Syria and the Use of Chemical Weapons — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:55 pm on 29th August 2013.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords 3:55 pm, 29th August 2013

My Lords, I am grateful to the Leader for his measured and informative introduction to our debate this afternoon. Information and answers to questions about the situation and proposed action in Syria have been lacking, so I warmly welcome the debate. I am pleased that the Leader responded positively to our request that the House should be recalled today for consideration of the plans for military intervention, and I echo the thanks of the Chief Whip to the staff of the House. It is right that it is the Commons that should debate and vote on the issue of armed force, both to hold the Government to account and in order to confer legitimacy on any military intervention, but it is also right that our own House should in parallel debate the issue. The Constitution Committee said in its timely report, Constitutional Arrangements for the Use of Armed Force:

“We consider that the House of Lords is well placed to debate deployment decisions, but that the approval of such decisions should be for the House of Commons”.

The Motion before us is rightly couched in very general terms, but that does not detract from the critical and grave nature of the issues before us: acts of war, the stark reality of life and death, and global stability. The burden of responsibility will lie on the shoulders of our colleagues in the other place, but the voice of noble Lords will carry great influence both in Parliament and throughout the country. In our daily debates on legislation we rightly speak of the consequences, often painful, that laws will have on the lives of individuals and wider society, but the decisions taken in the other place on this issue relate to life and death. It could be said that to carry out military action will definitely cost lives but that the decision not to take action could also cost lives.

As noble Lords will be aware, my party has tabled an amendment to the Government’s Motion in the Commons that provides clear, logical and sequential steps that must be taken before any further vote in the other place. I pay tribute to the strong and cool-headed leadership shown by Ed Miliband on this issue in the interests of our country. I regret that it is being briefed that he is playing politics. He is not; he is providing measured statesmanship.

I trust that the amendment will be carried because I fear that the government Motion is ambiguous, and such a grave decision must be preceded by a road map. This is what the brave men and women of our Armed Forces and their families, along with the rest of our nation, would expect. I pay tribute to the work of our Armed Forces, who bear the consequences of the decisions that are taken. We are hugely proud of the work that they do.

The use of chemical weapons is abhorrent, a moral outrage and a crime against humanity. The question of whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria seems to be beyond doubt evidence of man’s inhumanity to man. Governments, the Arab League, journalists and non-governmental organisations, along with sources contacted by the intelligence services, agree on the use of chemical weapons. Following the attack on Damascus, the UN team of inspectors is now collecting samples that will be sent to special laboratories for rigorous analysis before the team reports to the UN Secretary-General and the Security Council. As the Secretary-General said yesterday, the team must be given time to do its job. Such actions are not and must not be a sop but part of a robust UN process. While the team is not mandated to discover who used the chemical weapons, it is clear that the evidence it collects should provide information about who was responsible. It is then that the Security Council will best be able to consider what action should be taken. This must be part of the due process.

It is important that the Arab League said on Tuesday that it holds Bashar al-Assad responsible for the chemical attack on Damascus and that it supports the use of force through the UN. We look to the US Government, our Government and others to set out their evidence in relation to the responsibility of the Assad regime. I have one specific question for the Minister in response: can the Government tell us what chemical weapon caused the appalling injuries and deaths in Ghouta, and whether it was a proscribed chemical weapon under the Chemical Weapons Convention?

Action must be taken only on the basis of evidence. Momentum is not a reason for action, so why the undue speed? Such momentous decisions cannot be taken in haste. There must be evidence before a decision is made rather than a decision taken before the evidence is available. The Government must not work to a political timetable but do what is best for our country, best for the Syrian people and best for the wider world.

Like all noble Lords I have had many conversations this week about the Government’s desire for action and, whatever the views expressed, all speak of the need for clarity and have asked a series of questions that must be answered. I hope that today the Government will be able to give real clarity about the aims of intervention and the outcome. On Tuesday the Prime Minister said that he sought to,

“deter and degrade the further use of chemical weapons”,

by Syria, yet in a tweet yesterday he said that,

“Britain has drafted a resolution condemning the chemical weapons attack by Assad & authorising necessary measures to protect civilians”.

What are the Government trying to achieve? I realise that the Leader of the House gave some of those answers. However, is the aim of any action to punish Assad for the past use of chemical weapons, to deny the future use of chemical weapons by taking out the potential for future use, to deter future use or to exercise a responsibility to protect Syrian civilians? I ask the Minister to be absolutely clear on that. Many people, including many noble Lords, might be prepared to support action but only if it were possible to be assured that we could remove and neutralise every single chemical capability in Syria. They would want unequivocal proof that this was achievable and the sole aim of military action. Civilian lives are lost in any military action, no matter how strategic the action, so would it be possible to punish Assad or teach him a lesson if it is his countrymen who suffer rather than him and his henchmen? His repugnant actions demonstrate that he does not value the lives of others. The 100,000 already killed and nearly 2 million refugees are clear and tangible proof of his devastating cruelty. It is a nation destroyed and a whole generation with little or no hope for the future.

