House of Commons Hansard #134 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was research.

Topics

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

9:05 p.m.

Conservative

Bob Dechert Mississauga—Erindale, ON

Madam Chair, it is very important. Like him, I was very pleased earlier today when there was unanimous support by all members of the House for the resolution condemning the attacks on citizens in Syria and urging the Canadian government to continue to respond with humanitarian aid for refugees and internally displaced persons who are fleeing the violence in Syria. When we all speak with one voice, as we have here and in many other areas of international affairs, our voice is, indeed, very loud around the world. I do hope that it will make a difference.

I would like to point out the last clause of the resolution that was agreed to earlier today, which is that we stand in solidarity with those who aspire for peace, democratic governance and the protection of human rights. As I mentioned earlier, fundamental among those in this region of the world is the protection of religious freedoms and religious minorities.

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

9:10 p.m.

NDP

Romeo Saganash Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou, QC

Madam Chair, tonight we are discussing the quite pressing situation in Syria, which seems to be getting worse by the day.

I would like to talk about the humanitarian situation in this country and in neighbouring countries, because this type of conflict always has repercussions on such countries. With the surge in violence in Syria, it appears that the humanitarian situation is on the same path as the civilians who are fighting for their survival.

According to a report issued on March 29 by the United Nations and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, at least one million Syrians are in need of humanitarian aid. Given the events that have taken place in Syria over the past 14 months, one may suppose, without great fear of being mistaken, that the number of Syrians who are in need of humanitarian aid has increased. The report also indicates that protection, food, medical assistance, non-food items—such as bedding and essential items—and education are among the top priorities.

The Annan peace plan, which was agreed to by both sides in this conflict in March, included a point that specifically spoke to the humanitarian situation on the ground. It stated that all parties were to “ensure timely provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by the fighting, and to this end, as immediate steps, to accept and implement a daily two hour humanitarian pause and to coordinate exact time and modalities of the daily pause through an efficient mechanism, including at local level...”.

If the estimate I just mentioned is correct, we can still easily see the extreme importance of delivering that assistance as quickly and effectively as possible. Under the peace plan, there was only that two hour daily period to work with, which is obviously not ideal, but, if implemented properly, it would have allowed for the much needed supplies to get to those civilians in need. We cannot reasonably expect humanitarian aid to be delivered to those who need it if we do not ensure that the humanitarian corridors exist.

This is a point that our government must insist on at the United Nations. Our government also needs to push nations, like Russia and China that have been supportive of the Assad regime in the past, to pressure the regime to ensure that these humanitarian corridors are in place and safe. Without these corridors, it is very difficult to help those civilians in need in this crisis.

Unfortunately, it appears that the Annan plan is slowly falling apart at the seams. Based on what we have learned from a number of reports, Syria has been delaying the humanitarian assistance so desperately needed by the population. According to these reports, the Assad regime interrupted discussions on humanitarian aid because it demanded that an official Syrian organization be in charge of the delivery of humanitarian assistance. It is my understanding that the United Nations also asked to be in charge and wanted to be kept abreast of who was receiving humanitarian aid.

The United Nations' request was very reasonable and was consistent with what normally occurs in this kind of desperate situation. It is not reasonable to force civilians to seek basic humanitarian aid from the people who are shooting at them.

Many governments have offered assistance to people in need in this crisis. Turkey, Jordan, Libya and Iraq—neighbouring countries—have taken in Syrian refugees. The United Nations estimates that there are over 56,000 Syrian refugees registered in these countries, but the exact figure is probably even higher, because tens of thousands of people are not registered. It is estimated that, to date, Turkey alone has invested over $150 million in refugee camps. A number of nations have rallied and are bearing this heavy burden. They must be thanked for the work that they have done to date and the work that they will undoubtedly do over the upcoming weeks.

Other major countries have also contributed assistance. For example, the United States recently provided Syria with additional humanitarian assistance to the tune of $6.5 million, bringing the total amount of its emergency assistance to about $40 million. Through CIDA, Canada is providing assistance in the amount of $7.5 million, which includes the funds already announced by the government. Many other countries have also taken steps to come to the assistance of those in need.

