U.S. Mission to the United Nations
Office of Press and Public Diplomacy
New York, New York
January 15, 2015
Remarks by Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at a Security Council Debate on the Middle East, January 15, 2015
Thank you. Foreign Minister Muñoz, bienvenido. We are grateful to have you here to chair a meeting on such critically important issues, and we are appreciative of Chile’s leadership every day. Assistant-Secretary-General Toyberg-Frandzen, we thank you for your informative briefing.
Today, I will speak on three topics: Syria, Lebanon, and Middle East peace.
On Syria, we welcome the efforts of UN Special Envoy de Mistura to establish a freeze in the city of Aleppo. Any freeze must be consistent with humanitarian principles and include measures to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance. It also should reduce violence, not provide cover for any side to advance military aims, such as redeploying forces. And we welcome serious efforts to advance a political dialogue consistent with Geneva II, including those led by Special Envoy de Mistura. There is no military solution to this devastating conflict, only a political solution.
In meeting after meeting before this Council, we have presented mounting evidence of the unspeakable atrocities perpetrated by the Assad regime. This session is no exception. Since we last met to discuss Syria, the OPCW released its third report, with further evidence indicating the regime has repeatedly used chlorine as a weapon against civilians, directly violating international norms and Syria’s international legal obligations. Investigators concluded “with a high degree of confidence” that chlorine gas was used against three opposition-controlled villages in Syria last year. In one affected village, 32 of the 37 people interviewed by OPCW investigators “saw or heard the sound of a helicopter over the village at the time of the attack with barrel bombs containing toxic chemicals.” Of the forces fighting in Syria, only the Assad regime uses helicopters. Only the Assad regime drops barrel bombs.
The Council must stop the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and ensure it has fully declared and verifiably eliminated its chemical weapons program, as required by Security Council Resolution 2118 and by the Chemical Weapons Convention. We vigorously condemn the use of chemical weapons by any party, anywhere.
The use of chemical weapons is far from the regime’s only deplorable act. As Under-Secretary-General Amos informed the Council a month ago today, the use of barrel bombs against civilians has been particularly acute in Aleppo, Hama, Idlib, Rural Damascus, Deir Ez-Zor, Ar-Raqqa and Da’ra. And the regime continues to systematically use torture as a means of inflicting suffering and extracting information. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 2,100 people died in Syrian prisons last year, and the bodies of many showed signs of torture. Because the Observatory only counts cases in which families have received a corpse or a death certificate, they believe the actual number to be much higher. This is consistent with the abhorrent practices of the Assad regime brought to light by the Syrian defector “Caesar.”
Assad, those around him, and any individuals overseeing or complicit in the commission of serious crimes in Syria must know that they will be ultimately held accountable. That is why the United States is actively supporting the collection and preservation of evidence to support future justice processes in a variety of jurisdictions for war crimes and other human rights violations, including those involving sexual and gender-based violence. Those overseeing or complicit in these crimes must be aware that the international community is building case files on its abuses, and the files are growing.
In the meantime, the immense suffering and insecurity caused by the regime’s brutality, and by the extremist groups like ISIL and Al-Nusra, continue to deepen the most severe humanitarian catastrophe in a generation. Approximately 12.2 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria, some 5.5 million of them children – 5.5 million children. Around 7.6 million people have been displaced within Syria, and more than 3 million Syrians have become refugees.
On January 2nd, the Italian Coast Guard intercepted a crewless ship floating 40 miles off the country’s coast. Approximately 400 people, including many women and children, were on board, huddled together for warmth in containers originally built to transport livestock. Most of them were Syrians fleeing the civil war and had been abandoned on the ship by their smugglers and left for dead. People abandoned – freezing and starving – in containers built for animals; that is what Assad’s brutality has done to Syrians. And this is not an isolated incident; days earlier, Italy’s Coast Guard intercepted another crewless ship as it steamed toward a collision with the coast, with nearly 800 Syrians packed on board.
In the face of this unprecedented need and desperation, all countries can and must do more, including by supporting the countries that are already hosting the majority of Syrian refugees, and making robust contributions to the UN’s enormous $8.4 billion humanitarian appeal.