I have seen this with mine own eyes. I visited a camp in Jordan nearly two years ago when there were merely tens of thousands of refugees, and it was a deeply shocking experience. I watched a family that included elderly people bent double, walking with help, and tiny children, all fleeing across the border from snipers. Their warm reception in Jordan was extraordinary. Now millions of people have fled their country, with no hope, no home, no dreams, just physical and mental problems. How can they continue to cope—likewise Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and the other countries to which they flee? Would any military intervention make the flow of refugees even greater, or smaller?

The situation is likewise for the 6.8 million people inside Syria, including the 4.25 million internally displaced people. The humanitarian crisis is bordering on an emergency. We have to ask ourselves whether military action would improve the lives of those people and improve the humanitarian situation and the ability of aid agencies to provide help.

Further questions are rightly asked about the proportionality and legality of action. Any action must have regard to the potential consequences in the region and must be legal, proportionate and time-limited. Understandably there are fears about mission creep that might follow any action. As the US chair of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, has said:

“Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is harder to avoid”.

What is the end game of any action? If there were a military intervention followed by further use of chemical weapons, would we not be obliged to strike again?

One of the deepest concerns that is expressed, and that I share, is about the wider consequences of any action. It is probably impossible to know or calculate what the consequences would be, but have the Government really thought through the balance of risks? What would the ramifications be across the Arab and Muslim world? As the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan, pointed out in an excellent article earlier this week, comparisons are inevitably being made with military actions in Kosovo in 1999 and in Libya in 2011. In both cases neither Serbia nor Libya had friends whose support they could rely on, but this is not the case with Syria. Syria is firmly embedded in an alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, which poses real dangers for the wider world. I look forward to the speech later today from the noble Lord, who is wise and has unparalleled recent experience in the region.

How would Iran respond? Would the hopes of better relations between the recently elected, more moderate President of Iran and the West be jeopardised? Does President Assad’s warning of “dire consequences” encompass Israel, where US Secretary of State John Kerry’s insistent diplomacy is impressive? Are these risks outweighed by the risk to this world of the use of chemical weapons with impunity? What are the consequences for this country, and by taking action would the Government be acting in the best interests of the United Kingdom?

These questions are difficult and uncomfortable, but they are being asked in various ways up and down the country by a public who remain deeply sceptical about intervention. Undoubtedly some of the public’s hostility is a result of our recent experiences. However, we must not be paralysed by the experience of Iraq but rather learn from it. Political leaders must lead and the Government must govern. The Government have information that influences their decisions and that we are not party to, but it is incumbent upon them to be as open and as transparent as possible. However, politicians must also take the views of the public into account. This is not a question of votes at the next election but of the conscience of the nation.

President Kennedy said:

“Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind”.

Perhaps we should ask whether our intervention would put an end to the use of chemical weapons not just in Syria but to their potential use in the wider world by other evil tyrants. The use of chemical weapons is the act of a despicable tyrant, a global bully. The moral case for action is clear. Chemical weapons cannot be used with impunity, there can be no free pass for those who use them, and military intervention must be an option. However, is a military strike the best way to deal with an immoral, unprincipled bully with no regard for humankind? This is the first time that these vile weapons of war have been used in the 21st century and I wonder whether we are considering 21st century means of dealing with this dire situation.

There is a duty on the international community to make the UN process work and to get maximum support. Diplomacy and political action must be pursued, and eventually President Assad and his closest associates must be brought before the international court for judgment. Should not the global powers remain steadfastly committed to talking and to the Geneva II peace conference? The words of John Lennon, “Give peace a chance”, are loud in many ears.

I look forward to the debate, and of course to the response from the Minister. I welcome the opportunity that the noble Lord the Leader has had to inform the House about the objectives, legal basis and anticipated effect of any possible UK military action in Syria.

Today’s vote in the House of Commons is not a green light for action. The decision whether to support any military intervention will be taken in the House of Commons once the report of the weapons inspectors has been received. It must also be taken on the basis of real evidence as to the perpetrators of the chemical attacks, it must follow proper consideration by and a vote in the Security Council, there must be a clear legal basis for proportionate action, and in-depth consideration must have been given to the consequences and risks. Our colleagues in the Commons will then be in a position to take the grave decision about military action involving UK forces. Naturally, I trust that the House will again be recalled when that decision is taken.