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Every decade or so, the world is tested by a crisis so grave that it breaks the mould: one so horrific and inhumane that the response of politicians to it becomes emblematic of their generation —their moral leadership or cowardice, their resolution or incompetence. It is how history judges us. We have been tested by the second world war, the genocide in Rwanda and the slaughter in Bosnia, and I believe that Syria is our generation’s test. Will we step up to play our part in stopping the abject horror of the Syrian civil war and the spread of the modern-day fascism of ISIS, or will we step to one side, say that it is too complicated, and leave Iran, Russia, Assad and ISIS to turn the country into a graveyard? Whatever we decide will stay with us for ever, and I ask that each of us take that responsibility personally.
To date, neither side of the House has a record to be proud of. Let me start with my party. One of the reasons it is such an honour to be standing on this side of the House is the deep, deep pride that I have in Labour’s internationalist past. It is pride in the thousands of people from our movement who volunteered to fight tyranny alongside their fellow socialists and trade unionists in the Spanish civil war; pride in the leaders of our party—and Robin Cook in particular—who demanded action to stop the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica and elsewhere, in the face of outrageous intransigence from the then Conservative Government; and pride in the action we led in government to save countless lives in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. In recent years, however, that internationalism has first been distorted, and now risks being jettisoned altogether.
My heart sank as I watched in 2013 when, following President Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians, we first voted against a military response and then supported taking military options off the table. Responsibility for the mishandling of that critical vote, which had such far-reaching international implications, falls principally on the Government, but we on these Benches carry some culpability for letting Assad ride roughshod and unchallenged across what should have been a sacrosanct red line. As a result, the international community lost all credibility in our subsequent efforts to stem the spread of, and the suffering in, this horrific civil war. Indeed, our failure to intervene to protect civilians left Assad at liberty to escalate both the scale and the ferocity of his attacks on innocent Syrians in a desperate attempt to cling to power.
I understand, of course, where our reticence comes from. It comes from perhaps the darkest chapter in Labour’s history, when we led this country to war in Iraq. Many Members in all parts of the House have been scarred by that experience, and understandably so; but let us all be clear about the fact that Syria is not Iraq. I opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning because I believed that the risk to civilian lives was too high, and their protection was never the central objective. I knew, as we all knew, that President George Bush was motivated not by the need to protect civilians, but by supposed weapons of mass destruction and a misguided view of the United States’ strategic interest.
I marched against that war, and have marched against many others in my time. Indeed, before I joined the House I was an aid worker for a decade with Oxfam. I have seen at first hand the horror of war and its brutal impact on civilian populations. I have met 10-year-old former child soldiers with memories that no child should have to live with. I have sat down with Afghan elders with battle-weary eyes. I have held the hands of Darfuri women, gang-raped because no one was there to protect them. From that experience, alongside a horror of conflict, I have the knowledge that there are times when the only way to protect civilians requires military force. I might wish that it were not so, but it is. That is why I firmly believe that the Labour Government were right to champion the adoption, in 2005, of a landmark global commitment to the best and most fundamental of our human ideals: the responsibility to protect civilians. I still firmly believe that a legitimate case can be made for intervention on humanitarian grounds when a Government are manifestly unwilling or unable to protect their own civilians. Sovereignty must not constitute a licence to kill with impunity.
The history of Iraq hangs over us all, and it should, but its legacy is awful enough without supplementing it with a new one of ignoring the slaughter in Syria. We must not let it cloud our judgment or allow us to lose sight of our moral compass.
The war in Iraq led to the deaths of thousands upon thousands of civilians. Its legacy must be to make us all put the protection of civilians at the centre of our foreign policy, not to make us sit on the sidelines while hundreds of thousands more are killed and millions flee for their lives.