Thursday, 29 August 2013

Financial Times letter: Regret is of little use if lessons are not learnt

This letter appears in the Financial Times on Friday 30 August 2013 and can be read here.

Sir, The appalling events near Damascus may be the worst use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein’s attack on Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan. When I attended a 25th anniversary commemoration in Halabja earlier this year, the phrase “never again”, was used often. These defiant and hopeful words, first associated with the Holocaust, are uttered with a chilling regularity after subsequent crimes against humanity. This should teach us that the world normally chooses to tolerate such crimes, pausing only to express regret at our inadequate action or outright inaction.

For example, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the UK former defence and foreign secretary, has said: “One of my great regrets of the Bosnian conflict was the UN global arms embargo on Yugoslavia and its successor states ... its effect was to make Bosnian Muslim communities much weaker in the face of the Bosnian Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing.” Speaking about the Rwanda genocide, US president Bill Clinton said: “I regret it ... If we’d gone in sooner, I believe we could have saved at least a third of the lives that were lost.” After the Darfur genocide, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said: “I have regrets about Darfur, real regrets.”

Sentiments such as “never again” and expressions of regret are of little use unless they influence us to take the right decisions in the future. The defenceless men, women and children of Syria today, and similar people elsewhere in the world who may face similar attack in the future, require our action, not words.

John Slinger

New Statesman blog: It is not enough for the west to punish Syria's use of chemical weapons alone

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It is not enough for the west to punish Syria's use of chemical weapons alone

The stance taken by the US and the UK fails those vulnerable to 'conventional' slaughter and emboldens murderous regimes present and future.

The stance taken by the US and the UK fails the vulnerable.

A man wears a mask and holds banners reading 'Save Syrian People now!' on August 28, 2013 outside the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm. Photograph: Getty Images.

It appears that, belatedly, the US, UK, France and their allies have concluded that a limited military attack on Syria is necessary to punish what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the "moral obscenity" of Assad’s chemical weapons attack in Ghouta last week. Already western policy-makers are making the case for action that does not require explicit UN authorisation, causing predictable anguish for many who will see yet another dangerous, unilateral intervention. But the true danger, for those whose anguish is measured not in column inches or Newsnightdebates, but in mortal danger, lies not in bypassing the moribund and morally-flawed UN Security Council, but in framing the justification for action so narrowly.
This intervention will be spun by our leaders as an act of moral strength, but this is only half true. Kerry's powerful, heartfelt entreaty that "the cause of our common humanity" requires "accountability" for the use of chemical weapons, could mask a devastating corollary: that the US and broader international community will tolerate crimes against humanity carried out using conventional weapons. Our Prime Minister offers an even more narrowly defined casus belli, saying "this is not about wars in the Middle East, this is not even about Syria. It’s about the use of chemical weapons and making sure as a world we deter their use." This fails those vulnerable to 'conventional' slaughter and emboldens evil regimes present and future, which might now calculate that 100,000 'conventional' deaths will be tolerated, especially if they have a UNSC ally, yet 1,000 WMD deaths will be punished.
Another problem concerns the apparent Damascene conversion of William Hague and his counterparts to the view that, as many proponents of intervention have long argued, it is "possible to respond to chemical weapons without complete unity on the UN Security take action based on great humanitarian need and humanitarian crisis". Hague’s volte-face on the fallacy of equating UNSC authorisation or lack thereof with moral rectitude is not the problem. It is that this newly ethical and assertive approach to international law is to be reserved exclusively for what he terms chemical weapons "outrages". On the surface we see moral strength in waiving a reliance on UNSC unanimity to pursue a clear ethical approach to an egregious crime. But underneath we should see punitive, not protective action.
Since so much recent commentary has focused on the blurring of President Obama’s 'red lines', the actual enforcement of them in the coming days will obscure the far more dangerous blurring of moral lines. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s statement indicates just how little has really changed: "What we are not considering is regime change, trying to topple the Assad regime, trying to settle the civil war in Syria one way or another. That needs to be settled through a political process." We find ourselves in the bizarre position of planning military action against a regime that Kerry asserts has offended the "conscience of the world" through its wicked use of chemical weapons against its own people yet, despite this, we pledge at the outset not to seek its removal from power. This is akin to punishing an assailant for having committed a heinous murder with a gun, but leaving him free to roam so long as future killings are carried out with a machete.
People should not be lulled into the sense that the world has grown up and learned to enforce its own basic rules, the most important being "the right to life, liberty and security of person" as stated in Article 3 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The red line of the use of chemical weapons should indeed be punished severely. But our moral assertiveness must not end there. There are much bigger red puddles of blood throughout Syria and across our world, which surely outrage our "common humanity". For the sake of victims of illegitimate, un-democratic, vicious regimes, it is vital that the "conscience of the world" does not cower behind artificial red lines, and wherever possible, takes action against all crimes against humanity.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Independent letter: Victims' rights in Syria must trump states' so-called 'rights'

