The situation in Syria has understandably dominated discussions at recent Foreign Affairs Council meetings, including at the last meeting in Luxembourg on 22 April which I attended. Against the background of escalating violence and a deepening crisis not just within Syria but the wider region, discussions focused on how the EU can best promote a peaceful resolution and alleviate the sufferings of the Syrian people, more than 70,000 of whom have been killed since March 2011. We will continue this discussion at the next Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Brussels on 27 May which I will attend and where Syria will again figure prominently on the agenda. Of paramount importance to the EU and Ireland is the achievement of a political solution to the conflict which is the only way to stop the relentless violence and promote a peaceful transition within Syria. UN/Arab League Joint Special Envoy Brahimi briefed the UN Security Council on 19 April and reiterated his view that a negotiated settlement alone can salvage what is left of Syria and offer the hope of an end to the conflict. Given the reciprocal deep mistrust between both sides to the conflict, he has long insisted that only concerted action by the Security Council will carry sufficient weight to bring both parties to the negotiation table. Special Envoy Brahimi’s task is extremely challenging and, together with our European colleagues, we have pledged on numerous occasions our fullest support to his work. We hope he will keep his resolve in conducting this essential mission.
Similarly, our attention has been increasingly devoted to the worsening humanitarian situation in and around Syria. I was personally able to witness first-hand the ravages of the war on the civilian population when I visited the refugee camp of Nizip in Southern Turkey in early April. As UN High Commissioner for Refugees Guterres vividly explained to the UN Security Council on 18 April, the situation in Syria and in surrounding countries risks becoming simply unsustainable. This prompted the Council to issue a unanimous Statement on 18 April, calling all parties to ensure safe and unimpeded access to those in need in all areas of Syria and urging the Syrian authorities, in particular, to facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance, including across borders. It also called upon all countries that pledged financial support at the UN pledging conference held in Kuwait last January to honour these pledges as a matter of urgency.
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.
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. We also agreed at the last FAC meeting in Luxembourg to ease some of restrictions currently in place, so as to allow a limited amount of trade to take place to the benefit of the moderate Syrian opposition and to improve the plight of civilians in newly-liberated areas.
We will continue our discussion at the next Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Brussels on 27 May 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 many gross human rights violations and war crimes which have been committed by all sides to this conflict, including the latest reported massacre at Baida only last week. Ireland has been to the forefront within the EU in supporting calls for the situation in Syria to be referred by the UN Security Council to the International Criminal Court. 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 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.