Saturday, 21 September 2013

Speech to Warwickshire Fabians: Syria - Human rights and WMDs mean our humanitarian party must not shun humanitarian intervention.

Delivered on Friday 20 September 2013, at a meeting of the Warwickshire Fabians.


Good evening.

I’m going to argue for the interests of ordinary human beings to take centre stage when considering issues of humanitarian intervention.

…That if we think about crises from this perspective, we must accept that victims require far more than words – words of outrage, pity, regret. They also need more than principles, and legal doctrines, unless it can be shown that these bring about their relief and offer them protection.

I’d like you to keep these words in your mind - the most important 11 words in the English language:

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

These are not the words of George W Bush but of Article 3 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the General Assembly in 1948.

I’m going to argue this evening that in certain situations, the human rights of our fellow human beings should take precedence over other interests. 

I’ll make a moral, human rights-based argument grounded in practical examples of where intervention worked; where it didn’t and why; and where there was no intervention, with devastating consequences. 

I’ll argue that Labour’s values and traditions are compatible with humanitarian intervention, and that as a progressive party, we have a global responsibility to strengthen this doctrine, at a particularly dangerous time in world affairs.

Given that the Syrian tragedy is in our minds, I’ll discuss what is, in my view, the epitome of a disastrous non-intervention and I’ll map out some of the questions and challenges that this crisis throws up for us all, that we can I hope discuss later, about international law, the Responsibility to Protect, and the long-term implications of the Syria crisis for the region and the wider world.

This is a finely balanced debate, with no easy options, and at the outset I’d like to say that I respect the opinions of those who err on the side of non-intervention.

Of course given the speed at which developments are occurring in Syria, what I say may be out of date by the time I’ve uttered the words - so please do update me as I go if you want!

The conundrum of humanitarianism and international law

Many of you will recognise the following words:

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

These are the words of the Rev Martin Luther King Junior, one of the most influential humanitarians to have lived. 

It might seem bizarre in this debate to quote the words of a well-known pacifist. 

Yet this this is the crux of the dilemma: does our concern with promoting human welfare, which is the Oxford dictionary definition of ‘humanitarian’, permit the interference in the internal affairs of states which are self-evidently undermining human welfare in appalling ways?

Syria shows that the decades long wrestling match between idealism and realism continues, yet what is at stake is not intellectual prestige but human lives in the present and the future.

The structures and norms of international law appear to pull in different directions. The United Nations Security Council, through Chapter VII of the UN Charter, has the authority to be the arbiter of whether and what military action can ever be contemplated. And sacrosanct in international law is the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of states, through Article II (7). Yet at times, elements of international law which threaten punishment for crimes, such as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), conflict with this. This tension in international law is yet to be resolved and the people of Syria are paying the price.

There is of course a spectrum of intervention, ranging from complete inaction, minimum humanitarian aid, limited peace-keeping, No Fly Zones, humanitarian corridors, through to full invasion in a given crisis. Whichever option we choose as individuals or states, there are consequences. We cannot exonerate ourselves from moral responsibility merely by choosing not to act. As Rwanda shows, the inaction of the UN and major powers was entirely legal, but it certainly was not right. 

The question before us all, as we contemplate the Syria crisis, is the extent to which these humanitarian instincts warrant the use of force.

Labour and humanitarian intervention

The values of humanitarian intervention are wholly consistent with Labour’s values. These values are what made us join the party, what motivates us to volunteer, to deliver leaflets and to canvass throughout the year. They're values to be proud of. But values are as nothing unless they inform action. 

Our party has never been merely a talking shop, but is a vehicle to apply these values in our world, of course primarily in the domestic sphere, but also, where necessary, abroad.

A party which seeks to build, as Clause IV states, a society “where we live together freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect” cannot be true to itself if it seeks to limit the extent of these principles to the UK alone. A party that fights for equality and equal rights here cannot tolerate inequality in human rights overseas. 

Labour has always been, and remains, a party of internationalism not isolationism. Our belief in the dignity and equality of human beings cannot be truly genuine if it stops at the cliffs of Dover.