The following letter was published in The Independent on Saturday 24 August 2013.

Irrespective of one’s position on military intervention, the passionate words of Khaled Erksoussi, head of operations for the Syrian Red Crescent, speaking on BBC radio on Thursday, remind us whose interests should be paramount:

“You see all those pictures and you see all the suffering in those areas, then you hear people talking about decisions in the Security Council and investigation committees, and you scratch your head: did they see the same picture I saw? Because what I saw in those pictures is people need help.”

It should not be controversial to say that the needs and interests of innocent civilians should in extreme cases such as this take precedence over the principle of non-interference in the sovereignty of states even when they are illegitimate and criminal.

John Slinger


My other writing on humanitarian intervention / Syria etc is here.

Friday, 23 August 2013

My "Dear World" tweets about Syria and (our tragic lack of) intervention

  1. Dear World,if your town was bombed by chemical weapons,wld u think UN's call for more evidence was a suitable response as u buried your dead
  2. Dear World,U preference rights of dictators &their allies over rights of individuals to "life, liberty &security of person" (these UN rights
  3. Dear World, You persist in the myth thay international 'law' is the moral arbiter for action. Was Rwandan/Bosnian inaction moral, if legal?
  4. Dear World, Remember that secure nations cannot be truly secure or powerful if they fail to confront evil, protect civilians & defend rights
  5. Dear World,Remember even tho u proclaim human rights, R2P, etc u'd rather hide behind 'international law' that wls tolerate WMD use by Assad
  6. Dear World, Remember you refused to act after 200k Kurds were murdered in genocide in 80s. U only acted when Saddam invaded your ally Kuwait
  7. Dear World,remember u chose not to act in Darfur even tho US Secr of State Powell called it 'genocide'.Hence Genocide Convention=meaningless
  8. Dear World, remember that u stood by as 1million civilians were murdered in Rwandan genocide. There is no upper limit compelling you to act.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Syria's Halabja?

People who expect that the chemical weapons attack near Damascus this week will prompt international intervention to protect civilians are likely to be disappointed. The international community normally prioritises the rights of states, no matter how despicable, over the rights of individuals "to life, liberty and security of person", as per the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The genocides of Bosnia, Darfur and Rwanda are cases in point, the latter of which showing that there is no upper limit of civilian deaths that will prompt intervention.

History also shows that the use of chemical weapons is insufficient to prompt meaningful action. In 1988, Saddam Hussein murdered 5,000 Kurds at Halabja using weapons of mass destruction. The international community initially ignored the evidence and any action to protect the Kurds, however welcome, was ultimately the by-product of interventions justified on grounds other than humanitarian intervention. At the 25th anniversary commemorations in Halabja, which I attended, the words "never again" were uttered, as they have been repeatedly throughout history. Yesterday's appalling chemical weapons attack near Damascus must prompt action, so that these words are finally given the power they deserve.

My writing about intervention, including about Syria, for various publications/blogs can be read here.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Times letter: Lord Howell's talk of "uninhibited" North East must refer to number of MPs

My letter (£) in The Times on Thursday 1 August.

Sir, As one who had the privilege of studying for my degrees in the North East (at Durham University) I was disappointed to hear the Chancellor’s father-in-law Lord Howell say that the “large and uninhabited and desolate areas” of the North East are ideal for fracking (report, July 31). Perhaps the noble peer was thinking of the number of Tory MPs in the region when he chose those words? There are only two Conservative MPs out of 29 in the region — a figure unlikely to change after these ill-advised comments.
John Slinger