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

7:15 p.m.

Calgary East
Alberta

Conservative

Deepak Obhrai Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs

Madam Chair, the situation in Syria grows more desperate with every passing day and the list of Bashar al-Assad's victims grows even longer. The recent massacre in Houla, where 49 children were murdered, makes it agonizingly clear just how far Assad is willing to go in order to deny his people their legitimate democratic rights. He is willing to cling to power regardless of the cost to Syria or the Syrian people.

Our government has repeatedly condemned the savagery of the Assad regime and will continue to support the Syrian people in their struggle. Just last week, we expelled all remaining Syrian diplomats to protest the Houla massacre, coordinating this measure with several of our closest allies. As the Minister of Foreign Affairs said at the time, “Canada and our partners are speaking loudly, with one voice, in saying these Syrian representatives are not welcome in our countries while their masters in Damascus continue to perpetrate their heinous and murderous acts”.

The Assad regime's brutal campaign of oppression has created a humanitarian emergency and has witnessed the systematic violation of human rights. It has had profound negative consequences for regional stability and has provoked a strong and wide-ranging response from the international community, including the development of the peace plan by UN-Arab League Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan and the deployment of UN observers to monitor its implementation.

The humanitarian situation in Syria continues to deteriorate. More than 9,000 Syrians have been killed during the past year and tens of thousands have been displaced, including more than 70,000 refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Over one million Syrians are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and our government has acted by providing up to $7.5 million in humanitarian assistance that will help provide Syrians with emergency food assistance, safe water, sanitation facilities, essential household items and other much needed assistance.

The Houla massacre is only the latest in a lengthy list of gross human rights violations carried out by the Assad regime since the beginning of the crisis in March 2011. The list is long and varied, including restricted media access, denial of the right to peaceful assembly, the 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.

These atrocities are so widespread that the commission of inquiry established by the UN Human Rights Council reports that the Syrian regime is responsible for crimes against humanity. The human rights situation is so dire that the Human Rights Council has held four emergency sessions on Syria, most recently on June 1. Canada participated actively in this session, co-sponsoring the resolution that condemned the Houla massacre and the ongoing human rights abuses being carried out by the regime.

As the Minister of Foreign Affairs has stated, “we have a solemn duty to defend the vulnerable, to challenge the aggressor, to protect and promote human rights and human dignity at home and abroad”.

While Canada wholeheartedly condemns the actions of the Assad regime, we must also be diligent in standing up for Syria's religious minorities and ensure that their rights are respected in Syria's present and its future. It is vital that Christian communities and others are not subject to prosecution or violence. Rest assured, Canada will be watching.

As damaging as Assad's oppressive policies have been for Syria, they may be even more destructive to regional stability. I have already highlighted the refugee situation caused by the crisis, which is placing a significant burden on countries, like Jordan, that have only limited resources with which to support these new arrivals. The conflict also risks inflaming sectarian and political tensions in neighbouring countries, most notably Lebanon where we have already seen the violence from Syria start to spill over into struggles between pro and anti-Assad Lebanese factions. Syria's Iranian ally has been quick to supply Assad with the tools and resources it needs to suppress its own popular protests for democratic change, even at the risk of turning the conflict into a regional proxy war.

The increased chaos and heightened sectarianism that will result only serves to provide terrorist organizations, like al-Qaeda, with opportunities to thrive and carry out further attacks against innocent civilians. Therefore, the international community must work together to end the Syrian crisis as quickly as possible.

We continue to believe that the best hope for doing so is Kofi Annan's peace plan, which has been endorsed by the UN Security Council and the Arab League. This plan calls for an immediate ceasefire in order to pave the way for a Syrian-led negotiated political transition.

Implementation of the plan is being observed by the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria. UN observers provide an unbiased and on-the-ground assessment of what is actually happening in Syria, ensuring that the regime is held to account for the abuses that it is committing. The Syrian government has accepted the Annan peace plan but, sadly, has refused to abide by its commitments, as seen all too tragically in that the UNSMIS has been able to confirm Assad's responsibility for this massacre.

