85. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he has received the humanitarian letter signed by over 100 organisations pleading with all parliamentary institutions throughout the world to stop the genocide, siege and forced displacement happening in eastern Ghouta in Syria; his plans to work urgently with his European counterparts to stop the genocide against civilians and condemn the Syrian regime and its allies’ refusal to abide by the Security Council Resolution 2401; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 14134/18 asked on 28 Mar 2018)

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Simon Coveney): I propose to take Questions Nos. 63, 68, 85 and 97 together.

I am aware of the letter to which Deputy Kenny refers. The situation in Syria is indeed unconscionable, and I take this opportunity to reiterate my unreserved condemnation of the barbarous violence against civilians that has been the hallmark of this conflict to date. The brutal repression of dissent by the Assad regime, which has included use of chemical weapons and medieval “starve or surrender” tactics, has cost the lives of over 400,000 people. It has led to a situation in which 13 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria, 3 million people are trapped in besieged and hard-to-reach areas, over 6 million people are displaced internally, and a further 5.5 million have fled to neighbouring countries and the wider region. The recent increase in violence, in particular the vicious siege of Eastern Ghouta, underscores the extent to which an end to the violence is urgently needed in order to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people.

Ireland fully supports the UN-led political negotiations to end the conflict based on the 2012 Geneva Communique and UN Security Council resolution 2254, which calls for an end to violence; release of political prisoners; formation of a transitional governing body with executive powers and a constitutional reform process. The EU provides direct assistance to the UN-led Geneva peace talks and has launched, in coordination with the UN, an initiative to develop political dialogue with key actors from the region to identify common ground.

I attended the UN Security Council briefing on Eastern Ghouta in New York last month at which UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres appealed for an immediate suspension of violence in Eastern Ghouta to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid, and for evacuations. Ireland strongly welcomed the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2401 calling for an immediate ceasefire and unhindered humanitarian access on 24 February. However, the regime’s bombardment of civilians and civilian infrastructure, including homes, hospitals and schools, has continued in defiance of this resolution. There have even been reports of further chemical attacks in recent weeks. The international community must redouble efforts to press for the immediate and full implementation of the ceasefire, and unimpeded humanitarian access to populations in need.

Ireland provides political and financial support to a broad range of measures to ensure full legal accountability for all war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria. This includes the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism established by the UN General Assembly to assist in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for the most serious crimes under international law committed in Syria, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria established by the Human Rights Council, and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Fact Finding Mission and Joint Investigative Mission with the UN. Ireland co-sponsored a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council earlier this month that requested the Commission of Inquiry to urgently conduct an investigation into the recent events in Eastern Ghouta.

In addition, Ireland has consistently supported EU sanctions targeting the regime and its supporters, and will continue to do so as long as the situation on the ground justifies these measures. The relevant working groups in Brussels keep the impact of sanctions under review and propose options to address any unintended negative impacts where they are identified. For example, in 2016 the EU amended the Syria sanctions regime to make it easier for NGOs operating in Syria to buy fuel. In 2017, EU Member States including Ireland consulted with NGOs to identify any further difficulties they were experiencing in carrying out humanitarian work in Syria that may have been linked to the sanctions. Based on the feedback of the NGOs, the European Commission published a Frequently Asked Questions document to clarify certain provisions of the sanctions identified as unclear by NGOs, as well as the humanitarian exemptions and derogations. More recently, last month EU Member States undertook to consider the preparation of best practice guidelines on humanitarian exemptions, with a view to further facilitating the work of NGOs participating in the humanitarian response to the crisis in Syria.

EU Foreign Ministers discussed the situation in Syria at their informal meeting on 15 February and again at the Foreign Affairs Council meetings on 26 February and 19 March. The EU and its Member States have to date mobilised more than €10.4 billion for humanitarian, stabilisation and resilience assistance inside Syria and in neighbouring countries, making the EU the largest single donor to the effort. The EU hosted a donor conference for Syria in April 2017 at which pledges totalling €5.6 billion were made, and will host another donor conference for Syria in April 2018.

Since 2012, Ireland has contributed over €95 million to the humanitarian effort in response to the conflict in Syria, including €25 million in 2017 alone. Through our annual contributions to EU Institutions, Ireland also supports the EU’s humanitarian response to the Syria crisis. Ireland will make a further pledge of humanitarian support in 2018 at the Brussels donor conference next month.