By Shaun van Eeden
Tuesday night’s debate in Parliament on Syria has important ramifications for the future of British foreign policy. This is because of the return of the humanitarian interventionists – who feel emboldened by the catastrophe in Syria – and our failure to intervene militarily in 2013.
The political doctrine has died a pretty public death over the years, since the nightmarish consequences of interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya were played out on global TV screens. The Iraqi intervention alone could have accounted for a million deaths in Iraq.
Those who wish to revive the right of humanitarian intervention in political discourse have seized on the failure of the international community on Syria to once again put forward a hawkish approach to foreign policy.
Tuesday night was a Who’s Who of MPs queuing up to say ‘I told you so’, and castigating those who opposed the unilateral intervention in Syria in 2013.
George Osborne, who was part of a Cabinet that sold billions in arms to Saudi Arabia, bemoaned a lack of ‘British Leadership’ and talked of the ‘price of not intervening’ in Syria.
Andrew Mitchell went further, stating:
‘This country, along with the entire international community, 10 years ago embraced the responsibility to protect, a doctrine which said that nation states will not allow the Srebrenicas, the Rwandas and other appalling events, including in Darfur, to take place again… This responsibility to protect was signed up to at great fanfare and embraced by all the international community, great and small. Yet here we are today witnessing, complicit, in what is happening to tens of thousands of Syrians in Aleppo.’
There are normative arguments interspersed with some legal references here and I am going to do my best to address them both.
To try and shame those who opposed the intervention in 2013 by pointing to the humanitarian catastrophe today shows a lot of chutzpah. Firstly, any military action in Syria would have taken place on shaky legal ground at best, and would most likely to have been considered illegal by most of the world. The UN Charter prohibits the use of armed force under article 2(4), providing only two exceptions. One being self-defence under art 51, and the other being through a resolution of the Security Council under Chpt VII. There was no right to intervene under art 51 as we were not the victims of an armed attack and there was no Security Council resolution that authorised the use of force. Military intervention based on any other grounds would likely be considered illegal by the international community and could result in state responsibility or possible criminal responsibility for the crime of aggression.
Our government asserted (and still asserts) that we had the right to intervene under the ‘so-called’ right of humanitarian intervention. Now we might take a moral position that we feel that we should do something, but the prohibition on the use of force and the concept of state sovereignty are the foundation of international law. States can only breach each other’s sovereignty in the situations prescribed above (in self-defence or with a Security Council resolution).
Regardless of what the government says its intentions were, or what it believes its legal position to have been, there was no legal basis to intervene on humanitarian grounds in Syria.
Is this just my opinion? Let’s look at what the international community has had to say on humanitarian intervention.
After the Kosovo intervention in 1999, which was declared by the Kosovo Commission to be ‘illegal but legitimate’, (a pretty damning legal statement in itself) the group of 77 South Summit, whose delegates represented 80% of the world’s population, published a statement ‘rejecting the so called right of humanitarian intervention’.
The humanitarian interventionists want us to believe that the UK has the legal and moral right to bomb other countries for their own good – but ignore the issue of reciprocity. This was addressed in the 2004 United Nations Panel on Threats which reviewed the law on intervention to decide whether it was sufficient in the current geopolitical climate. Not only did they make no provision for ‘humanitarian intervention’ but they rejected it – stating ‘allowing one to so act is to allow all’ – i.e. we set a dangerous precedent for the world when we accept uses of force outside of international law.
If we consider this, those who want to revive the idea of humanitarian intervention (such as Osborne telling us about the cost of not intervening) are on shaky moral and legal grounds. Andrew Mitchell’s comment is the most telling in regards to this perception – that we can bomb as we please whether international law or the international community allows or supports it – and he completely misrepresents the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine to support this view. This is unforgivable, as he understands the implications of this – so I want you to revisit his comments above and then consider the following.
The entire international community did embrace the Responsibility to Protect. It was signed up to great fanfare. But that’s where the truth stops and the political agenda begins. Anyone who has google and can read can see in 20 seconds that the Responsibility to Protect doctrine gives as its remedy ‘collection action through the UN Security Council’. Nowhere does it give the right to intervene outside this framework – it strengthens the argument against humanitarian intervention – not for it! Mitchell’s comments are a duplicitous use of the actions of the international community to support a hawkish foreign policy position.
I don’t think the moral case for humanitarian intervention is strong, but it’s complex and is something worth addressing in a later blog post. Let’s take a brief look at the consistency in application of those who call for intervention on human rights grounds.
Those like Mitchell discussed above have advocated humanitarian intervention in Syria, decrying our ‘complicity’ in civilian deaths due to our failure to act. But what of the victims of Saudi bombs in Yemen? Amnesty International has called for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia and accused them of war crimes. Could it be that Mitchell makes no such plea for the civilians of Yemen because it is his Conservative government that is selling Saudi Arabia the weapons? How can we be expected to take Mitchell’s comments about our complicity seriously, whilst his government is complicit in the war crimes being committed by the Saudis?
Why are MPs like John Woodcock, who declared his ‘sickness’ at Miliband blocking the 2013 intervention, abstaining on votes stopping our cooperation with the Saudi operations? If he cares so much for civilian life that he is willing to say we have blood on our hands in Syria, why does he not do the same when the bombs we sell are killing civilians in Yemen?
This hypocrisy exposes the truth about unilateral humanitarian intervention – not only is it illegal – its leading advocates are also devoid of any moral consistency.