Consider the words of Aneurin Bevan speaking about the NHS in 1948:

“The eyes of the world are turning to Great Britain. We now have the moral leadership of the world”.

This is a clear example of how from its early days as a party of government, Labour felt that its values and actions could inspire the world. 

Another section of Clause IV of Labour’s constitution shows this international dimension:

“Labour is committed to the defence and security of the British people and to co-operating in European institutions, the United Nations, the Commonwealth and other international bodies to secure peace, freedom, democracy, economic security and environmental protection for all.”

I might put a bid in for the Party to add ‘human rights’ to this, but I don't think Ed Miliband wants another Clause IV moment right now and it’s well above my pay grade! 

It is worth reiterating six of those words: “to secure peace, freedom, democracy.” In the present climate, some might regard such aims, even via the institutions of the UN, as ‘neo-con’, yet they are right there at the core of our party. 

As ever with Labour, as our name suggests, we put our values to work.

We are the party that in the 1980s, under my former boss Ann Clwyd MP, planned the institutional changes that paved the way for the creation of the Department for International Development. 

It was the campaigning of Labour MPs such as my former boss Julia Drown MP and the commitment of Gordon Brown as Chancellor which ensured that it was a Labour government that for the first time pledged to spend of 0.7% of GDP on aid.

We were the party which stood in solidarity with black South Africans during apartheid.

And indeed it was socialists who largely formed the International Brigades to take on the fascists in Spain.

We are not a pacifistic party. Throughout our history, we have never ducked our responsibilities in global affairs, be they to humanitarian relief, or in times of World War, the responsibility to participate in governments of national unity.

And yes, more recently, Labour in government has chosen to intervene militarily when there were compelling humanitarian reasons to do so.

Before any of the military interventions of the Blair government took place, back in May 1997, the late and great Robin Cook, as Foreign Secretary ushered in the so-called ‘Ethical Foreign Policy’, with a speech he termed the “New Mission Statement for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office”.

Of the four aims for British foreign policy, the fourth ‘ethical dimension’ is worth reflecting on:

“Britain also has a national interest in the promotion of our values and confidence in our identity. That is why the fourth goal of our foreign policy is to secure the respect of other nations for Britain’s contribution to keeping the peace of the world and promoting democracy around the world. The Labour Government does not accept that political values can be left behind when we check in our passports to travel on diplomatic business. Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves. The Labour Government will put human rights at the heart of our foreign policy and will publish an annual report on our work in promoting human rights abroad.”

It’s hard to imagine a Foreign Secretary of any political hue uttering these words today.

Yet they were spoken by a man, who has come to represent for many in our party the voice of principle in the face of what they regard as Blair’s recklessness. 

As we face today’s crises we should reflect that Robin Cook was no isolationist and saw it as vital for Labour in government to infuse its foreign policy with its values and should not, as he put it, leave them behind at passport control. We must ask ourselves why this idealism has been reined in and whether this is a good thing?

Soon after Cook’s speech, Tony Blair gave what many still regard as one of the finest expositions of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention – the so-called Chicago speech of 1999. Speaking about the then continuing Kosovo action, Blair said:

“We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not...We cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure. 

“...The most pressing foreign policy problem we face is to identify the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people’s conflicts. Non-interference has long been considered an important principle of international order. And it is not one we would want to jettison too readily. One state should not feel it has the right to change the political system of another or foment subversion or seize pieces of territory to which it feels it should have some claim. But the principle of non-interference must be qualified in important respects. Acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter. When oppression produces massive flows of refugees which unsettle neighbouring countries then they can properly be described as “threats to international peace and security”. When regimes are based on minority rule they lose legitimacy…”

Blair went on to state some obvious qualifications, with which I entirely agree. We cannot and should not intervene against every barbarous regime, and various conditions must be met before intervention is contemplated: are we sure of our case; has diplomacy been given a chance; are the military options practicable and sensible; are we prepared to act in the long-term; and are British national interests at stake?

Blair, Bush and the ‘cycle of intervention’

To truly understand where the post-1997 drive towards humanitarian intervention arose, we need to consider to key 1990s international crises predating the Blair government - Bosnia and Rwanda. These disasters should both inform and haunt our present deliberations on what to do about Syria, far more so than Iraq and Afghanistan, neither of which had a specifically humanitarian component at the time they were embarked on.


