A lot of issues were raised but I will try to deal with them as quickly as I can. If I miss something, any member who wants to come back can do so, or if they want to give me a call after this meeting, I will happily talk through any of the issues they have that have not been fully addressed.
Deputy Leddin raised the issue of Syrian detainees. I had a good conversation with Geir O. Pedersen, who is the UN special envoy for Syria on this and a whole range of other issues. UN Resolution 2254, which has essentially been agreed by all member states of the UN Security Council, is the template to move forward. It is about trying to put in place an acceptable political structure to have elections that would be free and fair and to look at the release of detainees, most of whom have been detained arbitrarily. The truth is we have been making no progress on that for a long time. We are potentially likely to see some new thinking and initiatives coming from the UN in trying to move some form of process forward. Any process needs to involve the release of detainees who have been imprisoned, in the vast majority of cases with no charge at all. They are simply seen as enemies of the Government and therefore they have been detained and in some cases tortured.
If there are individual cases the Deputy wants me to raise at UN level, he should send them onto me and we will try to find the right forum in which to raise those detentions and the fears people's families have on what has happened to many of their loved ones in detention. If there is to be a political process to move forward in Syria, it has to involve one of the things that the Assad regime can do, and the international community needs to assist on it doing, namely, the release of many thousands of people who have been arbitrarily detained with no judicial system or legal protections. That is what happens when there is a decade of war when no rules apply, which is what we have seen across Syria.
I will happily continue to update the committee on Syria because it will be an evolving issue, whether it is on access to humanitarian assistance, detainees, trying to move a political process forward, the safe return of refugees when they want to return and can safely do so, or how the EU engages in the reconstruction of Syria at some point in the future and what conditions are required for that to be facilitated. We are spending hundreds of millions of euro on humanitarian assistance to people in Syria but we are not spending the kind of money that needs to be spent on rebuilding infrastructure in that country in a post-war situation because of the unwillingness of the Assad regime to move ahead on the basis of the UN resolution. That is something we will need to follow closely and I would like Ireland to be involved in it, particularly on the humanitarian side and in the safe return of refugees, because we have some credibility in that space.
A number of other members mentioned the issue of the Bab al-Hawa crossing, which I visited. There are hundreds of trucks per day crossing into Syria from Turkey, full of food, tents, medicines, clothes, blankets and the basic stuff on which families living in large-scale refugee camps, most of them tented villages, towns or cities in their scale, rely daily and weekly.
There is much tension around that crossing because Russia, Iran and the Assad regime see it as a crossing they do not trust with regard to supplies coming in to feed the resistance to the Assad regime in Idlib province, which is where most resistance still is. There is a political element to this debate. If we cannot find a way before the end of June to extend the resolution that allows for that crossing to be formally maintained under UN supervision and control, it will be closed and instead we will be relying on a far less transparent and less reliable series of crossings into Idlib from Turkey, with much tension and mass movement of people as a result.
Ireland is immersed in this along with Norway. We are co-penholders for humanitarian assistance going in to Syria. In simple terms, we have to find a way to persuade Russia to support the maintenance of that crossing, which is not straightforward, given the history of different perspectives about Syria and a ten-year war there. We will leave no stone unturned in trying to ensure that crossing stays open. It is currently supplying almost 3 million people. It really is an enormous responsibility.
A number of members asked about Tigray. We have probably been the most vocal country in the EU and the UN on this issue. That is arguably because we are quite close to Ethiopia. My political adviser is a former ambassador to Ethiopia. We have really good knowledge about Ethiopia in the Department. The Ethiopian Government is a partner for Ireland and has been for many years. Our largest development programme is in Ethiopia. We had staff in Tigray. We had a really good agricultural project there. I visited it as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine nine or ten years ago. This is a country we know well. That is why Ireland has been so exercised by what has been happening there. It has been brutal. There has been much evidence to suggest breaches in humanitarian law and international law. There is increasing evidence now of sexual violence against local populations of women and children by soldiers and paramilitary groups. It is awful. That is why we have contributed to gaining traction for an international response.
