Over recent days I have been in a real quandry about what I should do in the vote for which Parliament is being recalled tomorrow. Like everyone else I was appalled that the Syrian Gov't should have used chemical weapons against its own people. This despicable act is anathema to every concept of humanity and decency. But I need to feel reassured that military intervention will actually help the position, and be to the long term benefit of Syria, its people and its neighbouring countries. Was hoping that tomorrow's speeches by party leaders would help clarify. Best idea of what Prime Minister would say was in the Foreign Secretary's essay in today's Telegraph. So I thought I'd print it for anyone who wants to read it.
The faces of the victims of last week’s chemical weapons attack in Syria are
haunting. We still do not know how many people died. Médecins Sans Frontières,
an independent humanitarian organisation working with hospitals in Syria,
estimates that there were 3,600 casualties, including 355 fatalities, among
them many children.
According to the UN, the Syrian conflict is already the worst refugee crisis
since the Rwandan genocide, creating nearly two million refugees and killing
more than 100,000 people so far. But it is now infamous for another, equally
chilling reason: this is the first time that chemical warfare has been used
anywhere in the world in the 21st century.
For nearly 100 years, the international community has worked to build a
system of defences to protect mankind against the use of weapons of mass
destruction – including chemical weapons – to prevent the kind of attacks that
are now taking place in Syria.
The First World War exposed the sheer horror that chemical agents inflict.
Ninety thousand soldiers on all sides died agonising, choking deaths from the
use of mustard gas, chlorine and phosgene on the battlefield, and up to 1.3
million people were blinded or burned by them. Wilfred Owen wrote in searing
terms of the “froth-corrupted lungs” and “incurable sores” of his fallen
comrades. Chemical weapons developed since that war, such as nerve gases, are
even deadlier than those of a century ago.
The power of these weapons to inflict mass, indiscriminate death shocked the
world into banning their use in international conflict through the 1925 Geneva
Gas Protocol. Customary international law now completely prohibits their use,
including in internal conflicts like that taking place in Syria.
There have been decades of painstaking work to construct an international
regime of rules and checks, overseen by the UN, to prevent the use of
chemical weapons and to destroy stockpiles. This is codified in the 1993 UN
Chemical Weapons Convention, which seeks the complete global elimination of
chemical weapons – a treaty that Syria refused to sign.
With a few horrendous exceptions, including the Iran-Iraq War and Saddam
Hussein’s campaign against Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s, the global consensus
surrounding the use of chemical weapons in war has held firm. Countries like
our own have been able to focus their efforts on trying to universalise the
UN Convention, and keep chemical weapons out of the hands of terrorists.
We all live under the protection of this global system of arms control, just
as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has spared us from the threat of
nuclear holocaust, which blighted my parents’ generation. These rules and
conventions are a largely invisible part of the global landscape and are
undoubtedly in our national interest. The work of maintaining and upholding
them is a constant struggle in international diplomacy, and the events in
Syria have the power to undermine them fatally.
Over the past year we have seen evidence of the repeated small-scale use of
chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. We know this from physiological
samples that have been smuggled out of Syria and from other sources of
This amounts to extensive, continuous and escalating use of chemical weapons
by a state against its own citizens. We have tried to deter the Syrian
regime from continuing these attacks, by raising our concerns at the United
Nations Security Council and passing direct messages through diplomatic
channels, working with Russia. But last week’s large-scale attack shows the
regime has simply ignored these warnings.
We strongly support the work of the UN team on the ground in Syria. We hope
that the information they obtain will help build a fuller picture of the
attack – adding to the evidence which already exists – and to help ensure
that those responsible for this war crime are held accountable.
The team has a mandate to gather evidence about the attack, but they are not
empowered to determine who was responsible for it. All the evidence and
information available to us, including from eye-witnesses, leaves us in no
doubt that the Assad regime was responsible. The attack took place in an
area already controlled by the opposition; regime forces were carrying out a
military operation to clear that area; and there is no evidence that the
opposition possess any chemical weapons stocks, let alone the capability
required to deliver them on the scale needed to cause mass casualties.
For five days after the attack the regime bombarded the area with conventional
weapons, refusing to allow UN inspectors to visit, during which time crucial
evidence would have been destroyed or degraded. To argue that the Syrian
opposition carried out this attack is to suggest that they attacked their
own supporters in an area they already controlled using weapons systems they
do not possess. This opinion is shared by our allies and by countries in the
region. Yesterday the Arab League passed a resolution stating that it holds
Bashar al-Assad and the government in Damascus responsible.
We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons in the 21st century to go
unchallenged. That would send a signal to the Syrian regime that they will
never face any consequences for their actions, no matter how barbarous. It
would make further chemical attacks in Syria much more likely, and also
increase the risk that these weapons could fall into the wrong hands in the
But this is not just about one country or one conflict. We cannot afford the
weakening of the global prohibition against the use of chemical weapons. We
must proceed in a careful and thoughtful way, but we cannot permit our own
security to be undermined by the creeping normalisation of the use of
weapons that the world has spent decades trying to control and eradicate.
This actual, repeated use of chemical weapons in Syria is a moral outrage, a
serious violation of international humanitarian law and a challenge to our
common security. We are now weighing with the United States and our other
allies how to respond in a way that is legal and proportionate. The goal of
any response should be to prevent further similar humanitarian distress, to
deter the further use of chemical weapons in Syria and to uphold the global
ban against their use.
The United Nations Security Council should rise to its responsibilities by
condemning these events and calling for a robust international response. But
all previous attempts to get the Security Council to act on Syria have been
blocked, and we cannot allow diplomatic paralysis to be a shield for the
perpetrators of these crimes.
Tomorrow, Parliament will have the opportunity to debate these issues, and to
make its views known. This is a moment of grave danger for the people of
Syria, a moment of truth for democratic nations to live up to their values,
and a weighty test of the international community. The way ahead will not be
without risks, but the risks of doing nothing are greater.