Despite everything that has been done to date, the need in Syria remains great and the conflict still rages on. The question is this: what more can the international community in general, and Canada in particular, do about the humanitarian crisis in Syria? The answer to that question is complicated and there is no simple solution, we agree. Sending assistance to the communities most devastated by the conflict has been difficult and hazardous. In March, the Red Cross and Red Crescent finally managed to reach some of the most severely affected areas, such as Homs, Aleppo and Idilb. They provided emergency medical help and distributed thousands of food parcels, blankets and other items. However, although they succeeded in reaching those communities, others remain inaccessible and are still in need of assistance. It is largely for that reason that access to humanitarian assistance at all times is so critical; it is also for that reason that Canada should demand that such access be granted.

As I have already mentioned, Canada is delivering $7.5 million in humanitarian aid to Syria. This is happening despite the fact that CIDA does not maintain a bilateral aid program in Syria. Most Canadian assistance to Syria is provided through CIDA's annual contributions to multilateral partners, such as the World Food Programme and UNESCO. With this being the case, Canada can help the humanitarian cause in Syria by providing additional funding to these partners and other trusted NGOs. Canada could step forward by offering new funds for this humanitarian crisis, just as many other nations have.

Canada could also take innovative steps to increase its aid to the region, or consider measures taken previously under different circumstances, such as natural disasters. The government could match funds invested by reputable Canadian charities that are doing humanitarian work to help Syrians. That is what the government did when the tsunami devastated South-East Asia in 2004, and Canadians across the country donated $132 million more as a result. Similarly, after the earthquake in Haiti, Canadians donated nearly $129 million, which the government matched.

Those two examples illustrate how great things can be achieved when Canadians join forces to help others. Canada has never adopted such an approach in a case of armed conflict, but this could be a novel idea that would really help people in need. Reputable organizations like Red Cross and Red Crescent are already on the ground in Syria distributing aid. Canadians know and trust these organizations.

As mentioned, the government matched donations to Red Cross and Red Crescent following the tsunami in South-East Asia and the earthquake in Haiti to help those organizations carry out badly needed humanitarian work. I think it makes sense for us to ask ourselves whether we can do the same thing now for Syria.

In closing, I realize that this idea could raise issues and concerns that might prevent its execution. This may not be the best solution, but this example could point us to another solution. If this idea is feasible, it would be another way for us to provide international aid in situations like this one.

Tonight we all have had a great deal to say about this humanitarian crisis that is unfolding before our very eyes in Syria. Members of all parties in this House have brought forward their ideas, views and suggestions of how we can help. I have appreciated hearing what my colleagues have offered to this debate. I believe that we have a lot of good ideas in this place tonight to help us move forward.

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

9:20 p.m.

Newmarket—Aurora
Ontario

Conservative

Lois Brown Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Cooperation

Madam Chair, I thank my colleague for his expression of concern for the people of Syria and for the refugees that this crisis is creating.

To enlighten those people who may be watching this debate, I would like to let them know how it is that Canada's humanitarian assistance in this crisis has been broken down. My colleague rightly mentioned that Canada has given $7.5 million in humanitarian assistance for Syria. The breakdown is this: $4 million have gone to the World Food Programme to meet emergency food needs in Syria; $2.7 million have gone to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for the care and maintenance of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries and refugees and IDPs inside Syria; $500,000 have gone to the International Committee of the Red Cross to meet the emergency needs of the conflict affected people in Syria; and $300,000 have gone to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for the improved effectiveness of humanitarian action in Syria.

Given that the capacity needs to be there to be able to use the money that Canada puts forward, does my colleague not think it prudent that Canada continue to assess the situation in coordination with its partners before we go making those kinds of decisions on other financial contributions?

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

9:20 p.m.

NDP

Romeo Saganash Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou, QC

Madam Chair, in every given conflict and in every given situation, Canada has an obligation as a United Nations member state.

Canada has many obligations under international law, under the UN charter and so on and so forth. We have to assess every situation.

One of the things I would like to bring up and ask about is in the March 12 press release by the Minister of International Cooperation. I would like to read this into the record. She had this to say:

Humanitarian agencies in the area are working in a very insecure and highly dangerous environment. We continue to call for an end to the violence and for the immediate full, safe, and unhindered access for humanitarian agencies to those suffering as a result of this conflict.

I would like to know what the government has done so far, in terms of implementing measures or pressing for measures to be implemented, in order for aid to arrive at those in need in this crisis.

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

9:25 p.m.

Liberal

John McKay Scarborough—Guildwood, ON

Madam Chair, I just want to thank the hon. member for his thoughtful speech. I want to put to him the issue of Russia, which seems to be the major stumbling block to arriving at any kind of a solution with respect to President Assad or anything else with respect to Syria.

