[
What is the Government’s latest assessment of that process? What have we been doing at the United Nations? How do we move things forward? Does the Minister really believe that there is potential for a political solution and that Daesh will be defeated, when Turkey sees its priority as stopping the Kurds rather than getting a political solution? These are the issues on which we need to hear from the Government.
We know that the crisis in Syria has created one of the biggest refugee crises and that the host nations in the region need support and aid for their economies, which are seeking to support millions of refugees. I have asked the Minister this question before, and received a very positive response, but I would be grateful if he could update the House on what additional support the Government are able to provide in the region. These refugees have been in the host nations not for weeks or months but years. We need to ensure that those host nations are not left in a difficult situation, with the crisis expanding.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, highlighted the horrific evidence of the torture, the mass hanging and the crimes that have been perpetrated against thousands of Syrian citizens and refugees. All the speakers in the debate have made it absolutely clear that such crimes cannot be committed with impunity. We must ensure that those who are responsible for crimes against humanity are held to account. The Minister needs to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and tell him what we are doing, in addition to ensuring that there is evidence, to ensure that there are processes in place to hold these criminals to account. I hope the Minister will be able to respond to these key areas but I know that all noble Lords in this House are totally committed to one thing: supporting not only the humanitarian efforts that are being made by the United Kingdom but all efforts to achieve a peaceful solution.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for securing this debate and for his consistency and faithfulness to the people of Syria in their time of need. He began by telling us the words of the young girl in hospital in Aleppo with 70% burns who said that the Syrians have had just about as much as they can take of this crisis. That view of this tragedy is shared throughout this House. Often DfID’s work around the world is dealing with natural disasters and crises. This is a manmade crisis, which makes it all the more tragic, and it needs to have a manmade—and woman-made—solution.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, gave us some stark statistics about life expectancy declining from 75 to 55, and stressed her belief that the people of Syria ought to have the right to determine their own future.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry reminded us that things were not always the way they are and that there used to be a strong history and tradition of peaceful coexistence in that land. Considering his position in Coventry and the work that that diocese does around the world on reconciliation and coexistence, that had particular power.
The noble Earl, Lord Oxford and Asquith, reminded us of the incredible work done by civil society groups and international NGOs, such as the Red Crescent, and of the Syrian capacity for self-help, which often goes unrecognised in this.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, talked about a region that has been convulsed by violence and spoke of the utter brutality and inhumanity of the treatment of Christians and Yazidis, particularly, at the hands of Daesh.
The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, talked about the complexity not only of the conflict but of the efforts to seek a solution through the UN Security Council and the various vetoes in evidence there, which can sometimes frustrate the opportunities to make progress.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, talked about the humanitarian response and the 400,000 killed. She reminded us that the problem is not getting better; in many ways, it is getting worse, in particular with the escalation in the number of children being killed over the past year. That is greater than in previous years.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, reminded us of the importance of responding to the situation in Eastern Ghouta and its siege-like conditions. It is almost going back to medieval times, given the frequency with which we see this tactic and weapon applied not against armies but against women, children and the defenceless. He also referred to the need to maintain the humanitarian effort that we have.
We are all deeply saddened that we are now in the eighth year of this brutal conflict, which continues to have a devastating impact on the Syrian population. Thirteen million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, said, and over 5.4 million have fled to neighbouring countries. 2018 has not brought any ease to the suffering. It is unacceptable that violence has escalated over recent months, despite the best efforts by the international community in calling for a ceasefire under UN Security Council Resolution 2401, which the UK used our role on the UN Security Council to secure.
The UK remains committed to achieving our goals in Syria, including defeating the scourge of Daesh. In that context, I thought it might be helpful to the House if I was to refer to part of the update given by the Secretary of State, Penny Mordaunt, in the House of Commons earlier today on the fight against Daesh. She told the House of Commons that,
“Daesh has been all but destroyed as a territorial entity in Iraq and Syria”,
by the global coalition and that it has lost,
“98% of the territory it once held across both countries”.
She then paid tribute to the UK forces,
“who have trained over 71,000 members of the Iraqi security forces, including the peshmerga. The RAF has launched over 1,680 airstrikes”,
but our work is not yet done and she called on,
“all partners, including Turkey, to remain focused on the … campaign”.
We must sustain the momentum created by the coalition in tackling Daesh to prevent it emerging elsewhere, as she said.
