Address on the situation in Syria and South Sudan and Norway’s engagement in these countries

The Storting, 11 February 2014

"The suffering of the people in these two countries is of concern to us as fellow human beings. We have a moral duty to get involved. But our humanitarian engagement is also linked to our own security policy interests", said Minister of Foreign Affairs, Børge Brende, in his address to the Storting.

Thank you for this opportunity to brief the Storting on developments in Syria and South Sudan: two conflicts, humanitarian crises and political processes that have a decisive impact on peace and security in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.

Norway is the sixth largest humanitarian donor to Syria.

Together with Denmark, Norway is contributing to the transportation of chemical weapons out of Syria, to prevent these weapons from being used against the civilian population again, or being spread to other groups.

In South Sudan, Norway has an active humanitarian and political engagement.  

Three years ago, many people still hoped that Syria’s President would initiate a reform process.

Today, Syria is ravaged by war between ethnic, religious and ideological groups. This has created one of the most colossal humanitarian crises of our time.

Less than three years ago, there was an atmosphere of optimism in South Sudan following its newly-won independence. In recent weeks, this country too has been torn apart by hostilities that are splitting the population along ethnic fault lines.

Reconciliation is difficult when civilians are being killed, there is widespread human suffering and people have been forced to flee their homes. The neighbouring countries are at risk of being destabilised due to the huge flows of refugees, the spread of weapons and the possibility that new armed groups will be mobilised.

All of this also affects Norway – as a provider of development aid and humanitarian assistance, as a facilitator in peace processes, and as a key contributor to the transportation of weapons of mass destruction out of Syria.

But just as importantly, all this has a direct impact on Norway’s national interests, since the Middle East and the Horn of Africa are being further destabilised, the growth of extremism is being intensified, and the credibility of the international system in terms of crisis management and crisis resolution is being severely tested.

In March 2011, people took to the streets in Daraa, in the far south of Syria. Inspired by the Arab Spring, they demanded democratic reforms and freedom of expression, with their sights set on gaining genuine political influence.

The demonstrators were gunned down. The regime rejected the people’s demands. And it was unable to respond in any other way than through violence.

Since then, the situation has gone from bad to worse. In the space of less than three years, it is estimated that more than 130 000 people have been killed. 

Three years ago, Syria was a safe haven for refugees. Now, Syria itself has given rise to one of the most massive refugee crises since World War Two.

Three years ago, Syria was a middle-income country. Now, its GDP has been halved.

The parties to the conflict, the regional actors and the international community have a grave responsibility to stop the war.

Only a political solution can put an end to the enormous suffering and devastation the people of Syria and their country are being subjected to:

  • 9.3 million Syrians are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Half of them are children.
  • 6.5 million people are internally displaced.
  • 2.3 million people have been registered as refugees in Syria’s neighbouring countries.

The international community needs to do far more. The UN has announced a need for NOK 39 billion. At the international humanitarian pledging conference for Syria in Kuwait on 15 January, the donors pledged a little over a third of this amount: NOK 14.5 billion.

The conflict situation on the ground is chaotic. The Syrian regime, supported by the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, controls central parts of the country, from Damascus to the Mediterranean coast.

In the north and east of the country, a number of armed opposition groups have the upper hand. At times these groups cooperate, at other times they fight one another. There are deserters from the Syrian army. There are Kurdish groups, Islamist groups, and extremist groups with links to al-Qaeda. 

A number of the groups are being supported by actors who are seeking strategic influence in the region. This further compounds an already complex situation.

The civilian population is right in the firing line. The war in Syria is being waged with brutality, without respect for the principles of international humanitarian law.

We have all seen and been deeply shocked by the images of prisoners in Syrian jails who have been tortured and maimed.

The regime has consistently been preventing deliveries of medical supplies from reaching the rebel-controlled areas. Both parties to the conflict are carrying out targeted attacks on humanitarian aid workers, hospitals and other civilian infrastructure.

In the capital Damascus and in the city of Homs, it seems that starvation and the denial of medical care are being used systematically against hundreds of thousands of civilians. This may constitute a war crime as well as other serious crimes under international law. Those who are responsible for crimes of this kind must be brought to justice.