I would be interested in the member's thoughts with respect to why he thinks Russia seems to be so intransigent with respect to its attitude towards Syria. Does the member think Russia will actually diminish its influence in the Middle East with respect to its position on Syria?

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

9:25 p.m.

NDP

Romeo Saganash Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou, QC

Madam Chair, that is an important question for people who have worked in the international fora for many years, as many of us have done, including myself and I say that very humbly.

There are a lot of issues that need to be considered here. One of the things that is very unfortunate in this debate, and members on the other side may say what they want and think what they think with respect to the international influence today, but the present government has no influence anymore and no credibility, whether it is on the environment, climate change or the leadership role that we used to have and that Canadians were so proud of in this country.

We do not have that influence anymore. That is what is unfortunate in all of this. As my colleague from Ottawa Centre said earlier, we have an opportunity to pressure Russia. We have an opportunity to pressure Syria in the present context of negotiations for a free trade agreement.

However, what is going to be the result of the lack of influence, that influence we no longer have on the international stage? It is too bad.

We need to continue to uphold our international obligations under international law. We need to uphold those human rights that we pledge to promote and protect under our obligations as a member state of the United Nations under the UN charter. That is the only means we have presently.

What is the government doing to continue the pressure it should apply in this present situation?

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

9:25 p.m.

NDP

Carol Hughes Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, ON

Madam Chair, I would like to ask my colleague the question I put earlier to the hon. member for Mississauga—Erindale about the funding of Rights & Democracy. Of course, he did not answer the question. He talked about a lot of things, but he did not answer the question. However, he did say that the government is setting up another organization and funding it. I am wondering why we should close off an organization that already provides effective services and resources to countries undergoing major transformations.

I would like his comments on Rights & Democracy. The organization really is an excellent Canadian institution responsible for promoting the protection of human rights and democratic development. What does he think about the fact that the Conservative government has cut funding to that organization in its budget for this year?

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

9:25 p.m.

NDP

Romeo Saganash Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou, QC

Madam Chair, I would like to thank the hon. member for her question.

She raises an important question in the context of this conflict. One of the measures we must insist on in this conflict is that the regime in place must be replaced by a better regime, a more democratic regime, we hope.

The way things currently are in the world, we need to analyze our relationships with the autocratic regimes that exist. We have had relationships with certain autocratic regimes in the past, we continue to and, perhaps, we will have relationships with them in the future, as well. We need to review and analyze our behaviour internationally in that regard.

The hon. member mentioned the cuts to Rights & Democracy. This institution did extraordinary work and was respected throughout the world. I know something about it because I worked with them in Africa, South America, Latin America and in other places around the world. It is one of our Canadian institutions that was respected and that had a very good reputation throughout the world.

What did the Conservatives do? They eliminated the funding for this institution. That is unfortunate because it was one of the ways we had to try to help countries with questionable regimes. However, the Conservatives are eliminating every institution that goes against their decisions, philosophy and ideology. We see it everywhere, in all the programs that were important both in Canada and internationally.

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

9:30 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

Madam Chair, to start, I would like to say that it grieves me that just two weeks ago we were standing here talking about another regime that was killing its own people, the Ahmadinejad regime in Iran. Unfortunately, we now find ourselves talking about another regime, this one led by Bashar al-Assad.

The appalling massacre in the Syrian town of Houla on May 25 and the subsequent attacks on the city by government forces are the latest tragic episodes in the Assad regime's campaign of repression against Syria's pro-democracy opposition.

In March of last year, when this region was still in the throes of unrest throughout the Arab world and into North Africa, a group of Syrian children painted anti-regime graffiti on the walls of a school in Daraa. Their subsequent detention and cruel torture sparked protests, which the regime attempted to quell by force. However, this only caused the demonstrations to grow and spread to other cities until people all across the country were peacefully demanding a free and democratic Syria.

The courageous and peaceful nature of these protests stands in stark contrast to the inhuman brutality of the Assad regime with its use of force against unarmed demonstrators, military assaults on civilian areas, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances, summary executions, denial of medical treatment, torture and sexual violence, including against children.

As our Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs have said, the Assad regime has lost all legitimacy by killing its own people to stay in power. I could not agree more. One of the world's worst human rights tragedies is unfolding in Syria day in and day out, even as we speak here tonight.

In February, the United Nations Human Rights Council's commission of inquiry for Syria reported that there is reliable evidence that Syrian military officers and civilian officials at the highest levels are responsible for gross human rights violations.

