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Military Action Overseas: Parliamentary Approval

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:24 pm on 17th April 2018.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party 1:24 pm, 17th April 2018

No, I am going to make some progress.

The third reason is our need to work together with our closest allies. A year ago, following the despicable sarin attack at Khan Shaykhun, the US immediately sought to deter further chemical weapons attacks by launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the airfield from which the Khan Shaykhun atrocity attack took place. But Assad and his regime have not stopped their use of chemical weapons, so this weekend’s strikes needed to be significantly larger than the US action a year ago and to be specifically designed to have a greater impact on the regime’s capability and willingness to use chemical weapons. That was firmly in the British national interest. Working together with America and France, and doing so at pace, was fundamental to achieving that effect.

If I had come to the House in advance of this operation to set out the totality of our effort, I would also have had to share with Parliament the breadth of our allies’ plans, for this was a combined operation where the totality of our effort was key to delivering the effect. Not only would this have constrained their flexibility to act swiftly, but it would have fundamentally undermined the effectiveness of their action and endangered the security of our American and French allies. In doing so, we would have failed to stand up to Assad in the face of this latest atrocity. We would have failed to alleviate further humanitarian suffering by degrading Assad’s chemical weapons capability and deterring their future use, and we would have failed to uphold and defend the global consensus that says these weapons should never, ever be used.

The fourth reason is that the legal basis for UK action has previously been agreed by Parliament. As Mike Gapes said so movingly during the statement yesterday, there is a long tradition on both sides of this House that has considered that military action on an exceptional basis—where necessary and proportionate, and as a last resort—to avert an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe is permissible under international law. The three criteria that I set out in my statement yesterday are the same three criteria used as the legal justification for the UK’s role in the NATO intervention in Kosovo. As I also explained, our intervention in 1991 with the US and France and in 1992 with the US to create safe havens and enforce the no-fly zones in Iraq following the Gulf war were also justified on the basis of humanitarian intervention.

So it was right for me, as Prime Minister—with the full support of the Cabinet, and drawing on the advice of security and military officials—to take the decision on this military strike last weekend, and for Parliament to be able to hold me to account for it. By contrast, a war powers Act would remove that capability from a Prime Minister and remove the vital flexibility from the convention that has been established, for it would not be possible to enshrine a convention in a way that is strong and meaningful but none the less flexible enough to deal with what are, by definition, unpredictable circumstances.