At the end of last week, the UN announced that the parties had agreed on a three-day ceasefire to enable the evacuation of women, children and older men from the Old City of Homs, and to allow humanitarian access to the remaining residents. The UN and the Syrian Red Crescent succeeded, despite difficult circumstances, in evacuating several hundred people and delivering emergency assistance to those left inside the city.

The events we witnessed last weekend – the breach of the ceasefire, attacks on aid workers and the siege of the Old City of Homs – are unacceptable. The fact that aid is being allowed into Homs simply means that the parties to the conflict are meeting their obligations. At the same time, ceasefires to enable the delivery of humanitarian aid are important for building confidence and should be carried out again both in Homs and in other parts of the country.

,However, it is clear that the parties to the conflict are far from giving the civilian population the protection they are entitled to under international humanitarian law. We are seeing daily attacks on the civilian population and a denial of vital humanitarian access to those affected by the conflict in large parts of Syria,

It should also be underlined that the authorities have, as a deliberate strategy, denied humanitarian access to the civilian population in areas under opposition control, such as Homs.

All parties to the conflict are obliged to respect international humanitarian law and to protect humanitarian actors. The parties must allow humanitarian assistance to be provided regularly to all those in need of it, in all parts of the country. 

In October last year, the President of the UN Security Council issued a statement on humanitarian access in Syria. This statement has led to the Syrian regime lifting certain bureaucratic impediments, but there have been few concrete results on the ground.

The permanent members of the Security Council must now take their responsibility seriously, and agree on a binding resolution. In my talks with Foreign Minister Lavrov, I have called particularly on Russia to contribute to this end, and to use its influence in Damascus to bring about an improvement in the situation. We have also expressed our support for the humanitarian work being carried out by the UK as well as by the elected members of the Security Council, Luxembourg and Australia. We need a binding Security Council resolution that clearly establishes the right to full and unimpeded humanitarian access now.

On 22 January this year, the parties met for the first time since the war began. This meeting took place in Montreux in Switzerland, within the framework of the Geneva II process. Since then, the parties have completed a first round of UN-led talks behind closed doors. Yesterday, the second round of negotiations began.

Norway has provided both political and financial support for Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi’s work. 

The parties have taken the first step. It is now crucial to ensure that they commit themselves to a binding peace process. It is also vital that more elements of the opposition, especially the Syrian-based opposition, are involved in the process in the time ahead.

We must not be naive. The distance between the parties is enormous. There is a real danger that the civil war will continue.

The Syrian regime has rejected all calls for President Bashar al-Assad to step down. For the opposition, it is unthinkable for him to have any role in the future Syria.

In due course, it will also be important to include the regional players in efforts to find a political solution.

I was myself at Montreux. On behalf of the Government, I called for the full implementation of the Geneva Communiqué. This means that the parties have to agree on a transitional governing body, in which Assad can have no role. This body must have full executive powers so that it can pave the way for democratic institutions and free elections. 

I emphasised the importance of preserving Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  I also stressed that the rights of all Syrian citizens – including women, minorities and members of religious communities ­­– must be protected.

But neither can we overlook the part being played by extremists and foreign fighters. Their cause does not serve the Syrian people, and it runs counter to the goal of tolerance and coexistence.

I also urged the parties to enter immediately into a lasting ceasefire, to stop attacks on non-military targets and release prisoners who are being held illegally.

Experience from conflicts in the past has shown us that functioning state institutions should not be dissolved, but rather maintained and reformed.

But President Bashar al-Assad has lost legitimacy.

Women and representatives of civil society must be given a real opportunity to influence the negotiations. This would give the whole process greater legitimacy and broader support. Norway is engaged in dialogue with Syrian women to see how we can help to enable their demands to be heard and their expectations met.

The war in Syria is creating unrest in the entire region, and particularly in Lebanon and Iraq, where we are seeing instability and conflict, car bomb attacks and violence between ethnic and religious groups. Other countries in the region, such as Jordan and Turkey, are also affected.