My right honourable friend continued:
“In north-east Syria, in areas recently liberated from Daesh, we provide a range of life-saving assistance”,
and are seeking to address the basic needs of ordinary Syrians. In October last year, as she said, we,
“announced an additional £10 million”,
of support for a range of activity, including the removal of landmines, which was asked about by the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, and improving access to clean water.
My right honourable friend went on to say:
“Through the UN Security Council and the International Syria Support Group, we continue to call on all parties to uphold resolution 2401 and take all feasible precautions to protect civilians, as required under international humanitarian law. As the conflict enters its eighth year, however, it is abundantly clear that only a lasting political settlement can end the suffering of the Syrian people and remove the root causes of extremism … The regime must now stop stalling and negotiate seriously. We call upon those with influence over Assad to use it to bring him to the negotiation table and meet the Syrian opposition who have shown they are ready to negotiate”,
without preconditions. She continued:
“Only in that way will the conflict finally end … we must not forget the danger posed to the UK from its returning fighters. As we have made clear, anyone returning from the conflict in Iraq or Syria will be investigated; where there is evidence that crimes have been committed, they must be brought to justice … As a leading member of the coalition, the UK will remain unflinching in our commitment to confront, degrade and defeat Daesh”.
Returning to my remarks summing up this debate, the UK remains committed to achieving a political settlement that ends the war and provides stability for Syrians and the wider region. We will continue to help people survive the toughest situations imaginable.
The noble Earl, Lord Oxford and Asquith, referred to the worst destruction and suffering that has continued in Eastern Ghouta. It was described by the UN as “hell on earth”. Despite Russia declaring Eastern Ghouta a de-escalation area, the regime, with Russian support, has continued to bombard and besiege the population into submission. Where and when access allows, DfID’s humanitarian partners are providing food, water and health support to those still in Eastern Ghouta.
In Afrin, which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, inquired about, we remain concerned about the impact of the Turkish operation on the humanitarian situation. We recognise Turkey’s legitimate interest in the security of its borders but continue to urge a reduction in violence, the protection of civilians and access for humanitarian assistance. UK-funded partners are providing assistance where they are able and are prepositioning supplies to help meet the needs of those fleeing the area. We are also concerned about the situation in Idlib, which continues to be bombed by pro-regime forces. More than 1 million internally displaced Syrians live there, including those who have fled Eastern Ghouta.
Through the UN Security Council and the International Syria Support Group we continue to call on all parties to uphold Resolution 2401. Working closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, we promote the need to protect and defend freedom of religion or belief, which was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and to uphold the rule of law. We remain concerned about appalling crimes committed against Syrian minorities, and I will say more about that in a minute. We prioritise reaching the most vulnerable people across Syria, including Christians and Yazidis.
Like the noble Lord, I attended the incredible exhibition organised by Open Doors in the Upper Waiting Hall. The artist had talked to Yazidi women who had been victims of the most horrendous crimes. The women had painted their own portraits and above them the artist had painted beautiful iconic style of artwork. We are currently in discussions with her to see whether we might be able to host the pictures in the Department for International Development to highlight that important work.
UK funding is distributed on the basis of need to ensure that civilians are not discriminated against. Across the region, the UK is helping Syrian refugees and host communities to meet their basic needs as well as investing in job opportunities and providing a quality education. For example, since 2012, the UK has delivered more than 5 million individual monthly food rations, provided almost 5 million vaccines and held more than 2 million medical consultations, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Collins.
We remain deeply concerned about the situation facing those in Rubkan camp. The UK supported the most recent aid distribution at the berm in January and is currently supporting UNICEF to provide clean water and health and nutrition services to the population. We will continue to advocate for a long-term viable solution to the situation, consistent with international humanitarian law.
In Europe, we have provided significant support to migrants and refugees, including Syrians, and allocated more than £70 million in humanitarian assistance in Europe between 2015 and 2017. This included £39 million in Greece and £25 million in the Balkans, which were the transit route for most Syrian refugees. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, quoted a powerful poem about the fact that people do not chose to be refugees and deserve our support. I want to reassure him that that support is being given. We are making good progress on our commitment to resettle 20,000 refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict and up to 3,000 at-risk children and their families in the Middle East and north Africa region by 2020. As of December 2017, a total of 10,538 people had been resettled in the UK under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, and a total of 570 people had been resettled through the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme. This is in addition to those we resettle under the gateway programme and the mandate scheme, and the thousands who receive protection in the UK under normal asylum procedures. We will continue to uphold that role.