No country has taken in more Syrian refugees than Lebanon, which is host to more than 1.1 million Syrians, and is facing growing challenges in meeting their basic needs, especially with the onset of winter. We encourage Lebanon and all receiving countries to coordinate closely with UNHCR in the development of criteria to ensure that those fleeing violence and persecution are able to enter these countries, just as we encourage governments across the region and around the world to provide refuge for asylum seekers in accordance with international humanitarian principles. Lebanon deserves the election of a president and a fully empowered government to help deal with the considerable challenges the country faces. Electing a president is of course a Lebanese decision, but it is one that must be taken now for the sake of the Lebanese people.
The suffering inside Syria is not limited to Syrians. Some 18,000 civilians are trapped in Yarmouk, the vast majority of them Palestinian refugees. UNRWA estimates that 400 food parcels are needed daily to meet the population’s minimum needs, yet over the last month, only 36 parcels total have been distributed. That is 36 parcels distributed during a time when a minimum of 12,000 parcels were needed.
Assad’s brutality has helped fuel the rise of violent extremist groups like ISIL and Al-Nusra, which are spreading terror and instability across the region. The United States and partner nations are committed to continuing to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL through operations in Syria, as well as in Iraq, at the request of the Iraqi government. And together with our partners, we are committed to rooting out ISIL’s safe havens in the region. We commend Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi for his outreach in the region and to all of Iraq’s communities – an effort that has consolidated his broad-based support – and we urge his government to continue along the path toward genuine inclusion of all groups in the political, economic, and security future of the country.
The spread of ISIL, Al-Nusra, and other extremist groups also threatens the security of Iraq and Syria’s neighbors, most directly Lebanon. Hizballah’s involvement in the conflict in Syria violates Lebanon’s policy of disassociation and has made Lebanon a target for violent extremists’ attacks. On January 10th, extremists staged a double suicide bombing at a café in the Jabal Mohsen neighborhood of Tripoli, Lebanon, in which nine people were killed and dozens more injured. Yet if the attackers aim was to divide Lebanon, they failed. A full range of Sunni, Shi’a, and Christian Lebanese leaders firmly condemned the attack, as did a broad swathe of Lebanese society, who rallied behind the Lebanese Armed Forces in pursuing those responsible. The Lebanese people also vigorously condemned the attack; in the days following it, the Twitter hashtag #JeSuisJabalMohsen was a top trending tweet in Lebanon.
Lastly, let me turn to the Middle East. For decades, the United States has helped – has worked to try to help achieve a comprehensive end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Immense though the challenges may be, we firmly believe that they can and must be overcome because the status quo is unsustainable. We remain committed to achieving the peace that both Palestinians and Israelis deserve: two states for two peoples, with a sovereign, viable and independent Palestine living side by side, in peace and security, with a Jewish and democratic Israel.
As you know, on December 30th, the United States voted against a Security Council draft resolution. We made our position clear: the resolution, which was hastily put to a vote, would have taken us further from, and not closer to, an atmosphere that makes it possible to achieve two states for two peoples. Since that vote, the United States, represented in particular by Secretary Kerry, has reached out to both parties in an effort to try to reduce tensions and find a path forward. The Quartet Envoys will meet at the end of this month to discuss the way ahead.
We continue to oppose unilateral actions by both sides that we view as detrimental to the cause of peace. Palestinian efforts to join the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and to accede to a number of international treaties are counter-productive and will not advance the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a sovereign and independent state. We urge both parties to exercise maximum restraint and avoid steps that threaten to push Israeli-Palestinian relations into a cycle of further escalation.
As we continue to work towards Israeli-Palestinian peace, we share the UN’s deep concern regarding the situation in Gaza. All sides must work together to accelerate efforts and increase support for rebuilding through the Gaza reconstruction mechanism. The humanitarian needs are considerable, particularly in the harsh winter months. In December, the United States announced an initial $100 million contribution for UNRWA’s 2015 needs, including in Gaza. We encourage other states to make pledges, and to promptly deliver the funds that they have already promised to fully meet those urgent needs.
Thank you, Mr. President.