The flow of refugees out of Syria has placed an immense burden on Syria’s neighbouring countries. According to the World Bank, the unpredictable situation has led to an almost 3 % decline in Lebanon’s economic growth. The influx of Syrian refugees in Jordan is costing the country around NOK 9 billion.

Norway has already allocated NOK 460 million to assist the victims of the Syrian conflict in 2014. Around half of these funds will be channelled to humanitarian operations inside Syria; the remainder will be used to assist Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries. Lebanon is a high priority because it has many of the same internal divisions as Syria. One in four of Lebanon’s inhabitants is now Syrian.

This allocation brings the total assistance provided by Norway since the conflict began in the spring of 2011 to NOK 1.3 billion. As I stated initially, Norway is now the sixth largest donor to this effort.

Norway will step up its support for Jordan and Lebanon in the time ahead. In this connection, we are increasing the quota for resettlement refugees, and are willing to receive 1 000 particularly vulnerable Syrian refugees this year. In 2014 Norway will receive more resettlement refugees than Germany, Finland and Denmark in relation to our population.

Under UN Security Council resolution 2118, Syria is obliged to complete the elimination of all chemical weapons material and equipment by the end of June this year. The UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are leading and coordinating this work. Security Council resolution 2118 is also important for facilitating the launch of a process aimed at finding a political solution to the conflict.

The transportation of chemical weapons and other toxic chemical agents out of Syria is a key part of the work to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons.

Norway and Denmark have put the necessary marine vessels at the disposal of UN and the OPCW. Norway is providing the frigate KNM Helge Ingstad, a civilian cargo vessel and a number of additional military personnel.

The work to transport the weapons out of Syria is under way. The maritime force has called three times at the port of Latakia. Altogether 31 out of 260 containers have now been transported out of Syria. The delays that have occurred so far are mainly due to the security situation in Syria and some logistical problems relating to the land transport of the containers. Norway has emphasised the importance of keeping to the schedule set by the UN and the OPCW. After this issue was discussed in the Security Council last week, we have the impression that there is broad agreement on this point. It has been important for Norway to show flexibility in carrying out this task. The chemical agents will be transported out of Syria and destroyed. Having said this, we will examine more closely what consequences any further delays would have.

Less than three years ago – on 9 July 2011 – the streets of Juba were full of cheering crowds. The world’s youngest state – South Sudan – had just seen the light of day. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 had achieved its aim.

Norway has had close ties with South Sudan for more than 30 years. Thanks to the efforts of previous governments, and not least the work of Norwegian Church Aid and Norwegian People’s Aid, Norway has a special position in South Sudan.

Together with the rest of the international community, we had great expectations of the new state, and we provided both political support and development aid.

This fledgling state – the size of France – was very vulnerable from day one. The challenges the Government in Juba faced were formidable. Public bodies, roads, hospitals, schools and electricity infrastructure all had to be built up from scratch.

Corruption was then – and is still today – a major problem.

A great deal was achieved during these first years. Most importantly, there was peace in a country that had been ravaged by war for more than three decades.

Today, the joy and optimism of 2011 is gone. Towns and villages have been razed to the ground. Thousands of people have been killed, according to UN estimates. Fields have been abandoned. Stores of food and medicines have been looted. All that had been achieved is now at risk. The work to build a cohesive nation will have to start afresh.

Both parties to the conflict are responsible for serious abuses and violations of international humanitarian law.

The crisis that broke out in the middle of December has its roots far back in time. The political differences within the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), have been exacerbated by ethnic tensions in the government forces, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). This is a struggle for control over the party, the army, the state and the oil economy.

There has been broad political support for Norway’s engagement in promoting development in this vulnerable, young country. And it has been clear that this has entailed a considerable risk.

Norway, together with its partners in the Sudan troika, the UK and the US, as well as other international partners, has been engaged in a dialogue with the Government and the SPLM. On a number of occasions we have delivered a clear and often critical message about the political and economic developments. We have followed developments in the SPLM, and could see that there were rising tensions. Nevertheless, there were few who predicted the scope and severity of the crisis that erupted in December.

In this conflict, too, forces are being mobilised along ethnic divisions. This is making the conflict even more brutal; it has re-opened old wounds and created new ones that will take a long time to heal. But first and foremost, this is a political conflict that must be resolved by political means.