I cut my foreign policy teeth as a teenager in the early 1990s observing with despair the hand-wringing of the Conservative government as it pursued, with our European allies, a half-hearted intervention, providing only humanitarian assistance to the Bosnian Muslims who were the overwhelming victims of Bosnian Serb aggression. 

To use today’s language, the ‘red lines’ of the West were its declaration of ‘safe havens’ in towns like Srebrenica, which it was unwilling to defend. In an ominous portent of events in Syria today, the aggressors called our bluff and were emboldened by our failure to enforce our own red lines. 

It’s worth remembering that even this shambolic, insufficient intervention was far more than we’ve as yet managed in Syria, where there has been bluster, but no blue helmets.

The then Tory government sought, above all else, to avoid ‘taking sides’. Just as with Syria today, the definition ‘civil war’, whilst legally correct, was used cynically to create a sense in the minds of the public that each side is equally culpable, when in the case of Bosnia and indeed in Syria now, one side monopolised military force and committed war crimes with impunity. 

Of course this position was untenable and with the appalling site of ethnic cleansing and concentration camps on Europe’s border once again, finally the US and other NATO allies, bombed the Serbs and halted their aggression, leading to the Dayton Accord and relative peace. 

We had been told by Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd that intervention could not work, yet NATO airstrikes ended the suffering of the Bosnian Muslims within weeks. 

What are the lessons for Syria?

We have repeatedly been told that air strikes against the Syrian regime could not work due to the supposed sophistication of its Russian-supplied air defences. And yet Israel has successfully attacked Syrian targets using air power including this year.

Former US presidential candidate Senator John McCain, dealt with this point in typical style on BBC Radio 4 in March last year:

“Well we spend nearly a trillion dollars a year on defence. If we can't defeat the air defences of a third rate power then I have a great apology to extend to the taxpayers of my state. We are supposed to have the best capabilities in the world by far.” 

What of the notion of ‘civil war’? In Syria, as in Bosnia, it is a deeply unfair fight. It isn’t a fight of equals on the practical or moral levels. In fact the perversity of the situation is astounding - an illegitimate dictatorship is armed to the teeth by a former superpower, yet the other side, consisting predominantly of people wanting to live in freedom, struggles to find practical support and is forced to seek it from whichever source it can, including dubious ones.

Bosnia teaches us that air power can end the violence being perpetrated by the aggressor and bring them to the negotiating table.


The horror of Rwanda is well known. In 1994, the international community singularly failed to prevent a genocide by the Hutus against the Tutsis, in which upwards of a million civilians died. 

Although there isn’t yet evidence of genocide in Syria, we should perhaps draw from the Rwanda case that almost comprehensive inaction is not an option in the face of crimes against humanity, and that there is no upper threshold of death that will prompt an outside response. 

In both cases, some of the key protagonists now express regret. These scars on the ‘conscience of mankind’, helped inspire future leaders to intervene in the crises of the late 1990s and 2000s. 

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.”

There is a cycle, a strange dynamic in operation, between outrage, action, inaction and regret. First we ignore gross violations of human rights, then fail to or intervene too late, resulting in revulsion and regret, which prompts us to say ‘never again’, generating a desire to act, which then leads to disastrous interventions, resulting in public hostility towards intervention, which returns us to the default setting of isolationsism. This then allows tyrannical regimes to literally get away with murder. 

In my view we are reverting to the default of active inaction. But this position, whilst avoiding politically-unpopular interventions, is likely to fail vulnerable people and could usher in a more dangerous period in international affairs.

Speaking from personal experience, when I attended a 25th anniversary commemoration in Halabja, in Iraqi Kurdistan earlier this year, the phrase “never again”, was used. These words keep being spoken with a chilling regularity, from the Holocaust to Syria today.

This should teach us that the world's default is to tolerate such crimes, pausing only to express regret at our inadequate action or outright inaction.  We must surely know, collectively, that 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.

After Rwanda was there a zenith of intervention?

