Wednesday, 3 October 2012

My speech at the Kurdistan Regional Government fringe event at Labour Party Conference 2012 on Responsibility to Protect

An abridged version of the speech below has been published by Progressonline here.

I delivered the speech below at a fringe meeting in the Midland Hotel, during the Labour Party Conference, organised by the Kurdistan Regional Government UK Representation.

The Panel
Details of the event and the panel are here. The other panellists were Labour MPs Dave Anderson, Secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq (unable to attend on the day), and Mike Gapes, a Member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Robert Lowe from the LSE Middle East Centre also joined the panel. The meeting will was chaired by Gary Kent, Director of Labour Friends of Iraq.

The Topic:

Responsibility to Protect: Kurdish lessons for Syria and the Middle East.


I'm going to start this speech off in an unusual way – by quoting a song about the very antithesis of what is going on in Syria - LOVE.

If any of you are old enough....!

The band Extreme's biggest hit – ‘MORE THAN WORDS’.

Some lines from the song:

"More than words is all you have to do to make it real"
"More than words to show you feel"
"More than words is all I ever needed you to show"

I want to talk about words and why they are never enough.

Words are important in regulating human relations.
What we say to each other is important.
The words we use when writing law are important.

But to misquote the Bible...'justice cannot live by words alone'.

I believe in words. Not only am I an old romantic but I also believe the most important words in history are those in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, unequivocally:

'Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.'

Powerful words....

But just as in personal relations, when we say I LOVE YOU - it is as nothing unless the words carry weight, unless we actually mean it and CRUCIALLY unless we back up the sentiment with action not just once, but always...not just now - but in the future.

In international relations - for the words of international law to mean anything, those to whom they apply - ordinary people and governments, must know that they will be backed up.


What is happening in Syria now shows:

- the futility of words
- the cover offered by legalistic words to ineffectual international organisations/countries
- the meaninglessness of words in international law.

What of the words we use in international law?
…norms, laws, conventions, treaties, the Universal Declaration, United Nations Security Council Resolutions?

Take the case of Saddam. He flouted many UNSC Resolutions over many years. He breached the cease-fire treaty from the first Gulf War...

In Bosnia, the UNSC passed numerous resolutions, all of which were defied until we acted (and after between 100-200,000 had perished).

In Rwanda...DRC...?

There is a pattern. An evil regime or dictator, which has NO democratic legitimacy, first flouts and then tramples on international law, on the Universal Declaration and even the Resolutions of the UNSC. The response of the UN, the West, the regional bodies such as the Arab League is usually little more than WORDS.

Yet...these stains on the conscience of mankind moved even the UN to seek to improve the way the world deals with such human-made disasters.

The international community - shamed by the Rwanda and Bosnia debacles, began developing a doctrine of the Responsibility To Protect via the United Nations’ International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) - formally integrated into the UN’s framework in 2005.

The use of force is restricted by four precautionary principles: right intention, last resort, proportional means and reasonable prospect, in addition to notions of just cause and right authority.

And yet despite R2P, action is patchy to say the least.

...there are plenty high meaning words...but they are not enough...

Before the R2P came the Universal Declaration...and in the same year, 1948, the Genocide Convention - the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, of 1948.

Again shows the futility of words, given that the unprecedented description in 2004 by General Colin Powell of the then ongoing events in Darfur as "genocide" resulted in, as we all know - NO ACTION.

Many presumed that Article 1 of the Convention, through which states undertake to "prevent and punish genocide" - would compel the US and her allies to act.

Yet this wasn't so. Even when they did describe genocide, no action followed, because the Convention is vague on the obligations of states.

People assume there is a nobility in debating words, in JAW JAW as opposed to WAR WAR.
There is not.
Murdering dictators have no morality. They subscribe only to Stalin's doctrine 'HOW MANY DIVISIONS DOES THE POPE HAVE?'

Some say – “more JAW JAW less WAR WAR”.


We must give moral validity to the words we as great powers, we as a member of the UNSC, we as the international community, or each of us as individuals use.

The civilians of Syria do not want our pity, our expressions of outrage any more than the Kurds in Iraq would have appreciated mere sympathy as the WMDs rained down on them. What they appreciated was not WORDS but ACTION.

So what are the Kurdish lessons for Syria?

They are bleak. They are not the lessons of Kurdistan. They are also the lessons of other genocides. They are that:

- international law is virtually worthless, even when it outlaws genocide and obligates states to prevent and punish it
- that a genocide even of 1 million people can result in no outside intervention
- that the red lines of a superpower are over the possibility of WMD use, not genocide.

And yet the conscience of mankind can be shamed into effective action. In an ad hoc manner unfitting of universal ideals such as the right to life.

Here the Kurdish example is a good one and gives us limited hope...

John Major is to be complemented on his brave decision to enforce NO FLY ZONES in the South and North of Iraq in 1991. At a stroke, words began to have practical and moral meaning. The RAF jets did not drop UNSC resolutions, they dropped bombs, and Saddam finally was made to listen.

Yet in recent years, in Darfur, genocide went unpunished, un-prevented.

And while we sit here, debate with our friends in the secure bubble of this conference, indeed this  country, children in Syria re having their throats cut, mothers are crying, Russian-made heavy weapons, helicopters and warplanes are attacking civilian areas. This is 2012 not 1942.

We in Labour must remember that to be of the left is to believe in the dignity of human beings, in their rights.

We must not hide behind a naïve belief that any western intervention is an imperialist plot.

Some on the left are so wedded to this misconception with the tragic result that they end up giving succour to evil fascist tyrants. In days of old, socialists formed brigades to fight fascism in Spain. Now, some devote more energy to arresting Tony Blair than they do to stopping the Slayer of Syria or than they did against the Butcher of Baghdad before him.

As someone who stood in the garden of a Kurdish minister in the Red Zone in Baghdad as mortars and machine gun fire thundered nearby amid the calls to prayer, I recall the woman Iraqi MP saying to me - if they, the terrorists, win - we are all finished - you, me and your own people. She did not mean only our physical safety in Baghdad. She was making the wider point - that the engineers of evil, pose a threat to us all.

So can it be said that if we allow women, children and yes, freedom-fighters to be snuffed out in Syria, we can remain safe in fortress Britain?

When human rights are worth so little in Syria can it be said with confidence that our own human rights are truly safe?

At a time when there are worrying echoes from the 1930s emerging in Europe - when extremist parties stalk the streets in Athens, when people talk of the collapse of the post-war settlement in Europe, is it wise to teach dictators that for we powerful nations, and for international law - words remain only words?

So recognising the genocide vs Kurds is what I'll call a 'retrospective start'. But that is all.

Condemning Assad is not even the start - it is a joke, unless you are prepared to back up those words.

The Kurds are now asking for some words from the UK Government - and are campaigning for this via an e-petition. But while it is important to right the wrong of international silence on whether this was genocide - it of course was - the true power of this petition will be if it adds yet more weight to the demand that such crimes cannot happen and will be prevented and punished. It is not recognising a past genocide for its own sake. The act of recognition must go hand-in-hand with the firm belief that we will act to prevent such things happening again.

The e-petition must itself therefore be MORE THAN WORDS.

Human rights do and must trump the rights of so-called Great Powers to veto action to protect their own interests.

The responsibility to protect should be enforced.

The results of humankind's collective failure to make its words carry weight has been suffered in the past by the Kurds and is being suffered by the civilians of Syria.

The e-petition must help ensure that such crimes do not happen again.

This requires that we put action where our words are.

More than words!


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