The culmination of that so far has been a statement at the UN Security Council that everybody signed up to, which is quite unusual at the Security Council. We would have gone further if we did not have to get consensus across all of the member states, including the African three and the five permanent members. We still got a strong press statement calling for full, unfettered humanitarian access to all parts of Tigray and strong reference to sexual violence and the need for a credible international investigation, which is now moving ahead under the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, OHCHR, working with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. We are satisfied that investigation will be on the ground soon.
Having said that, there are still real problems. We did not manage to get anything about Eritrean troops into the statement. We could not get agreement on that, unfortunately. Even though there is a commitment from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali and from the Eritrean side that troops will leave Tigray, we have not seen any evidence of that on the ground yet. There is continuing tension and violence in that region that we, as a country that cares about Ethiopia, need to, and will continue to, shine a light on.
I hope we can make real progress on that. The USA has become much more exercised about the Ethiopian issue in recent weeks, which has changed the tone of the debate in the Security Council in many ways. It has added real impetus to the need for change and has put pressure on everybody, which is welcome indeed.
The Security Council held closed consultations about Western Sahara on 21 April. Ireland made clear its long-standing position and urged de-escalation. Our ambassador to the UN separately met with Colin Stewart, the head of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, MINURSO, about the mission's work and the challenges faced in implementation of its mandate. I have made clear that negotiations must resume under UN auspices and that the parties should approach these negotiations without pre-conditions. I spoke to the Moroccan foreign minister about this last week. Ireland will continue to press for a new UN envoy to be appointed soon. It has gone for far too long without a UN special envoy. We will engage where we can be of most assistance to the UN-led process, ahead of the renewal of MINURSO's mandate on 30 October this year. Our position on Western Sahara has not changed. It has been consistent for a long time. We have two Defence Forces personnel in Western Sahara. They will probably not stay there indefinitely but I reassure the committee that Ireland's interest will remain consistent and strong.
Deputy Brady raised the Human Rights Watch report. The official position on this is that Human Rights Watch is certainly a respected NGO and I value the role that it and other civil society organisations play. I have been forthright in expressing my concerns regarding Israeli occupation of Palestine. Ireland's position on this will continue to be based on international law, Israel's obligations as the occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention and the relevant resolutions of the UN Security Council that have been passed. Our approach is rooted in the illegality of Israel's occupation and the right of Palestinians to self-determination. The restrictions that are imposed on Palestinians undermine the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, a right which is at the heart of a two-state solution, which we continue to advocate for and insist upon as the only viable way forward. Ireland remains committed to a two-state solution and will continue to work with partners to revive a political process in line with international law, which ensures equal rights and is acceptable to both sides.
I note the publication of this report and its contents, which my officials are reviewing in detail. I will happily come back to the Deputy again about that report. It is a lengthy and detailed report and our legal team is looking at it at the moment. Anything that we describe as apartheid, or any other such term, has to be consistent with definitions under international law. For us to be credible, we need to make sure that we examine that report fully before I make any determination about the terms that are used in it. I am on the record on many occasions about settlements, their existence and expansion, what is happening in East Jerusalem and the deliberate actions of an Israeli Government that make a two-state solution more and more difficult to achieve as settlements continue to expand and we see more frequent demolitions in parts of the West Bank.
Perhaps most concerning, we have seen an unacceptable series of announcements around settlement expansion and moving ahead with building contracts in East Jerusalem and areas in close proximity to it. I have probably been one of the most vocal EU ministers on this issue in recent months along with perhaps the minister from Luxembourg. I will continue to be vocal at UN and EU level. Essentially, we want a new round of real talks and consultations where there is equality of esteem between both sides and where a two-state solution can be progressed. It certainly would have been helpful in terms of the mandate for the Palestinian Authority if elections had gone ahead this month because there have been no elections across the Palestinian territories for 15 years. I spoke to the Palestinian foreign minister, Dr. Ryad Al Malki, last week about this. Unfortunately, they have decided that they cannot proceed at this time because of the East Jerusalem issue. This is regrettable but I have issued a statement on that to say that we would like to see a new date for elections as soon as possible. We will do everything we can to work with the international community and the Israeli Government, which has not been fully formed after the election, to try to ensure that elections for Palestinians in East Jerusalem can be facilitated.
