Covid-19: Syria - Question

– in the House of Lords at 12:17 pm on 29th April 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Cox Baroness Cox Crossbench 12:17 pm, 29th April 2021

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the humanitarian situation in Syria; and what steps they are taking to initiate the lifting of sanctions on that country

Photo of Baroness Cox Baroness Cox Crossbench

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I echo the words of appreciation for the Lord Speaker.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, Covid-19 continues to pose a particularly significant threat in Syria. The UK is working closely with the UN and partners to adapt our humanitarian response. We are also supporting the UN-led political process, which the Syrian regime must engage with seriously for sanctions to be lifted. UK sanctions are carefully targeted at specific sectors and individuals to minimise their impact on ordinary Syrians, and these are regularly reviewed.

Photo of Baroness Cox Baroness Cox Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply, but does he acknowledge that, despite the United Kingdom’s efforts to implement smart sanctions with humanitarian exemptions, it has become impossible for millions of civilians to obtain food, medicines and life-saving medical equipment, causing widespread, avoidable suffering and death, greatly exacerbated by Covid? Will Her Majesty’s Government therefore accept advice from the United Nations experts and in-country aid workers, who emphasise it is now a matter of the greatest urgency to lift economic sanctions immediately?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, the Government will report to Parliament on UK sanctions regimes annually. If the UK determines that it is no longer appropriate to maintain an autonomous sanctions regime, the regime will be changed or removed. Periodic reviews will take place every three years under the Act. The UK-Syria sanctions are carefully targeted at specific individuals, entities and sectors. The UK and its partners take all possible steps to mitigate any wider impact of sanctions on Syrian civilians; for example, food, medicines and medical equipment are not subject to UK sanctions, and additional exemptions are available for humanitarian reasons.

Photo of Lord Touhig Lord Touhig Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Chair, Services Committee, Chair, Services Committee

My Lords, I join colleagues in wishing you, Lord Speaker, a very good and happy retirement, although I do not think you really plan to retire.

The complex sanctions regime imposed on Syria has exacerbated the situation, hampering the ability of NGOs to deliver essential aid. On top of this, increased levels of banking de-risking are preventing NGOs receiving funds for their programmes, resulting in the suspension of life-saving activities, including providing Covid-19 vaccines. The consequences for these vulnerable people are too terrible to describe. Children in particular are suffering. Surely, Her Majesty’s Government can do something about this.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, our priority clearly, is to end the conflict in Syria through a negotiated political settlement. We believe that only an inclusive, non-sectarian Government can unite the country and protect the rights of all citizens. We have been one of the largest bilateral donors to the Syrian crisis; we are at the forefront of humanitarian response, focusing on helping those most acutely in need. So far, we have committed more than £3.7 billion in response, our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis. We will continue to provide whatever support we possibly can. We want an end to this appalling situation, which the noble Lord rightly describes in extremely powerful language.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I too thank the Lord Speaker. What impact assessment has been made of the UK cut in aid to Syria and UN agencies operating in Syria? If that has not happened, why not?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I cannot talk about individual projects; I can say that the UK remains one of the largest humanitarian donors to the Syria crisis. As I said, we have committed more than £3.7 billion since 2012. We have supported millions of people, providing food, clean water and healthcare, and our funding will continue to do so. However, in relation to specific programmes, I fear that all I can say for now is that FCDO programme managers are working with suppliers and delivery partners to work out the precise implications for every programme.

Photo of Baroness Helic Baroness Helic Conservative

My Lords, more people are displaced from Syria than from any other country in the world. Syria’s neighbours alone host more than 5 million Syrian refugees. We rely on them to do this to avoid a repeat of the mass movement of Syrian refugees that we saw in 2015 and to prevent even worse humanitarian suffering. Does my noble friend see any risk that cutting Britain’s aid to Syrian refugees this year could seriously affect the ability of Syria’s neighbours to continue bearing the burden of the Syrian refugee crisis, particularly if other countries follow Britain’s example and cut their overseas aid?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, it would be a great thing if other donor countries followed our example of how much we have invested in Syria. We are investing enormous sums in an appalling humanitarian crisis. Over half the pre-war population is displaced from their homes and millions of people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. We have spent at least £1.96 billion to support the probably more than 5.5 million refugees in the wider region, addressing immediate humanitarian need, providing quality education to children, creating opportunities and providing shelter. We continue to support the Governments of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to cope with a protracted refugee presence in a whole manner of ways.