Following the tragedies of Bosnia and Rwanda, the last Labour government embarked on several military interventions in what could be regarded as a pro-intervention phase of the cycle. First, we were steadfast in our support of President Clinton in acting to prevent the coming genocide in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999. 

In 2000, we intervened in Sierra Leone to restore peace and bolster democratic institutions following a civil war. We maintained the No Fly Zone over Iraqi Kurdistan which had been set up by the Major government in 1992.

Some felt that this was evidence of a strengthening doctrine of humanitarian intervention. Years later, to address the specific failures of the international system following Rwanda and Bosnia, the then UN Secretary General Kofi Anan, in 2003 set in chain a process designed to answer the urgent question of why the international community failed to protect populations from genocide. This resulted in the Responsibility To Protect, or R2P, a commitment made by world leaders at the UN 2005 World Summit to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. 

R2P for the first time stated that individual states have the responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing; that the international community has a responsibility to assist them; and that if diplomatic, humanitarian and peaceful means to protect populations fail, the international community must be prepared to take “stronger measures including the collective use of force through the UN Security Council”.  

Following dialogue at the UN General Assembly, R2P has become an international norm, although, crucially, not a law, and as a result we see once again noble ambitions, based on sound principles, which cannot be acted upon due to the Security Council veto system. 

And then of course there was the intervention in Iraq, whose legal basis is highly controversial. What is certain is that the US and UK did not seek to use humanitarian justifications for their action. The intervention in Afghanistan following 9/11 was less contested and had full UN Security Council backing. What Iraq, and to some extent Afghanistan have undoubtedly done is undermine the public’s willingness to support military intervention of any kind, including for humanitarian purposes. 

We’ve seen in recent weeks just how the toxic fallout from Iraq has dampened the impulse towards humanitarian intervention.

The cycle continues…realpolitik in the ascendency over Syria

Following the Arab Spring, which swept the Middle East and North Africa from December 2010 onwards, the world has been confronted once more by issues of intervention. 

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions whilst messy, passed off without external intervention.  

In Libya, the prospect of a massacre at Benghazi was averted, after British and French leadership and American support, an air campaign proceeded, including the imposition of a No Fly Zone, with the backing of UN Security Council Resolution 1973.

It seemed, after Libya, that momentarily a new, post-Iraq doctrine, which some called the ‘Cameron-Sarkozy Doctrine’ had been established: that an explicit UN Security Council mandate had to be given; that regional powers and international bodies must be supportive; and that the objective was not regime change or the imposition of democracy, but the what Cameron told the Commons was “the taking of all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.” 

Cameron told the Commons in October 2011 that the Government had been determined to “learn the lesson of recent interventions”.  With an implicit reference to the supposed mistakes of the Blair government, these lessons included discussing and planning for the campaign through the newly formed National Security Council; and bringing to MPs’ attention the government’s legal advice. 

But of course, these new criteria, which so explicitly relied upon the a Security Council mandate, in an attempt to draw a line under the Iraq invasion, was of course a hostage to fortune, for inevitably there would come a time when the Security Council would not agree, despite the overwhelming evidence of humanitarian suffering.

Syria is just such a case. A case study of the failings of the international system, of international law, and of Western leadership.

We should remember just how the crisis arose. The Syrian regime's propaganda has been very successful in painting the conflict as a civil war between it, the legitimate government, and foreign-backed Islamist terrorists.

In fact, the conflict began with peaceful protests and demands for greater democratic rights and freedom.

These peaceful protests were brutally suppressed using often Russian-supplied heavy weapons. Think back to how the Nazis suppressed the Social Democrats in the 1930s or how other dictators such as Saddam Hussein crushed dissent. 

Quite understandably, given that no peaceful and democratic avenue existed for those seeking reform, armed resistance broke out, in much the same way as it had elsewhere during the Arab Spring. 

The difference being that in this case, the dictatorship had the backing of a so-called great power, Russia, which has successfully provided both military and diplomatic support and cover. 