Canada strongly supports the Annan peace plan and works with UNAMIS. We have contributed $250,000 to Kofi Annan's mission and call on all parties, particularly the Assad regime, to immediately and fully implement all aspects of the plan, most importantly the ceasefire. The international community has made its support of the Annan plan inescapably clear and, in light of Assad's continued refusal to fulfill his commitments to Special Envoy Annan, we urge the UN Security Council to adopt binding international sanctions against the Assad regime in order to increase the pressure on Assad to immediately stop the violence. We call on those countries with influence in Damascus to encourage Assad to implement the Annan plan while he still has a chance to do so.

Our support for the Annan plan has been the key element of our response to the crisis in Syria, but it is far from the only one. Canada has repeatedly condemned the Assad regime, including the Prime Minister's call for Assad to step down in August 2011. In addition to expelling Syrian diplomats, Canada has imposed eight rounds of sanctions against Assad and his supporters. In addition to our humanitarian assistance, Canada has also committed up to $1 million in non-lethal support for peaceful, pro-democracy actors in Syria.

On the international stage, Canada has been an active participant in efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis, both through established venues, such as the G8 and the United Nations, as well as through new groupings, such as the Friends of the Syrian People.

Regardless of the venue, however, we have already made it clear that Canada supports the Syrian people in their struggle for democracy. We have stood with them throughout the crisis and we will continue to stand with them in the future.

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

7:20 p.m.

Conservative

Kevin Sorenson Crowfoot, AB

Madam Chair, I thank my colleague for raising the whole concern about freedom of religion. I know that the member for Mississauga—Erindale, who will also be speaking, has been involved with that, as has our Minister of Foreign Affairs.

We have some Canadian investment, mainly in the oil sector in Syria, so we do have a connection there. I wonder if the parliamentary secretary, with his vast experience in dealing with foreign governments and countries, could tell us what exactly Canada can do. One thing about Assad, as vicious as he may have been, there was still a certain degree of religious freedom. It was not perfect but there are other places in the area that were much worse. I personally have a real concern that we can go from bad to worse when we deal with some of those values, such as religious freedom.

Whereas our government has said that this is a big issue for Canada around the world, is it working through the UN? Are there certain things we can do in the formation of a new governance model? What can we do here to assure that the next regime does recognize many of the important human rights and values we have but specifically freedom of religion?

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

7:20 p.m.

Conservative

Deepak Obhrai Calgary East, AB

Madam Chair, I thank the member for Crowfoot, my friend and my member of Parliament as well, for raising such an important issue about religious minorities.

While Assad may have been a friend of the religious minorities, and I am saying “may have”, the fact remains clear that Assad has blood on his hands and he has to go. As he leaves, this causes a big concern for us. During my recent visit to Istanbul where I met with the members of the Syrian National Council, I made it very clear that we would not replace one dictatorial regime with another one that would not respect religious freedom. This was made very clear to them and we will make it very clear to those actors who are trying to promote democracy and will eventually rule Syria.

As far as Canada is concerned, we have established the Office of Religious Freedom, which my colleague from Mississauga is also looking after with the Minister of Foreign Affairs. This office will keep a vigilant eye on what is happening to religious minorities in Syria as well as everywhere else in the world. Therefore, I can assure members that Canada will be keeping a very vigilant eye on the situation for minority religious rights in Syria.

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

7:25 p.m.

NDP

Paul Dewar Ottawa Centre, ON

Madam Chair, my colleague, the parliamentary secretary, enumerated a number of actions that the government has taken. He knows that many of us had asked that the government to act sooner rather than later, specifically on the issue of sending the Syrian diplomats home.

I am just curious as to t why it took the government this long to take that action. As he will know, many were calling on the government to do this but it waited. We knew what was going on since last March. It has been a year. Many of us have been calling for this for many months.

