Following the defeat of both the Labour amendment and the government’s motion on Syria in the house of commons last night, the prime minister has rightly decided that the UK will not now take part in any military action against Syria. This seems to me an excellent outcome, which reflects and respects UK majority public opinion, and averts a foreign policy blunder of significant proportions.
But I am shocked by the views widely expressed in the blogosphere and by MPs on both sides of the house of commons according to which it would have been perfectly all right to go ahead and use force against Syria even if we had failed to get the authority of the Security Council for it. This careless willingness to subvert the whole basis of the UN Charter and the central provisions in international law governing the use of force in international relations is deplorable and disreputable. The existence of a doctrine of “humanitarian intervention”, as a justification for military action without Security Council authority, and asserted by the Attorney-General in his legal advice to the government, is hotly and rightly disputed. If accepted, it makes the whole UN Charter system in chapters VI and VII redundant, and we’re back to the law of the jungle. The international community has indeed accepted that there may in certain circumstances need to be ‘humanitarian intervention’ to protect civilians from their own governments, by unanimously endorsing the new norm called the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in 2005 at a special summit of heads of state and government at the UN: but it explicitly requires that action under it must be in accordance with the Charter and that the use of force under R2P must be authorised by the Security Council in accordance with the relevant chapters of the Charter (see http://www.barder.com/4043). It’s sad to see Dominic Grieve dredging up the discredited notion of a separate ‘doctrine of humanitarian intervention’, needlessly duplicating R2P, simply to enable the government to escape from the inconvenient requirements of international law.
Several MPs and bloggers are complaining that it would be ‘madness’ to abandon our plans for a strike against Syria to deter further use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people just because one or two members of the Security Council (Russia and China) would veto any resolution authorising that action. Some go so far as to say that we should ignore such vetoes as obviously self-interested and unwarranted — an echo of Tony Blair’s ludicrous proposition in the Iraq context that “an unreasonable veto” could legally be ignored. There’s room for debate about the usefulness or otherwise of the veto provision in the UN Charter. But the fact is that the veto power exists: and had it not been included in the Charter, there’s a real possibility that either the United States or the Soviet Union (succeeded by Russia), or both, would not have become members of the United Nations, which would have rendered the UN virtually powerless and irrelevant. The proper response to a frustrating and unwelcome veto is to sit down with the government that has cast it and try to work out an alternative course of action that both (and a majority in the Security Council) can agree to. It is nonsense to say that the alternative to using force, if that is blocked by a veto, is to do nothing.
However, in any case, had the UK-US resolution to authorise a strike against Syria come to a vote in the Security Council, it’s extremely unlikely that there would have been Russian or Chinese vetoes, because in the light of the present composition of the Council, it’s almost impossible to imagine that the necessary minimum of nine affirmative votes would have been cast in favour of authorising the US, UK and France (or anyone else) to use force against Syria. Our resolution would virtually certainly have been defeated by our failure to win the required majority. In that situation negative votes by Russia and China would not have been vetoes. Russia and China might even have abstained, in order to rub in the fact that it was not their vetoes that denied us the permission to use force that we had asked for, but the fact that the majority of the Council disagreed with us. So it’s no good bleating about it being crazy to let a country like Putin’s Russia stop us doing what we wanted by threatening to use its veto. It would have been a representative selection of the international community that would have refused us the permission that we had sought. This accurately mirrors our failure to secure UN authority for the attack on Iraq in 2003: we never managed to get the required majority of Security Council members to support our attempt to get that UN authority, and had to withdraw our draft resolution for that reason. It was never a question of a Russian or French veto, as Blair falsely claimed afterwards.
Of course all this is now hypothetical, as far as the UK and Syria are concerned. But anyone who disagrees with the scenario outlined above needs to list the nine members of the present Security Council who might be open to persuasion to vote for us to bomb and rocket Syria. I can’t see it.
I am massively relieved that this marks the end of any idea of Britain joining in a foolish, counter-productive, pointless, dangerous military enterprise which would almost certainly be illegal under international law, undermine the authority of the UN and the Charter, kill innocent people for no discernible reason, and fail to deter future use of chemical weapons by the Assad government. We’re well out of it. Enough MPs reflected a sane and humane public opinion that was strongly against yet another intervention in a middle east country which poses no conceivable threat to British interests, to make it impossible for Cameron to commit this major blunder. It’s just a huge pity that Ed Miliband, as leader of the Labour Party, didn’t say loud and clear that there was no case for our military intervention in Syria and above all that such intervention would be illegal and insupportable without the authority of the UN Security Council. He had the perfect opportunity to say precisely that; but he failed to take it, perhaps because of the hot breaths of the New Labour perpetrators of the Iraq disaster down his neck. Still, by insisting (presumably under pressure from his own MPs who were rightly opposed to a strike against Syria in any circumstances) on increasingly stringent conditions for Labour to support military action, Miliband forced the government to retreat further and further from its original intention of launching a virtually immediate attack on Syria, and helped to create a space for MPs of all parties to ask devastating questions about the government’s plans to which ministers had no answers. MPs of all parties accurately reflected public opinion, and forced a delusional government to bow to it. A victory for all of us.