July 4th 2017. Debate on the House of Lords Select Committee Report on the Middle East “Time for New Realism”.
Lord Alton of Liverpool (Crossbencher)
My Lords, all of us who have been fortunate enough to serve alongside the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, both here and in the House of Commons, have come to recognise his telling wisdom and prescience. He and his committee are to be warmly congratulated on this excellent report.
In several places, the report reminds us that the UK cannot act alone in addressing issues in the Middle East, while also highlighting the remarks of Dr Richard Haass that, in this world of bad options,
“not acting can be every bit as consequential as acting”.
As a BBC correspondent put it to the committee, in the Middle East,
“things come back and bite you if you walk away”—
a point referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, in his remarks a few moments ago about the effect in our own cities of events taking place in remote parts of the world.
I first visited Syria in 1980, on the day the Iran-Iraq war broke out, when my noble friend Lord Wright of Richmond was British ambassador in Damascus—where, like my noble friend Lady Cox, I regret the absence of a British diplomatic presence today. Over the ensuing decades, the consequences of failing to act, as Dr Haass put it, have been lethal for millions of people. One such consequence has been the migration and refugee crisis in which millions have been caught up. An estimated 13,000 have perished in the Mediterranean, the equivalent of both Houses of our Parliament being wiped out 10 times over.
Another consequence has been the spread of a murderous ideology that has no respect for the sanctity of human life, a point referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester earlier today. Perhaps the Select Committee could use a future report to examine our response to outright genocide and the slaughter of the region’s minorities. A region without diversity and without minorities will of course also be a far worse place for the majority too.
Only last week, there was a truly shocking report in the Independent newspaper, and elsewhere, about how the region’s only Yazidi MP, Vian Dakhil from Iraq, wept as she described how a baby was butchered and fed to its own unwitting mother by ISIS, which had taken the mother as a sex slave. That Member of Parliament then went on to describe the rape and death of a 10 year-old girl in front of her father and five sisters. Such nauseating obscenity and barbarism breaks hearts but should also stir consciences. Imagine for a moment that this was your daughter, your sister or your wife.
Nearly 10,000 Yazidis are believed to have been killed or captured by ISIS, which reserves particular contempt for this minority group. Many women have been kept as sex slaves. Others have been discovered in mass graves.
But the House will also recall the 21 Coptic Christians taken to a Libyan beach and executed by ISIS after they refused to renounce their faith. ISIS says of the Copts that they are its “favourite prey.” Then think of the countless atrocities in Raqqa and Mosul. Antoine Audo, the Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, says that two-thirds of Syrian Christians have either been killed or driven away from his country.
Zainab Bangura, the United Nations special representative on sexual violence in conflict, has authenticated reports of Christian and Yazidi females—girls aged one to seven—being sold, with the youngest carrying the highest price tag. One 80 year-old Christian woman who stayed in Nineveh was reportedly burned alive. In another Christian family, the mother and 12 year-old daughter were raped by ISIS militants, leading the father, who was forced to watch, to commit suicide. One refugee described how she witnessed ISIS crucify her husband on the door of their home.
Three years ago, on 23 July 2014, I warned in an opinion piece in the Times that,
“the world must wake up urgently to the plight of the ancient churches throughout the region who are faced with the threat of mass murder and mass displacement”.
But the world chose not to wake up, and for those caught up in these barbaric events, the stakes are utterly existential. If the Minister does not believe that these acts are part of a genocide, perhaps he would tell us precisely what despicable acts would have to occur which would constitute genocide? The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, of which we are one of 147 signatories, lays on us a duty to protect and to punish. The convention of course was the work of the lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who lost 49 of his relatives in the Holocaust, and says that “international co-operation” is needed,
“to liberate mankind from such an odious scourge”.
In Syria and in Iraq, we have signally failed to do this.
It is 14 months now since the House of Commons, on 20 April 2016, voted unanimously to approve a Motion expressing the opinion that ISIS was inflicting genocidal atrocities on religious minorities. Our subsequent failure to act makes us derelict in our obligations under the 1948 convention. The Government have simply said they will collect evidence. Perhaps the Minister could update the House on how well this evidence collection is going. Are we, for instance, in touch with Ms Dakhil, the Yazidi MP I referred to earlier, to take a detailed statement from her about the appalling crime that she described?
I have been receiving disturbing reports from charities on the ground that very little evidence collection is under way and that crime scenes have been hopelessly contaminated while we have dithered. Is that true? How much evidence have we collected? Is it also true that those collecting the evidence have decided to disregard the atrocities committed against the Christian communities?
As we have seen in Manchester, at London Bridge and here at Westminster, these issues can indeed “come back to bite us”, as that BBC correspondent remarked. The Government need to see the clear link between the security and survival of the people of the region and our own citizens here in the UK. What security can there be when International Criminal Court-category crimes are left unpunished?
The committee’s report notes on page 4 that Russia is an essential partner if a global solution to problems in the region is to be achieved. What is stopping us from at least tabling a United Nations resolution at the Security Council to begin the prosecution of the ISIS leadership, even if it is just in the territory of Iraq alone?
The report also talks about the importance of building non-governmental links. Yes, but with a caution.
Will the Minister confirm that he has received the letter I sent to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees last Sunday about how UNHCR hands over control of its camps to local officials who have ideological agendas, impose sharia, intimidate others and on whose watch persecution, rape, robbery and violence occur, which is why many from those minorities avoid the camps? In other words, UNHCR is failing to provide safety and security to the very people who require it. I am told that locally contracted translators intimidate, browbeat, insult or threaten Yazidis and Christians, deliberately falsify information, lose files or tell such applicants to try elsewhere.
In this maelstrom, where is the future?
The noble Lord, Lord Howell, pointed us to the changing face of our NATO ally, Erdogan’s Turkey. Last week, Turkey sequestrated 50 monasteries, churches and cemeteries. I have stayed at Mor Gabriel on the Tur Abdin plateau. It was founded in 397. It is the oldest surviving Syriac Orthodox monastery in the world. I have written to the Minister about these sequestrations. Perhaps he could tell us where he thinks these seizures leave Turkey’s minority communities.
Meanwhile, across the border, joint Kurdish and Assyrian forces have recaptured a number of villages in the Khabur river valley area. They will need enormous help to find and dispose of mines and make homes and villages safe again. Will we be enhancing their military capability—their ability to protect themselves? Will we be guaranteeing, as John Major did in his day, a no-fly zone? What will we do to rid of munitions and armaments a region where assault weapons are more numerous than cooking pots?
In Washington recently, I met Bassam Ishak, the president of the Syriac National Council of Syria. He said:
“Without achieving the full rights of all the minorities of Syria, no new Syria will emerge and no political actor will win”.
His vision for the region is one where rights are based on citizenship; where all people, regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender are treated equally; and where women have a prominent role in the structures. Will we provide serious support for the Kurdish-Assyrian democratic self-administration governmental structure, with its commitment to civil society and the rule of law? Will we be backing the creation of the multidenominational Marshall plan called the Nineveh reconstruction project, which has already begun to rebuild and resettle thousands of people back in their homes and farms?
Matters are now at a tipping point: if these minorities fear that they will be unable to recover their homes, towns and villages, it will severely undermine the wider social and economic renewal of the region and result in thousands more refugees. There are incalculable benefits from religious pluralism, including stabilisation, growth and an easing of sectarian tensions. Of 12,000 known families, 500 have already returned to Telesqof, 74 homes have been repaired in Qaraqosh, and work is under way with other villages in the Kurdish-controlled areas. The project aims also to include provision of employment and the reconstruction of schools. Almost 13,000 homes in nine Christian villages in the Nineveh plains have been damaged, burned or totally destroyed in this genocide. Private charities alone cannot remake the broken places. Aid to the Church in Need, on whose board I sit, has costed the rebuild for homes and services in nine villages—excluding Mosul and Alqosh—at $254 million.
Our Government must play their part by ensuring that these ancient communities have fair and equal access to international and DfID humanitarian and development assistance; that persecuted minorities are part of the political settlement at national, provincial and district level; that safety and security of these minorities is provided in both the immediate and long-term; and that those who have terrorised and murdered them are brought to justice.