Syria and the Use of Chemical Weapons

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:39 pm on 29th August 2013.

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Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion 5:39 pm, 29th August 2013

Later this evening, the House will divide over whether in principle this country should undertake military action in Syria. We will perhaps do justice to the suffering of the Syrian people if we first determine where, as a Parliament, we are at one.

I have no doubt that we are all united in complete condemnation of the deplorable chemical attacks on civilians in Damascus. The gut-wrenching images of those attacks are etched on all our minds as we sit here tonight. All of us seek an outcome that will bring peace and stability to the region. That much we can agree. It is also the case that this motion is less damaging than the one we were originally led to believe we would be debating. That is a tribute to the fact that Back-Bench and Opposition MPs can make a difference. To that extent, this is a good day for Parliament and for public pressure. It is clear to me that those things have helped to force the Government to think twice about their way forward on Syria.

I welcome the fact that this motion recognises that to have proceeded with a military attack as the UN weapons inspectors were still visiting the sites of the alleged chemical weapons assault would have been preposterous. It beggared belief that, once again, we could have been about to embark on military engagement, without apparently having learned any of the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. By seeking to pre-empt the outcome of the inspectors’ work, we would also have increased the likelihood that further requests for access by weapons inspectors would be denied; they would be regarded simply as a ploy for subsequent military action, regardless of the findings. As Hans Blix pointed out earlier this week:

“If the aim is to stop the breach of international law and to keep the lid on others with chemical weapons, military action without first waiting for the UN inspector report is not the way to go about it.”

Although I am pleased that the Government’s motion now accepts that we must wait for the inspectors’ reports, I am deeply concerned at their cavalier treatment of international law and I completely reject their drive towards military action. On the legal question, both the US and our Government are indicating that they are prepared to act against Syria without a UN mandate. For all that the Government’s motion talks of making “every effort” to ensure a Security Council resolution, the bottom line appears to be that they are happy to proceed without one.

We are told that intervention could be legally justified without a Security Council resolution under the UN’s responsibility to protect, but the 2005 UN world summit outcome document, in which the Heads of State unanimously approved the new international norm of the responsibility to protect, subsequently approved by UN Security Council resolution 1674, states clearly that it is still subject to UN Security Council agreement. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who co-chaired a working group on the responsibility to protect, again stressed that it is to be implemented in accordance with the UN charter. That means that the central decision-making authority is the UN Security Council. The conclusion from all this is clearly, if inconveniently for the Government, that military action against a sovereign state, other than in self-defence, without the authority of the Security Council cannot be justified under the responsibility to protect. On that issue the Labour amendment is also, unfortunately, very weak; it regards international law as an inconvenience. That makes it all the more important that our deliberations today are informed by all the relevant information and based on sound legal grounding.