I am just curious as to why the government took so long.

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

7:25 p.m.

Conservative

Deepak Obhrai Calgary East, AB

Madam Chair, the member raising this question has raised it with me on many occasions during debates we have had.

However, we were looking to the regional players at the United Nations to act. After the United Nations and the Arab League appointed Kofi Annan, we thought that, under pressure from Kofi Annan, Assad would come to his senses and begin, to which he agreed, a ceasefire. There was the hope that he was giving to the world community that he would abide by the resolution, by the peace plan put forward by the Special Envoy Kofi Annan.

Regretfully, as we can see now, specifically after the massacre that took place in Houla, we know that he was not adhering to that peace plan. Therefore, we had to take stronger actions in coordination with all the other allies.

It is important to note that it is important that we act in co-operation with other countries. Therefore, along with other countries, we expelled the diplomats from Canada.

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

7:25 p.m.

NDP

Ève Péclet La Pointe-de-l'Île, QC

Madam Chair, could the parliamentary secretary tell us how many Canadians are still in Syria and what types of consular services Canada provides to its citizens?

How is our government helping Canadians who are still in Syria?

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

7:25 p.m.

Conservative

Deepak Obhrai Calgary East, AB

Madam Chair, we do know that there are Canadian citizens in Syria and we are concerned about them.

I will take that question under advisement and will come back to the member with the answer of how many Canadian Syrians who registered with the embassy before we closed it are still in Syria. Our offices in Jordan, in Turkey and in Lebanon are ensuring that those Canadians are looked after. They are getting consular services from these missions surrounding Syria.

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

7:25 p.m.

NDP

Tarik Brahmi Saint-Jean, QC

Madam Chair, I would like to take this opportunity to turn again to Canada's diplomatic role in the world.

Could the parliamentary secretary briefly tell us how our role has changed since October 2010, when Canada lost its seat on the UN Security Council?

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

7:25 p.m.

Conservative

Deepak Obhrai Calgary East, AB

Madam Chair, whether we have a seat on the Security Council or not, Canada has a very loud voice in the United Nations through its activities and our mission at the United Nations.

I would challenge the member and say that we are very heavily engaged through all venues in the decision making process at the United Nations. The member must remember that only 15 countries are on the United Nations Security Council out of the 194 at the United Nations. That does not mean that 194 countries do not have a say at the United Nations because they do not have a Security Council seat. That question of being there or not being there is not the issue. The issue is that we have a very strong voice. We led the session at the UN human rights, co-sponsored, to bring in the resolution against Syria. We co-sponsored the resolution to condemn the human rights abuses in Iran.

We are fully engaged with the United Nations, whether we are on the Security Council or not.

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

7:30 p.m.

NDP

Marc-André Morin Laurentides—Labelle, QC

Madam Chair, I have a question. I would like the hon. member to answer it, if he can.

Last spring, when the crisis began, we learned that it was a large Canadian corporation that was producing the electricity and managing the energy supply in Syria. That is rather significant. A type of economic and technical support was being provided to Syria.

Would it not have been appropriate to prevent that company from supplying Syria? Would that not have helped topple the regime?

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

7:30 p.m.

Conservative

Deepak Obhrai Calgary East, AB

Madam Speaker, on of the issue of the company providing electricity, from our point of view electricity was being provided to the people of Syria, not only to the Assad regime. It is important to recognize that this electricity, through the company we are working with, was for the benefit of the people. We do not want to penalize the people.

However, the situation has deteriorated to the point that we have brought in sanctions. After the Houla massacre, we have now created bigger sanctions, and no Canadian company is allowed to be operating in Syria.

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

June 5th, 2012 / 7:30 p.m.

NDP

Paul Dewar Ottawa Centre, ON

Madam Chair, tonight it is with a heavy heart and a troubled conscience, frankly, that I get up to speak on the issue of Syria. The troubled part is because of what we have heard from the government side already and what we will hear throughout the night of the troubles within Syria, the massacre at Houla and the mass atrocities that are happening in real time. The troubled conscience is the fact that we have seen this kind of event before.