The suffering will only end when there is a political solution to the conflict. There needs to be a transition to a new, inclusive, non-sectarian government that can protect the rights of all Syrians and unite the country. If there is one phrase that was mentioned in every contribution, it was this: that Syria’s future must be for Syria to decide. I want to assure the House that that is our view too. The question is then how we get to the point where such decisions can be reached.
I will now address some of the questions from noble Lords, but I am conscious that, with the time available, I might not be able to address all of them, so I will write to them following this debate—after we have reflected on it—to respond to some of the particular points. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, referred to the White Helmets. It is in the nature of their work that they are putting themselves in the front line: 167 White Helmet volunteers have lost their lives as a result of being deliberately targeted by pro-regime forces. This was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, urged us to do more to protect aid workers. The Foreign Secretary and the International Development Secretary said, on
“Civil society and aid workers are not a target and must be protected. Those fleeing Eastern Ghouta must be treated in safety and security and dignity. We continue to promote this view in the UN Security Council”.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to the plight of Christians in the Middle East. In Syria, we are promoting the inclusion and safeguarding of minorities as the political process progresses. We will continue to press this issue through our membership of the International Syria Support Group and through our close relationship with the moderate opposition.
The noble Earl, Lord Oxford and Asquith, questioned whether sanctions were hindering the procurement of food and medicines. Sanctions are targeted on individuals and organisations, and every effort is taken to minimise their impact on civilians. The UK continues to provide humanitarian support through the UN and NGOs, and this includes supporting hospitals and health facilities.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, asked about last-resort sites for internally displaced people. There are many formal and informal sites throughout the country—too many to list at this point. Where possible, the UN and NGOs manage and provide support for settlements for internally displaced people in Syria; of course, we are then providing support to them.
The noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Collins, asked what we were doing in respect of the efforts to bring Daesh to justice. The Government share the condemnation of the House of Commons of Daesh crimes and are aware of the strength of feeling on this matter in Parliament and in the UK. As the noble Lord, through many exchanges on these issues, anticipated that I would come back to, we maintain that it should be a matter for judicial authorities, rather than a political decision. However, the growing body of evidence that terrible crimes have been committed is why we have launched a “bringing Daesh to justice” initiative. The UN Security Council Resolution 2379 in September 2017 —which was, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, an incredible achievement—called for the terms of reference to be agreed between the Government of Iraq and the UN before any team was deployed on investigating these war crimes. These terms were agreed just last month, on
The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, asked what we are doing about the latest UN appeal. We continue to support the UN appeal this year; of course, the London conference was such a seminal moment in rallying the international community to raise funds for the humanitarian response. As has already been pointed out, we have already made a £2.46 billion commitment to Syria and the region, which represents our largest ever humanitarian intervention and reflects the seriousness with which we take this issue.
As regards increasing the numbers for resettlement, our priorities remain humanitarian aid and actively seeking an end to the conflict in Syria. However, we have begun our work on future asylum settlement strategy, which includes consideration of the UK’s resettlement offer beyond 2020. The UK fully supports the UN-mediated political process and the efforts of the UN Special Envoy, Staffan de Mistura, which are aimed at reaching a settlement in this conflict. My noble friend Lord Ahmad hosted what everyone who attended found a very useful session for interested Peers earlier this week with Alistair Burt. He has an extensive interest in and knowledge of the region and had just returned from there, so he was able to update us on the position. We will continue to seek every such opportunity to keep colleagues updated and informed on what is happening.
The opposition have declared their readiness for negotiations without preconditions but the regime continues to obstruct progress. The regime and its backers must commit to a ceasefire and a political process that ends the conflict for good. The right reverend Prelate was absolutely right to remind us that if Easter is about one thing, it is about hope. We should never give up hope. Probably the best thing we can do for the Syrian people, as well as our aid on the ground and the diplomatic and military efforts we are making to protect them, is never to give up hope. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, again for giving us the opportunity to reflect on that as we begin our Recess.
I thank the Minister very much indeed for ending on what is always an encouraging note. The time is late; I could go on for some time but I would not be the most popular person. I hope that we will continue to talk about Syria month after month; it is important that we keep it on our agenda. Finally, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part. I wish everybody here Pasg llawen—a happy Easter. Diolch yn fawr; thank you.
House adjourned at 4.23 pm.