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), with support from the African Union (AU), quickly brought the parties to the negotiating table and facilitated a ceasefire agreement.

At the same time, the African peace facilitation efforts were actively supported by the troika I just mentioned, which Norway is part of. The ceasefire shows how important this cooperation is. We will continue to take active part in the follow-up of the agreement.

I have emphasised to President Kiir that the parties must abide by all the provisions of the agreement and allow humanitarian organisations full access to the civilian population. The international community must now exert concerted pressure on the parties to comply with the agreement.

The humanitarian situation in South Sudan is very serious. I saw this for myself when I visited the country two weeks ago. A few weeks of conflict have forced nearly a million people to flee their homes, according to the UN. More than 130 000 of these have fled to neighbouring countries.

Before the crisis broke out, nearly one million South Sudanese were in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the UN. This figure has now increased to 3.7 million, and is expected to increase further with the onset of the rainy season.  

The UN’s humanitarian organisations, together with the International Red Cross and other NGOs, have been present in the country and have provided effective protection and relief to the civilian population.

Now that a ceasefire has been agreed, the parties must start an inclusive political process. Civil society, particularly church networks and women’s groups, must be given a central role. Just as in Syria, it is vital that women are able to take part in the decision-making processes and in the shaping of their country’s future, in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.

Most of the internally displaced people and refugees in South Sudan are women and children. Sexual violence is increasing. This has serious humanitarian and security consequences that will undermine the prospects for peace, stability and reconciliation.

It is crucial that the underlying causes of the conflict are addressed. The victims of human rights violations and other abuses must be followed up. The perpetrators must be brought to justice.

This will be difficult and it will take time. But it is absolutely vital if South Sudan is to become a viable state.

Norway played a key role in the work leading up to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between northern and southern Sudan in 2005 and the formation of an independent South Sudan in 2011.

Norway’s engagement continues, and we are taking a long-term perspective in the country.

Since the outbreak of the latest crisis, I have kept in close contact with my troika colleagues in London and Washington. We have shared information and developed common positions.

I am also in regular contact with foreign ministers and heads of state and government in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. I have spoken directly with representatives of both sides of the conflict in South Sudan, President Salva Kiir and Mr Riek Machar.

Norway is providing military personnel and police officers and other civilian personnel to the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS), which is being led by former Minister of International Development Hilde Frafjord Johnson. On 24 December 2013, the UN Security Council agreed to increase the force levels of the mission to enable it to deal with the situation. Norway, in cooperation with Sweden, the UK and Finland, is helping to strengthen UNMISS by providing airlift support to transport equipment to the UN bases where civilians have sought refuge.

UNMISS has done a good job under very difficult circumstances.

In the talks I had in Juba two weeks ago, I underlined how important it is for the authorities in South Sudan to cooperate with UNMISS. The fact that the authorities have tried to impede the mission’s work is unacceptable.

Together with other development partners, we have increased our humanitarian aid and emergency relief efforts. However, we note that the UN is finding it very difficult to mobilise the level of funding it has appealed for. I find this worrying.

So far, Norway has allocated NOK 100 million to this effort in addition to our long-term aid. This funding is helping to ensure protection and assistance for a large number of people both within and outside the camps, many of whom are women, children and old people.

We are reviewing the approach of our development cooperation with South Sudan. It is important to strike a good balance between short-term humanitarian assistance and long-term efforts to stabilise and rebuild the country. Long-term aid will be necessary to prevent this fledgling state being further weakened.

The crisis in South Sudan is a tragedy for this young, vulnerable country. Here – as in Syria – development has been reversed. We became engaged in Sudan in order to end the civil war and the humanitarian suffering. The conflict situation today is not the same as it was then. But the consequences for the civilian population are no less dire.

South Sudan has resources. With political will, a political solution to the conflict can be found. And Norway will contribute to this.

The suffering of the people in these two countries is of concern to us as fellow human beings. We have a moral duty to get involved. But our humanitarian engagement is also linked to our own security policy interests. Our engagement in the effort to find lasting, stable solutions is therefore vital.