In 1993, when President Clinton at the time was opening the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, well-respected Holocaust survivor and Nobel peace prize winner Elie Wiesel said to the president after speeches were made, “Mr. President, what have we learned?” He then went on to say “Mr. President, I cannot not tell you something. I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since for what I have seen. ...I am saying that we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country.”

Of course, we know what happened in the former Yugoslavia after that. That was 1993. It was just the next year that Rwanda happened. It is interesting that just this past April, Mr. Wiesel was in Washington again, at the museum, and this time it was President Obama he was speaking to. He posed the question yet again: “What have we learned”?

This is a question we need to examine. What have we learned when it comes to preventing mass atrocities? What have we learned in terms of stopping mass atrocities?

It has already been noted that these atrocities have been happening. We think of April 6, 1994. That was the date of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide. We think of what happened on July 12, 1995, in Srebrenica. The world witnessed that. Now the date that will be known along with these other dates will be May 2012, and it will be Houla, Syria.

We are just starting to understand what happened in Syria. The numbers are 108 civilians killed, 34 of them women. The part that has grabbed us all is how many were children. There were 49 children. I heard the witness, an 11-year-old boy, Ali, talk about what happened in Houla that night. He said:

They came in armoured vehicles and there were some tanks. They shot five bullets through the door of our house. They said they wanted Araf and Shwaki, my father and my brother. Then they asked about my uncle, Abu Haidar. They also knew his name.

Shivering with fear, the boy stood toward the back of his family home as gunmen then shot dead every family member in front of him. It was an 11-year-old boy who witnessed this. He said:

My mum yelled at them. She asked: 'What do you want from my husband and son?' A bald man with a beard shot her with a machine gun from the neck down. Then they killed my sister...with the same gun. She was five years old. They then shot my brother...in the head and in the back. I saw his soul leave his body in front of me.

They shot at me, but the bullet passed me and I wasn't hit. I was shaking so much I thought they would notice me. I put blood on my face to make them think I'm dead.

Apparently the gunmen were convinced their work was finished. They moved on to other areas of the house from which they proceeded to loot the family's possessions. The boy said they stole three televisions and a computer and then they got ready to leave. On the way out of the house the boy said they found the three men they had been looking for. They killed them all.

The boy said:

They shot my father and uncle. And then they found my oldest brother...near the door. They shot him dead too.

Many have seen the images. This is a description. This is from an 11-year-old boy.

I have two sons of my own. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have one of my sons witness not just the murder but the targeting and the wanton destruction of human life.

We have to ask ourselves, “How is it the world can watch? What have we learned?”

We have learned a couple of things. I have already posed a question to the government that there comes a time to act, and the action of dismissing the ambassadors is one.

I believe we should have acted earlier when it comes to Canadian companies that were still functioning in Syria. In fact, we called on the government to ask that Suncor leave Syria. The government said that it was providing electricity. Suncor did get the message and left, but it was due to the sanctions from the EU, not the sanctions from Canada. What have we learned? We need to act.

I believe it is important to acknowledge that this is not a case in which we can have military intervention. I think the government understands that. I think most people in the House understand it. Because of the situation in Syria, we are deeply concerned and worried about the fallout from any kind of military intervention.

There are those who say that there should be support for the other side, for the rebels. I know that in Washington right now Senator McCain has called for that. Presidential candidate Romney has said that there should be a focus on cutting off the arms supply from Russia on the one hand, but we should supply arms to the other side. Clearly, it is dangerous to add more fuel to the fire.

A military option in that sense is not an option, yet we see these horrific crimes happening.

The crimes that I just described are most likely done with the support of the regime through the shabiha, which in Arabic is “ghosts”. These paramilitary groups are supported by the government and go and do the bidding of the regime.