I hope I can use the Irish presidency in September in respect of the Middle East peace process and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Ireland has been a very strong and consistent voice in this space and I would like us to ensure that at some point during our presidency from September, we can use that profile to be able to create some positive traction in this space, which we have not had for quite a number of years. I dealt with the issue of Tigray but if there are more questions on it, members can certainly come back to me.
I have spoken on a number of occasions to Martin Griffiths, who is the UN special envoy on Yemen. He is an incredibly patient man and is doing everything he possibly can to try to get a ceasefire to stick and to move towards a political process that can guarantee that this ceasefire lasts but it has been a really difficult process. Just when we think we are almost there and he injects some optimism at UN level, there is a setback. When I was in Tehran, I spoke repeatedly to him because we were trying to use that visit not only in the context of the joint comprehensive plan of action but also to try to ensure that Iran would use whatever influence it has over the Houthis in Yemen to ensure that a ceasefire would happen and take hold. There is ongoing fighting around the Marib region, winch is a particular focal point of concern, and there are broader concerns as well that are leading to a lot of humanitarian tragedy and, quite frankly, misery throughout Yemen that the international community needs to address. We will remain vocal on that issue. There is no consensus at EU level on an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia or any member of the coalition that has been involved on one side of the Yemen conflict. Such decisions require the agreement of everybody. Irish efforts are concentrated on ensuring the effective implementation of agreements to which member states have signed up. This includes export controlled regimes, including the EU's common position on arms exports and the implementation of the 2014 arms trade treaty. This has been signed and ratified by all member states and should be honoured. These obligations require states to assess the potential that arms exports could be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law and consider measures to mitigate the risk of these violations.
The EU has effective measures in place to monitor the trade of arms and other dual-use goods to ensure that the highest standards of international arms control are met and to tackle the illicit trade in arms. We need to ensure these measures are being implemented and that is the focus of our engagement on the issue. Several arms exporters in the EU have stated they will not export arms to Saudi Arabia until there is a permanent ceasefire in Yemen. That is progress in this space and it is important to state that. The change of Administration in the US has put a significant amount of pressure on Saudi Arabia in respect of Yemen. In my view, there is certainly a political willingness in Saudi Arabia with regard to a ceasefire and a political process. That is certainly my understanding from the conversations I have had with the deputy foreign minister of Saudi Arabia.
As regards Syria and the role of Turkey, if one looks at the Astana process, which is probably the most effective process in terms of finding a way forward in Syria, the roles of Turkey, Iran, Russia, the US and the EU are all relevant here. All the issues in this context, whether it is humanitarian access, reconstruction, ongoing conflict or the future of the Assad regime, are interconnected and that is why, effectively, an understanding between Turkey and Russia is probably the most important element to the challenge we have here in terms of keeping the humanitarian access point at Bab al-Hawa open in the coming weeks.
On Cuba, I can be clear that we do not support the ongoing blockade of Cuba. Ireland has been and will continue to be a committed supporter of Cuba's UN General Assembly resolutions calling for an end to the US embargo. The injustice and severity of the US embargo is something that needs to be highlighted. We have raised that issue both with the US and within the UN. We believe these measures serve no constructive purpose and object to unilaterally imposed measures that impede economic and commercial relations of EU member states with Cuba. I think we are pretty clear on that.