The bloody history since then does not need rehearsing. But the basic facts are shocking. The UN estimates that over 100,000 people have died, and this month the UNHCR stated that over 2 million refugees had fled the county. A UNHCR spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming told Radio 4 on 4 September that:

“The country is just haemorrhaging its people and the people are fleeing because of relentless violence. The fighting has spread to all parts of the country; to every town and village practically. There’s hardly a safe zone...It’s definitely the worst humanitarian crisis we’ve seen in at least two decades.”

I myself have witnessed the biblical tide of humans at the Domiz refugee camp near the Syrian border in Iraqi Kurdistan. I spoke to some of the tens of thousands of men, women and children who are fleeing Assad's attacks. They are not interested in the minutae of parliamentary procedure, they are grateful for humanitarian aid, but need the killing to stop in their homeland.

There is a continuing medical emergency, with reports that the town of Aleppo, there is a ratio of one doctor per 70,000 inhabitants. 

The head of the Syrian Red Crescent, Khaled Erksoussi, told BBC Radio 4 on 23 August that:

“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.”

Then came Obama’s ‘Red Line’ which was clearly breached by the August 21 chemical weapons attack in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus, which killed 1,429 people, including 426 children. The UN published a report this week confirming that Sarin gas was used. Despite the claims of Russia, Syria and some others, it seems highly likely that the regime was responsible.

The Western powers had made a rod for their own backs by emphasising the absolute need for a Security Council mandate. The Russian and to a lesser extent Chinese veto power has ensured, remarkably, that the Security Council has not yet issued any form of condemnation of the events in Syria. This is not a good indictment of what is meant to be the ultimate arbiter of international peace and security.

Because of this legal logjam, Western leaders made explicit commitments not to intervene militarily, giving Assad carte blanche to butcher his people. There was no need to do this. 

Let us remember that Security Council Resolution on Libya condemned “the gross and systematic violation of human rights”, referred to humanitarian suffering caused by the regime and of the need to protect civilians. Such conditions clearly pertained also in Syria long before chemical weapons were used. And yet the Security Council remained shamefully silent.

I argued last year that military intervention should have been considered on humanitarian grounds to provide, as a bare minimum, humanitarian corridors and a No Fly Zone. 

Having visited Iraqi Kurdistan twice this year, I can tell you from experience that these kind of interventions can work – they provided the security, since John Major’s intervention in 1992, that prevented Saddam continuing his genocide against the Kurds unabated, and now there is a peaceful, prosperous and open society there. 

It should be noted that a Security Council mandate was not sought for the Iraq No Fly Zone nor for the Kosovo intervention, something acknowledged by Secretary of State John Kerry at the time when an American strike was still imminent. Kerry said:

“It's the same reason that President Clinton in Kosovo did not bind his conscience to a Russian or Chinese veto in New York: In Kosovo, without a single American combat casualty, countries of conscience acted and the world is a better place because we did.”

In rapidly evolving events, we have seen a House of Commons vote, the decision of the President that he was minded to strike the regime, a decision to send the issue to Congress, and now the Russian proposal on the international control and destruction of Syria’s WMDs. 

A false dawn of optimism about the triumph of diplomacy

The dust is still settling, but amidst the hopefulness, while people are lauding the so-called triumph of democracy and of diplomacy, we should take a step back and consider impact of recent developments on the various themes of this talk.

The age-old question cui bono (who benefits) should be asked regarding Russia and the United States’ diplomatic agreement.

Since human rights has been at the heart of my argument, we should note that far from being a example of rash, Western adventurism, the recent marching of troops up the hill was done not on purely humanitarian grounds, although of course humanitarian suffering is connected, but only because of the use of chemical weapons. 

Before his eventual parliamentary defeat, David Cameron offered a very 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.” 

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said in the debate: “The sole aim—the sole aim—is to relieve humanitarian suffering by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons—nothing more, nothing less. It is not about invasion, regime change, entering into the Syrian conflict, arming the rebels or boots on the ground.” 

In this one line we can see the confusion that flows from being prepared to countenance military intervention only because of the use of WMDs. We ended up with Western leaders such as Secretary of State Kerry describing the attack in the harshest of diplomatic words as “a moral obscenity” which should “shock the conscience of the world”, holding Assad responsible, yet explicitly stating that taking sides in a civil war against him was not the aim.

