Speech by the Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, Sigrid Kaag, at the Brussels V Conference

Ladies and gentlemen,

Ten years ago, we witnessed peaceful protests and demands for freedom and justice in Syria. We also witnessed how they were met by a brutal response by the Syrian regime. Launching a cycle of conflicts that has alas persisted for years. Years full of violence, death, human suffering, and displacement.

A sustainable peace in Syria cannot be achieved without holding the Syrian regime accountable for the atrocities as committed, such as the siege of cities, the starving of its inhabitants and the torture of opponents. Only last week another hospital was deliberately targeted by the regime. These crimes have left no Syrian family untouched and the voices of victims must be heard. For these reasons, the Netherlands and Canada are holding the regime accountable for breaching the Convention against Torture.

Syria can however work towards a solution but only by ending the human rights abuses, listening to the people and engaging in a meaningful political process. If Damascus fails to take these steps, targeted sanctions will continue and reconstruction aid is off the table. We need a genuine political transition.

Enlarge image Portrait of Hanane, Lebanon
Image: ©UNICEF/ Peterson
Hanane, a Syrian refugee at the Delhamiyeh informal settlement in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon (2017).

Lifesaving action remains our priority. Yet, civil society representatives in Syria and the region are also calling for more sustainable humanitarian interventions that foster resilience and dignity amongst the Syrian people.

And that is why it is so important that mental health and psychosocial support are integrated into all forms of crisis response in the region. MHPSS is an essential part of helping people and communities to build their resilience and to regain a sense of control and dignity, despite the very hardships they face or have faced. MHPSS also helps young people benefit from education and livelihood opportunities. It gives them a way out. As small as it may be.

Let me be clear: first and foremost, sustainable humanitarian interventions must have access to the most vulnerable people. The UN Security Council resolution 2533 allows for lifesaving assistance to be delivered to Syria through the last remaining border crossing in Northwest Syria. If this essential border crossing is closed, lives will be lost. Cross-line aid from Damascus has not proven to be sufficient. The regular, cross-line and cross-border humanitarian assistance needs to be in place, in both Northeast and Northwest Syria. Humanitarian action and funding should never be instrumentalised for political goals, nor should it ever benefit those responsible for the very human rights abuses in Syria that we seek to combat and which consequences we try to address.

'Mental health and psychosocial support are an essential part of helping people and communities to build their resilience'

The Syrian crisis is also a displacement crisis, affecting the whole region. Millions of refugees have found shelter in neighbouring countries. We will continue to support these countries in their efforts to provide prospects to refugees, and to their own vulnerable host communities. We know that the majority of Syrians hope to return to Syria one day. But the conditions for their safe, voluntary and dignified return are not yet in place. These conditions are fundamental to the principle of non-refoulement, which should be respected at all times.

The Netherlands will continue to stand by the refugees and facilitate and advocate for durable solutions wherever possible. Online consultations with civil society through Upinion’s platform show increasing emphasis of the need to build resilience, by improving access to education and livelihood opportunities.  

Enlarge image Hazem, Syrian refugee
Image: ©UNICEF/ Choufany
Hazem, a 11 years old Syrian refugee, wants to be a mechanic in the future. “Whenever I’m not helping my family at the tent, I’m happy to go to school”

In neighbouring countries, we support education programming through the Prospects partnership. This partnership is working to align more closely the school curriculum to the demands of the labour market, and thus improving young peoples’ chances of finding work. Bringing the prospects partners together helps smooth the transition from education to employment. From learning to earning as are the stated goals.

The Netherlands remains committed to supporting the people of Syria. We have demonstrated our commitment by contributing 19 million euros to help alleviate humanitarian needs within Syria. In addition, we have recently allocated additional funding for our partners in Lebanon and Jordan, adding a total of 15 million euros to our current programming for improved social security conditions, livelihoods and MHPSS.

The ongoing suffering of the Syrian people remains unacceptable. Their voices need to be heard. Their needs and legitimate concerns remain at the heart of any inclusive political solution in Syria. A solution to finally end this tragedy, after 10 very long years.

Thank you.