Photo of Lord Green of Deddington Lord Green of Deddington Crossbench

My Lords, I have been following events in Syria for more than 50 years. The current regime can indeed be brutal, but it is no worse than any likely alternative, and it is at least firmly opposed to Islamic extremism. It defeats me what the real policy of the Government is in this, but my noble friend Lady Cox is absolutely right— all the Syrian people, whether supporters of their Government or not, are suffering severely from our sanctions, greatly exacerbated by Covid. These sanctions are not smart, so will the Government now review them? They have become inhumane, indeed shameful, in their effect.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, our goal is simply—although the means are certainly not simple—to end the conflict in Syria. We want to do that through a negotiated political settlement. The UN-led Geneva process between the Syrian parties, mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 2254, remains the forum for reaching a lasting political settlement and UN special envoy Geir Pedersen has our full support. UK sanctions send a clear message to the regime and its supporters that we will not stand by while they continue to commit serious human rights abuses. They are designed to hold perpetrators to account and prevent those targeted entering the UK, channelling money through UK banks or profiting from our economy. They are highly targeted, surgical, forensic sanctions, designed to prevent those responsible for these atrocities benefiting in any way from access to our system here in the United Kingdom.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development)

My Lords, for once this week I totally agree with the Minister: the regime over the past decade has committed some of the most horrendous human rights violations and it is important that the international community unites to ensure that it cannot act with impunity. Last month, Secretary-General António Guterres called for stronger action. What is the noble Lord’s response to the Secretary-General’s call?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, in response to this and previous questions, the UK intends to maintain its sanctions regime. We believe it works and that it has an impact. The UK has no plans, therefore, to initiate lifting sanctions unless and until the Assad regime and its supporters’ violent suppression of Syria ceases and the Assad regime meaningfully engages in the UN-led political process. Our priority is to end the conflict, and the sanctions are, we believe, carefully targeted against the regime—against Assad, his family, his armed forces and business cronies. As I mentioned, there are extensive exemptions, including on humanitarian grounds, but we need to be cautious because Assad would likely misuse any additional funds that reach the regime, and we know that.

Photo of Lord Roberts of Llandudno Lord Roberts of Llandudno Liberal Democrat

My Lords, 15 March was the 10th anniversary of the start of the civil war in Syria that has resulted in the deaths of 500,000 people. The pandemic could not have struck a more vulnerable people. Resolution 2565 from the Security Council the other day directed the global distribution of vaccines. What contribution has the UK made to this? How has the Russian Putin-Assad discussion on vaccines affected the situation?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, the noble Lord is right: Covid-19 is having a massive impact on the humanitarian response to the needs of approximately 13 million people across Syria who rely on continued access to life-saving services and humanitarian support. The fragile health system is struggling to deliver assistance after all these years of horrific conflict. Some of the highest-risk individuals are internally displaced persons in camps or detention centres in conflict areas and we are working closely with the WHO and other humanitarian partners to support scaled-up testing capacity in Syria. Our funding has allowed rapid response teams and medical staff to help limit human-to-human transmission, educate communities on keeping safe and ensure that health services can, frankly, keep going. UK aid is providing access to health services and medical supplies, improving shelters so that people displaying symptoms can isolate, and much more besides. This is a priority for the UK Government.

Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Chair, House of Lords Commission, Lord Speaker, Chair, House of Lords Commission

I have to say that Ministers as well as ordinary Members must be short. The time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We come to the third Oral Question.