On the issue of TRIPS and the WTO, I caution members against assuming that a simplistic solution here will solve all problems. I have a significant amount of sympathy for the argument that states we cannot allow intellectual property rights here to prevent the manufacturing of safe vaccines that can save people's lives. The tragedy we are seeing unfold in India obviously reinforces that point. As was stated, India is not going to be the only country facing extraordinarily traumatic scenes on its streets and elsewhere. There other densely populated countries that have health systems which are probably far weaker than that of India, so we are likely to see aggressive strains of this virus wreaking the kind of havoc we are currently seeing in India in other parts of the world. We have to find a way of significantly ramping up manufacturing capacity beyond the sites that are currently manufacturing, whether those sites are producing the Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, AstraZeneca or Sputnik vaccine or any other vaccine. The intellectual property argument is one element of that. Last week, for example, Moderna issued a statement indicating that it will effectively share its intellectual property in terms of the ingredients of its vaccine.
More than that, it wants to partner with sites and companies that have the capacity to safely manufacture huge volumes of vaccine. That is part of the issue. I do not think that by simply removing intellectual property protections we will automatically see a dramatic increase in the manufacturing and production of safe vaccines overnight. We need these pharmaceutical giants to partner with countries like India and parts of the world such as South America, Latin America and other parts of Asia to build capacity as well as share property rights.
This will be an evolving debate. We, in principal, support and have supported the CTAP proposals but these have effectively come to nothing, apart from there being a statement that sounds good. It is a statement of intent on sharing of intellectual property, etc. The real issue is how to work with the World Trade Organization as well as the pharmaceutical sector to make sure that the companies with the capacity to do so continue to invest heavily in research for the next generation of vaccines, which we may all need in six months or a year, and, at the same time, that they are sharing their intellectual property and partnering with other parts of the world to safely mass-produce large quantities of vaccines.
India and South Africa are bringing forward a TRIPS waiver-type proposal at the World Trade Organization. We will look at that. As of now, the European Commission negotiates on behalf of the EU and Ireland. There needs to be and is an ongoing conversation within the EU on how to responsibly do this in a way that continues to incentivise the pharmaceutical sector to invest heavily, as it needs to, to ensure that we continue to develop the next generation of vaccines and that we mass-produce this generation of vaccines at the pace at which they are needed. I hope Ireland can try to influence that in a way that most people asking the questions here would like to see.
On Deputy Brady's question with regard to asking a Palestinian speaker to address the UN Security Council during the September presidency, I confirm that we will have a debate on the Middle East peace process during our September presidency and we will look at the options for speakers, including Palestinian speakers, for that debate. I will come back to the Deputy on that.
In respect of Senator Joe O'Reilly's comments, I have probably answered the question on Syria and the Bab al-Hawa crossing. On sanctions, it is important to make distinctions between the EU approach to sanctions and the US approach. People often talk about sanctions on Syria being hugely damaging to the broader population and so on. The EU approach is quite different to that of the US. The EU only sanctions individuals. It seizes the assets of individuals, prevents individuals from travelling and so on. These are individuals who have been associated with the regime, atrocities or breaches of international law.
I had a good conversation with Geir Pederson on this issue. We should not and cannot support sanctions that reinforce hardship on a population in a wartime or post-conflict situation. Sanctions are, however, an important part of trying to ensure there is a political way forward that the EU can support. Sanctions are important leverage in that regard. I take the point but we should always assess the sanctions being applied to make sure they are serving the intended purpose, which is not to add misery or suffering to people or economies nor to affect their ability to get aid or medicines in. The EU is quite careful in the context of how sanctions impact on local populations, and that is the case for Syria. I can follow up with more detail on that if somebody wants it.
The official note on sanctions in Syria states that EU sanctions are aimed at combating violent repression in Syria, violations of human rights and international humanitarian law as well as fighting against the use of chemical weapons. They are targeted at specific entities and individuals. There are specific mechanisms to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid, most of which the EU pays for, including medical aid, is not hindered. These humanitarian exemptions and derogations apply at all times.
Ireland has contributed almost €200 million in humanitarian assistance to Syria. It is by far the biggest contribution we have made to any conflict region or unfolding humanitarian catastrophe. The last time I looked we had contributed €193 million to Syria but I suspect it is probably up to about €200 million. We will continue to support the alleviation of suffering there.