This is not only inconsistent, but it 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 as might the use of WMDs.

Who benefits from the current diplomatic agreement? The Syrian government’s response is indicative, with Ali Haider, who has the Kafkaesque title of Minister of National Reconciliation, claiming ‘a victory for Syria won thanks to our Russian friends’. The Assad regime clearly feels it is has benefitted.

The regime has witnessed that the West has no stomach to intervene when its own red lines on are crossed, and knows that it’s likely that further ‘conventional’ war crimes can be committed with impunity, particularly given that these were never defined by the West as ‘red lines’. It may feel that small scale chemical weapons attacks in the future will also go unpunished.  

Having seemingly curtailed US plans for a military strike through shrewd diplomatic manoeuvring, Russia has benefitted, and may now conclude that it can more easily diminish the ability of the United States to determine the outcome of important matters of international security. Ever since Libya, Putin has aimed to emasculate Western influence and weaken the growing norm of the Responsibility to Protect. He has now seen that he can manipulate both Western leaders and their publics to this end.

Can it be said, then, that diplomacy has benefitted? John Kerry said ‘This is our Munich moment. This is our chance to join together and pursue accountability over appeasement’. 

Of course the stakes are not as high for international peace as they were then, but we should recall that Chamberlain’s 1938 Munich agreement was met with widespread jubilation, for it averted war. A diplomatic agreement is rarely preferable though, if it sanctifies the status quo created by a vicious regime’s aggression, merely postponing a bigger disaster in the future which may require our action.

It seems that the Prime Minister wasn’t the only one shocked by his Commons defeat, and that Ed Miliband too was surprised that Cameron immediately took military action off the agenda, despite the fact that Labour’s motion did not rule out military action, that 490 MPs voted for motions not ruling it out out and only 52 voted to rule out military action under all circumstances.

Absent too from the parliamentary debate was much reference to human rights. Amid over 70,000 words uttered during the debate in August, the phrase “human rights” was used only seven times, only two of which referred specifically to human rights abuses in Syria.

People talk about the triumph of democracy. Has democracy itself benefitted, now that the general public’s distaste for military action has been transmitted through opinion polls and more importantly, through Parliament, to veto the power of the executive to pursue this part of its foreign policy? 

Democracies are not strengthened but weakened when human rights, let alone democratic rights are not upheld. 

Have the United Nations and the concept of international law benefitted? Whether we like it or not, by acquiescing to President Putin’s diplomatic strategy, it is now easier for him to argue that his self-interested obstructionism at the UN is ‘not protecting the Syrian government, but international law’ and that Western intervention ‘could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance’. 

Years if not decades of work attempting to establish a doctrine of humanitarian intervention and of the Responsibility to Protect are being undermined before our eyes. Putin’s triumph has bolstered the view that international law and the UN exist only to protect what he referred to as the ‘balance’ of ‘international law and order’, namely that the so-called rights of great powers and dictatorships should take preference over those human rights of civilians. 

We cannot truly see benefit in the ossification of structures that lead to deliberate or accidental inaction in light of genocides such as that against the Kurds in Iraq, or in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. Remember Martin Luther King's words:

“Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”

Amidst this gloom, there is cause for optimism given that John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov have committed to meeting in New York later this month to consider rekindling the ‘Geneva 2’ peace talks. 

There has been yet another diplomatic development today, with a statement by Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil that “neither the armed opposition nor the regime is capable of defeating the other side” and that Assad may call for a cease fire at a subsequent Geneva 2 conference.

However, the facts on the ground for Syria’s civilians must tend towards pessimism. Assad continues to monopolise and use heavy weaponry and air power; UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said that the Syrian regime ‘has committed many crimes against humanity’; a medical emergency is in full flow; and the refugee crisis is deepening. 

What is proposed does not solve any of this. It may tackle the WMD issue, but in the absence of other measures, is another iteration of the light touch regulation of crimes against humanity. It is understandable and perhaps even laudable that human nature recoils at military action and tends towards a minimalist approach. As we discovered with the international financial crisis, the inherent weakness and moral flaws of light touch regulation only became obvious after a cataclysmic event. 

Let’s hope that this maxim can be proved without the needless death of countless more innocent men, women and children in Syria.


Syria shows the flaws in the international system writ large. 

The Responsibility to Protect has been shown, in reality, to be a Response of Prevarication. 

The prohibitions against the use of chemical weapons have been shown to be weak. The ‘red lines’ set out by Obama, have been crossed. The question arises as to whether the current plans will ensure that they have not been crossed with impunity. The stakes could not be higher, not just because, as Obama said, they weren’t just his  red lines, but the world's.

The use of chemical weapons by the regime has been the ultimate ‘get out of jail free card’, in which war criminals are not punished, but made integral to a peace plan. This is akin to a murderer being allowed to roam free as long as he promised to give up his machine gun, and then inviting him to take part in running the police force in the future.

Other dubious regimes will be watching closely and drawing their conclusions.

The West showed that it was only willing to countenance usurping the will of the Security Council because of WMD use, not because of the conventional war crimes that have killed more than 100,000 people. Given that the use of Sarin gas has gone unpunished, it is now highly unlikely that the international community will now intervene militarily for any ‘conventional’ crimes or to relieve humanitarian suffering. Again, the world is watching and learning.

But amidst this all, the people whose interests matter most, Syria’s civilians, continue to suffer on a huge scale. Those like me, who advocated intervention two years ago were warned that this would create a refugee crisis, encourage the involvement of Islamic terrorists, lead to the possible use of chemical weapons, increase instability and make a political settlement unlikely. The West and the wider world have not intervened militarily, and yet all of these things have occurred. 

Other direct intervention is happening though, it is being carried out by countries like Iran and extremist groups, meaning that our potential influence amongst moderates, who feel abandoned, is diminishing daily. Those who say humanitarian intervention is not in our national interests should take note. 

Amidst this disaster of non-intervention, Labour must try to put aside the doubts and recriminations of Iraq, not by shunning the cause of humanitarian intervention, but by honouring our values, by focusing on human rights and being prepared to defend them.

Had Labour not created the NHS, healthcare in Britain would be far worse. It would not be tenable for Labour politicians to say, we could have taken action, but we chose not to, and any consequent health disaster is not due to our inaction. 

So with international affairs, whilst it may provide comfort for some to think that Britain can absolve itself of its responsibilities to less fortunate people and to principles such as the Responsibility to Protect, or to merely provide aid, such a decision would not be consistent with Labour values. 

Of greater importance though is that it would be potentially disastrous for victims of tyrannical states and for wider international affairs.

The issues I’ve raised tonight, while speaking to universal principles and complex international problems, are not the sole preserve of the Labour Party. Yet we have a responsibility to show moral leadership, even in the teeth of public opposition, and apply our values to defending the human rights of innocent people in grave cases such as Syria. 

I have described what I believe to have been huge failings regarding Syria by those who could have acted. The vulnerable of the world have a right to expect more from both world leaders and international institutions. I still believe that intervention should be considered to, at the very least, create greater safety for Syria's civilians, through the imposition of a No Fly Zone. I also believe that any further use of WMDs must be met with a swift military response.

It's also important to be hopeful for the future. It is for the advocates of diplomacy to show how it can end the suffering and control these WMDs. I also hope that when this crisis is solved, which one day it will be, the world reflects again on the issue humanitarian intervention, that it learns the lessons and bolsters the Responsibility to Protect so that action occurs more swiftly, when it has more chance of succeeding.

In his conference speech of 2012, Ed Miliband, said:

“Both of my parents’ came to Britain as immigrants, Jewish refugees from the Nazis. I know I would not be standing on this stage today without the compassion and tolerance of our great country.”

Sadly, we live again in an age of refugees, of dictators, of crimes against humanity, of ethnic cleansing, of genocide, and most recently in Syria, of the use of chemical weapons. We mustn't raise the drawbridge of our compassion. Now is the time for Britain and Labour to take a leading role in helping shape the world so that human rights mean more than the paper they're written on that the events of Syria are not repeated.

Thank you.

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