House of Lords question on minorities in Syria

On 10 February Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws asked Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to investigate breaches of international law by state and non-state actors in Syria with regard to sexual and gender-based violence and persecution of minorities.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Anelay of St Johns) (Con) replied: My Lords, we are appalled by all violations of international law in Syria. The situation should be referred to the International Criminal Court. We support non-governmental organisations and Syrian activists documenting human rights abuses, including sexual violence and minority persecution, for use in a future accountability process. Through our humanitarian partners, we have provided wide-ranging support for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in Syria and the region.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws (Lab): My Lords, there is evidence that all parties to the Syrian conflict have perpetrated crimes against women and children, including rape and terrible sexual violence, and such brutality has often been directed at minorities. The majority of such crimes constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity, and it is alleged that thousands of instances of crimes of this sort have been committed by Syrian Government forces, by ISIS, by the al-Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army.

Crimes against women and children are often forgotten in the fog of war. What steps are being taken to train people properly to evidence-gather so that there can be prosecutions in future for those crimes? If such training is available, is it sensitive to the social pressure and taboos that are experienced by rape survivors, particularly in that part of the world?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: The noble Baroness is right to point to the importance of ensuring that impunity does not prevail in these circumstances and that people on all sides of the conflict need to abide by international law. However, it is clear that it is Assad and his forces who are committing the vast majority of the offences that appal humanity.

With regard to investigating allegations of war crimes, the UK, together with the US, the EU, Germany and Norway are funding the Commission for International Justice and Accountability to develop documented legal case files, with named defendants, on regime and opposition—including ISIL—war crimes in Syria. So far, all this work has recovered about 1 million regime documents and archived 500,000 videos as a result of UK-trained and equipped investigators.

Baroness Williams of Crosby (LD): My Lords, in view of the Minister’s very powerful response to the Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, will she consider the rather surprising interview given by the President of Syria this morning, in which he implied that he knew nothing at all about barrel bombs, weapons which have been specifically condemned by the United Nations as never to be used in populous areas? Given that, will the Government consider inviting the Syrian ambassador to explain what his President meant and whether he agrees that barrel bombs should not be used in heavily populated areas? Does the Minister agree that there should also be mention of the bitter, cruel effects of barrel bombs, which are often filled with shrapnel, nails or devices intended to do great damage to children and women?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, the Government speak out regularly on these matters and I am delighted to hear my noble friend put them in such a context. Today, President Assad showed that he is divorced from reality if he has ignored the fact that he has not only allowed but clearly encouraged his forces to barrel-bomb his own people. Only he has the capacity to deliver barrel bombs. There has certainly been evidence of the result—literally the impact—on the ground and a spokesman for OCHA, on behalf of the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, has made it clear that there is evidence of barrel-bombing and aerial shelling of populated areas by the regime.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick (CB): My Lords, does the Minister agree that the use of chlorine-filled barrel bombs is, in itself, a breach of international law? If so, what are the Government doing to put in the public domain the evidence that chlorine has been used in this way by the regime, thus contradicting the not very believable remarks made by the President of Syria this morning?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, raises an important point about the work that has been done in recent months and years on removing chemical weapons from Assad. His use of these has been documented, and the use of chlorine in barrel bombs would come within that category. Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile has now been removed from the country and the bulk of it destroyed. However, it is imperative that Syria now addresses its obligation, under the Chemical Weapons Convention, to destroy its chemical weapons production facilities. If it does not, removing what it did have will not prevent the creation of more in the future.

Lord Bach (Lab): My Lords, my noble friend has done the House a service by raising this important issue. In her Question, she referred to the persecution of minorities. Christians, in the Middle East and elsewhere, are being deliberately attacked and targeted because of their faith. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to counter these outrageous attacks? Will they use the UK’s place on the UN Human Rights Council, from March onwards, to speak out for religious freedom and against the persecution of Christians?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I entirely agree with the sentiments behind the noble Lord’s question. The behaviour of Assad’s regime and ISIL in the area in targeting and attacking minorities, particularly Christians, is inhumane. They appear to be taking action that would strip out some minorities, including Christians, from that area. The noble Lord is right: the Human Rights Council sits in March. Pending the decision of my noble friend the Chief Whip, I hope to be able to attend and make the representations that the noble Lord invites me to make.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): My Lords, in her initial reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, the Minister said that she wanted these issues referred to the International Criminal Court. Does she recall that, last August, the commission of inquiry established by the United Nations called for a referral to that court? It has carried out 480 interviews and drawn up confidential lists of those who ought to be prosecuted. Where have we reached in the judicial process?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I regret to say that, with regard to the judicial process through the ICC, reference to the ICC by the United Nations Security Council was blocked by two members of the 15-strong Security Council: Russia and China. It is indefensible that Russia and China prevented us and the rest of the members of the United Nations referring this matter to the ICC.