The situation in Syria was the major issue discussed at the most recent Foreign Affairs Council meeting, which I attended in Brussels on 11 March, and also at the informal meeting of EU Foreign Ministers which I co-hosted with High Representative Ashton in Dublin on 22-23 March. These discussions focussed on how the EU can best promote a peaceful resolution to the crisis and alleviate the sufferings of the Syrian people, 70,000 of whom have been killed since March 2011. We will continue this discussion at the next Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Luxembourg on 22 April which I will attend and where Syria will figure prominently on the agenda. At the Council meeting on 11 March, my EU colleagues and I had a valuable exchange with the UN/League of Arab States Special Envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who briefed us in detail on the current situation in Syria. Special Envoy Brahimi was honest in his assessment and expressed the clear view that only a negotiated settlement can salvage what is left of Syria and offer the hope of an end to the conflict. Special Envoy Brahimi is expected to brief the UN Security Council on 19 April where he will update the SECCO members on the situation on the ground and share his views on the prospects for a political settlement. At the informal “Gymnich” meeting at the end of March in Dublin, EU partners reaffirmed their full support for Special Envoy Brahimi and his efforts. We also made clear that the priority for the EU is to achieve a peaceful and negotiated solution to the crisis.
Considerable attention has also been devoted at EU level recently to reviewing the current EU sanctions which apply against Syria. We want to ensure through these measures that pressure remains on the Assad regime to stop its repression and to engage in a process of political dialogue with the opposition. At the 18 February Foreign Affairs Council, we agreed to renew the full range of existing sanctions for a further period of three months, until 1 June. At the request of the European Council on 14-15 March, we again discussed this subject at the informal Gymnich meeting held in Dublin. We agreed to continue our discussion at the next Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Luxembourg on 22 April with a view to reaching a common position ahead of the 1 June renewal date.
There is also a need to ensure full accountability in relation to the gross human rights violations and war crimes which have been committed by all sides to this conflict. Ireland has been to the fore within the EU in supporting calls for the situation in Syria to be referred by the UN Security Council to the International Criminal Court. As a new member of the UN Human Rights Council, we have been active during the Council’s most recent session in building support for a strong resolution on the current human rights situation in Syria. This resolution, which calls for referral to the appropriate international criminal justice mechanism in the case of gross human rights violations, was overwhelmingly adopted by the Council on 22 March.
Discussions are currently underway at the UN in New York about a possible adoption by the UN General Assembly of a Resolution on the situation in Syria. Together with our EU and Arab partners, we are working towards ensuring that the Resolution contains strong accountability messages. We are also encouraging the sponsors to seek as wide a measure of support for the Resolution as possible within the General Assembly so as to demonstrate the extent of international concern over the current situation.
The plight of millions of ordinary Syrians remains a major concern for Ireland and its EU partners as the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate, in and outside Syria. I was able to witness first-hand the dreadful cost of the conflict paid by thousands of ordinary civilians including children when I visited the refugee camp of Nizip in southern Turkey on 8 April. Ireland and its EU partners are making a major contribution to the UN-led humanitarian relief operations. The EU is collectively the largest donor to such efforts, having contributed some €600 million in aid to date. Ireland’s humanitarian assistance to Syria over the past year now amounts to €8.15 million which include the additional €1 million pledge I announced when visiting the Nizip camp.
The conflict in Syria has been a major priority for Ireland and the EU over the last two years and will remain at the top of our foreign policy agenda during the remainder of Ireland’s EU Presidency. We will continue to use whatever influence we have in our Presidency role and at all levels of our international engagement to support and promote European and UN efforts towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict.