International Conference on Syria (“Geneva II”)
UNITED NATIONS INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON SYRIA
Statement by HE Mr Peter Woolcott, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations Office in Geneva
22 January 2014
Australia thanks the Government of Switzerland for hosting this conference and commends the efforts of the Secretary-General and his Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in convening our meeting in exceptionally difficult circumstances. We also recognise the efforts which the United States and Russia have made since last May to bring this conference to fruition.
Australia joins others in welcoming the courage of the Syrian National Coalition’s decision to participate and the strong leadership shown by Coalition President al Jarba in bringing the Coalition to the negotiating table.
The scale of the Syrian tragedy nearly defies belief. We have been chilled by the UN’s admission last year that it can no longer keep an accurate account of the war’s dead. We are left with “more than 100 000” even as the number grows higher. Shocking stories of large scale human rights abuses continue to emerge – we simply cannot let this situation continue.
This is not only the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, but a very serious threat to the stability and security of the entire Middle East. We have seen the burden of hosting refugees, cross-border violence and increased sectarian tensions taking their tolls on Syria’s neighbours. All of these countries will need the sustained support of the international community in the years ahead.
In recent weeks we have seen an intensification of violence by the Syrian authorities, including the use of barrel bombs, SCUD missiles and other indiscriminate weapons in Aleppo – weapons which have taken a terrible toll on Syrian civilians.
The humanitarian needs have now become immense and it is time for all of us – and in particular the Syrian parties – to put the interests of the Syrian people first. The international community has agreed that a political transition for Syria is essential. Our primary goal must be to encourage the parties towards agreement on the establishment of a transitional governing authority with full executive powers, consistent with the Action Group communiqué from June 2012. We urge both parties – and in particular the Syrian authorities – to participate constructively at this conference with this goal in mind. It is only by ending the conflict and establishing a credible transition process for Syria that the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people can be realised.
We do recognise that achieving agreement on a transition will take time – and that the needs of the Syrian people are immediate and cannot wait for a transition to be completed. We must examine what steps can be taken now to improve the humanitarian situation on the ground. That has been a guiding principle behind the work that Australia has been doing with Luxembourg in the Security Council and with Luxembourg and OCHA in the High Level Group to address the humanitarian aspects of the crisis.
The Presidential Statement which the Security Council adopted on 2 October was an important expression of Council unity and of the international community’s expectations for significantly enhanced humanitarian access in Syria and immediate efforts to protect civilians affected by the conflict. While there have been some limited improvements in the situation since the adoption of the Council’s statement on 2 October, we continue to witness a near total lack of respect for international humanitarian law in Syria, far too many civilians remain without access to basic food and medicine and communities in Eastern Ghouta, Homs and elsewhere remain under siege conditions.
Australia continues to call for full implementation of the Presidential Statement. However, if there remains a lack of will to implement the statement in full the Council will, very soon, need to examine carefully what other steps are necessary to improve the situation. We have seen the Syrian authorities cooperative effectively with the international community towards the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons under resolution 2118 – it is now well past time that we see the same level of cooperation in addressing the humanitarian crisis.
Australia commends those members of the international community who responded generously to the humanitarian appeals launched last week in Kuwait. And we also commend the essential work which UN agencies and international relief organisations are doing on the ground in response to the crisis.
Australia has been pleased to contribute $111 million to humanitarian efforts since the start of the conflict. This has included specific funding to meet the needs of victims of sexual and gender-based violence – one of the most disturbing aspects of the conflict. The priority which the Secretary-General has placed on the participation of women at this conference is to be commended. Women have suffered disproportionately as a result of the conflict and must be a central part of its resolution, including at each stage of the transition process.
We also recognise that Al Qaida and its affiliated groups continue to threaten many in Syria, in its neighbours and in the wider international community. The failure of the Syrian authorities in 2011 to heed the legitimate calls of the Syrian people for change – and their decision to respond to these calls with relentless violent military action – has created a fertile environment in which these groups can thrive. A focused international effort against these groups is needed, including the implementation of existing sanctions so that the funds and weapons which sustain them are cut off.
But most fundamental to the future of the Syrian people is an inclusive political transition for Syria which preserves Syria’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity and enables all Syrians, regardless of their religion, ethnicity or gender, to participate fully in rebuilding their shattered country.
Australia will remain steadfast in its commitment to supporting the Syrian people achieve this goal.