Where do they get their support from? They get it from the government, but they have also been armed very well. We have to acknowledge that the ramping of arms in the region has created very dangerous circumstances, so we need to put pressure on governments such as Russia's to stop the arms flow.

That is where I think we need to focus. We need to put pressure on those who are continuing to support this regime. Most people understand that.

In terms of dealing with this situation right now, we of course support the Annan peace plan, but frankly, it is not enough. We need to see more UN observers on the ground. We need to see the regime adhering to the conditions of that plan. We also need to put pressure on Russia. In fact, all roads lead to Moscow when it comes to trying to deal with this situation.

It is also important to note that the media need to continue to be seized with this issue. The media has a responsibility, as has been identified when people have looked at mass atrocities and prevention.

Finally, we have more to do here. Canada needs to focus on the UN. Frankly, we need to earn our seat back on the Security Council. Alas, we do not have it, but we should earn our seat back. We should invest in conflict resolution. We should particularly support women and those who are fleeing violence.

We need to, in the end, answer the question that I posed at the beginning—“What have we learned?—and not cease until we have answered that question.

We have a moment that we can resolve this in a way that is multilateral and diplomatic and that is what we need to focus on until the killing stops, until we see that 11-year-old boys in Syria are not going to tell stories of massacre but stories we all have our kids enjoy, normal stories of play, school and everyday life.

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

7:40 p.m.

Conservative

Deepak Obhrai Calgary East, AB

Madam Chair, first he asked the question, “What have we learned?” What we have learned is that we cannot trust Bashar al-Assad. He is untrustworthy, he has broken all his promises and he has blood on his hands.

In the meantime, the hon. member has said many things that Canada can do, which we have been doing. We will consult with him when he comes up with ideas on what we should do.

One of the issues the member has raised is using pressure. As he said, all roads lead to Russia. I would like to advise the member and everybody else in the House that this issue has been raised dozens of times with the Russians, most recently with the foreign minister in Washington only two weeks ago at the G8 and with the ambassador here last Friday. Also, the Minister of International Trade is currently in Russia. Therefore, yes, we understand that and we are engaged with Russia and we will continue to engage with Russia.

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

7:40 p.m.

NDP

Paul Dewar Ottawa Centre, ON

Madam Chair, that is fine. We also know the government just announced that it is ramping up trade negotiations with Russia. I hope the Conservatives take the opportunity to focus on this issue right now because the priority now for most Canadians, when it comes to Syria, is ensuring that Russia acts. The priority is not trade with Russia right now, it is about action when it comes to Syria and I hope that is the focus of the government.

I should also underline that this is a wider issue around how the government behaves on corporate social responsibility. I know the Minister of Foreign Affairs often says we will not go just go along to get along. When it was Suncor and it was a matter of saying that this was an action that we should be taking, pulling it out, it seemed like we were going along to get along and it was not until the EU sanctions forced Suncor out.

The government also needs to be consistent in supporting the UN and that means being more respectful of those who represent the UN, ensuring we see the UN as not being perfect, and we all know that. However, when we look at situations like Syria right now, the UN is the institution we have to work in to get something done.

I urge the government not only to focus on Russia with regard to Syria, but also to focus on the UN and support the institution of the UN respectfully. As a good model, I would suggest how Norway has done with the UN and it has been very effective.

Situation in Syria
Government Orders

7:45 p.m.

Mississauga—Erindale
Ontario

Conservative

Bob Dechert Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs

Madam Chair, I appreciate my hon. colleague's speech. We have worked together on the foreign affairs committee for some time now. He mentioned Russia. He mentioned the UN Security Council.

Could he tell us exactly how he would suggest that the international community and Canada force Russia to abandon its position on Syria, its long-standing relationship with Syria and the fact that it has a veto on the Security Council? What would he suggest that Canada or other countries could do differently to ensure that Russia moves off this untenable position and acts immediately to help save lives of people in Syria?