In March, the United Nations confirmed a death toll of more than 9,000 over the first year of unrest.

In April, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that more than 65,000 Syrians had fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have also been internally displaced.

Canada is deeply concerned about the plight of ordinary Syrians affected by the unrest and has responded with humanitarian assistance to address the urgent needs arising from this crisis, which were well outlined by the parliamentary secretary earlier here tonight.

From the outset, the regime attempted to justify this relentless repression by painting an essentially peaceful pro-democracy movement as a violent threat. I do not know how Assad can try to get away with this when, as UNICEF has said, 400 children have been killed, and that is not including the current massacre, and another 400 have been imprisoned.

Assad's propaganda machine created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Faced with relentless repression, military defectors turned their weapons on the regime and formed what is now called the Free Syrian Army. They were joined by erstwhile civilians who took up arms to protect their communities. This has developed into an armed insurrection, although the Free Syrian Army remains decentralized and lacks substantial cohesion or a genuine command structure.

Since late last year, we have also witnessed the worrying spectre of several large-scale bombings in the previously calm urban centres of Damascus and Aleppo. Extremists, possibly linked to al-Qaeda, are taking advantage of the unrest to advance their own agendas. However, the regime remains directly responsible for the overwhelming majority of violence and has itself created the conditions that have driven some of its opponents to take up arms.

A resolution to the crisis has thus far proved elusive. Bashar al-Assad has gradually unveiled a series of purported reforms that have proven limited in both scope and implementation, while the actions of Syria's security forces belie any genuine commitment to such reforms.

The regime's limited constitutional reforms as well as the subsequent legislative elections, which were boycotted by the opposition, were farcical exercises in propaganda that lacked any credibility with Syria's pro-democracy forces or indeed anyone with an ounce of common sense. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition is becoming more organized, but much remains to be done.

In addition to the grassroots groups organizing on the ground, such as the local coordinating committees, we have seen organizations such as the Syrian national council and a national coordinating committee establish themselves as umbrella organizations for opposition, both within Syria and throughout the diaspora.

Canada has been engaging Syria's peaceful, pro-democracy opposition since the crisis began and is providing support to pro-democracy actors. However, it is now imperative that the Syrian opposition come together and unify on a shared transition plan for a post-Assad Syria. We have also been urging the opposition to reach out to ethnic and religious minorities that are absolutely essential elements of Syrian society. The Syrian opposition must do this if it is to convince the Syrian people that it can be a viable alternative to the Assad regime.

The agreement of all parties to respect the ceasefire brokered by UN and the Arab League joint special envoy Kofi Annan, Syria's acceptance of the Annan peace plan and the recent deployment of the United Nations supervision mission in Syria have opened a small window of opportunity for peaceful political transition in Syria. However, the way ahead is fraught with peril and challenges are considerable. As the events in Houla demonstrated all too well, al-Assad leads a ruthless regime with little respect for its own people, let alone its own international commitments.

Acknowledging the frustration opposition supporters are feeling, given the continued violence and lack of progress in the political track, we continue to urge both parties to adhere to the peace plan before us. The Annan plan is the best option we have for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. It is the only alternative to an almost certain descent into chaos, increased violence and possible civil war. This would be a tragic outcome in which everyone concerned would suffer, most notably the Syrian people.

Canada urges the international community to seize this opportunity to ensure success of the Annan plan. We are providing $250,000 in support of the joint special envoy and have imposed extensive sanctions against the Assad regime in order to push it to live up to its obligations. Along with our partners in the international community, we are working to apply concerted pressure on the Assad regime to step aside, end the violence and allow a genuine political transition to occur. We call upon the UN Security Council to strengthen these efforts by adopting binding international sanctions against the Assad regime. We urge countries with influence in Damascus to persuade Assad to immediately implement the Annan plan before more innocent Syrian lives are lost. The people of Syria can afford no further delay.

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

9:35 p.m.

NDP

Tarik Brahmi Saint-Jean, QC

Madam Chair, I listened carefully to the member opposite's position and that of his party. I would like to ask him if, given the latest declaration of Mr. Gatilov, the deputy foreign minister for Russia, saying that it is not mandatory anymore to keep Assad in power, does the member think that it is an optimistic position that we can expect from that declaration?

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

9:40 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

Madam Chair, what would be optimistic is if Russia and China would join the rest of the UN Security Council and would not only condemn the actions of the Assad regime but would also, as I mentioned in my speech, take action to ensure that binding sanctions are placed upon him and also, rather than make a public statement, exert their influence upon that regime so al-Assad would step aside.

That is really going to be what encourages people, to show that there is some sincere effort being made to end this crisis. The Syrian people need it to happen today. There has been enough death and violence, as I mentioned, not only to the general population but to children as well. It boggles my mind that a regime would not only kill children but would actually arrest them and continue to torture them while this conflict continues.

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

9:40 p.m.

Liberal

John McKay Scarborough—Guildwood, ON

Madam Chair, I basically agree with the member's speech. I want to focus on the last part of his speech with respect to influence in Damascus, which seems to be rather scarce. That really is language for China and Russia but primarily Russia, which has had historical influence in that part of the world.

I would be interested in my colleague's thoughts with respect to what he thinks could be done to persuade Russia to become more interventionist in the Assad regime. Could he tell me what is in it for Russia for it to be taking the position that it seems to be taking? At one level it does not make any sense.

Given that the balance of the Security Council, all 13 members, the entire Arab League, with the exception of Syria, and many more members of the UN agree that there should be some form of intervention, is it time for serious thought to be given to responsibility to intervene?

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

9:40 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

Mr. Chair, there are three countries that have serious influence in Damascus. One was mentioned earlier and that was Iran. It would be hopeless to think that Iran would do anything positive in this regard.

There is one motivation for Russia to act appropriately in this case. If it wants to establish itself as a real world leader, as a legitimate superpower, then it has to act accordingly. It needs to demonstrate that it can do this on an occasion like this where there is serious bloodshed. As I mentioned in my speech, unfortunately the next stage looks like it could be complete anarchy and civil war. Russia needs to step up to the plate and really assert all of the influence that it has to have Assad step aside.

As far as the responsibility to protect is concerned, whether it is the Arab League or any other nation, I like everybody else hope that there can be a diplomatic solution to this. In these cases we hate to think about the other options. However, if the killing continues, I am certain many people will be trying to think of other options of intervention to make sure that the killing stops.

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

9:40 p.m.

Ajax—Pickering
Ontario

Conservative

Chris Alexander Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence

Mr. Chair, I would like to continue along the same line of questioning the member for Scarborough—Guildwood just initiated with regard to Russia. Surely one of the incentives for Russia to change its position on Syria is for it to be on the right side of history. Many countries in the world, not just Canada, have called for Assad to go. Many countries, not just Canada, have called for much stronger action by the Security Council.

Assad will go one day and this period of suffering for the Syrian people will be remembered as a dark chapter in the history of that country. If Russia is seen as having extended it for longer than it needed to be, that will not reflect well on it. Could the hon. member speak further to this point?

We all agree that the Annan peace plan is the only blueprint at the moment for progress that would help to protect civilians, that would help to alleviate the conflict. Would my colleague not agree that none of the six points have been implemented?

Faced with this situation almost three months after the formulation of the plan, would my colleague agree that there is no alternative but to call upon the Security Council to take much stronger action to compel compliance with the peace plan through stronger sanctions and other measures if necessary? Would he also not agree that if this does not take place it is not Canada or those members of the Security Council who welcomed stronger action who will bear the burden of responsibility?

It is Russia, China and other members of the Security Council, permanent and otherwise, who are standing against these measures. Would he not agree that we have a duty in the House and elsewhere to draw attention to the fact that they are preventing the actions that would speed up the alleviation of the suffering of the Syrian people?

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

9:45 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

Mr. Chair, my colleague was so eloquent, I do not know if I could add anything that would actually increase the eloquence or veracity of his statement.

If I look at the six points—to commit to work with the envoy, to commit to stop fighting and achieve urgently an effective United Nations supervised cessation, ensure the timely provision of humanitarian assistance, intensify the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons, ensure freedom of movement, and respect freedom of association—he is absolutely correct that none of these have been complied with in any way, shape or form.

As for his comment regarding Russia wanting to be on the right side of history, I would hope that every nation would want to be on the right side of history in this regard and would do everything possible. As my hon. colleague said, the one plan we have, the one road map, the one thing we can all agree on, that if we follow this plan we will end up with a cessation of violence and a path forward to a democratic nation, is the Annan plan, the six-point plan. This is certainly where Canada and all of its partners want to try to influence the Assad regime to end up at and I hope that would be the case with Russia as well in the near future.