Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Case for action against President Assad

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 information. 

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 future. 

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.


Michael Goulden said...

What’s amazing is that William Hague, David Cameron and the US are saying that it was clearly Assad without even claiming they’ve got some secret evidence to prove it as Blair did with the Iraqi WMD. They’re just stating it! Everyone forgets that they tried this a few months ago, but the (usually pro-NATO) Carla del Ponte, leading the UN weapons inspectors, said all the evidence pointed towards the rebels using sarin :(
There is as yet no clear proof for the alleged chemical weapon incident, or who was responsible. UN inspectors are investigating now. Why are we being stampeded into this? What are we supposed to be achieving? Who are we supporting when we unleash our missiles? Certainly not the civilian population. We need no lessons from William Hague about the impact of chemical weapons but I do not share his evidently highly tuned moral sensitivity that appears to think they are fundamentally different from the depleted uranium, the phosphorous, the napalm, Agent Orange and the cluster bombs that the US and British forces have deployed in this Century and the last, starting with the nuclear destruction of Japanese cities at the end of WWII.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mr. Goulden - well put. Just add that I believe the UN will find evidence of, e.g., precursors which when combined react and produce Sarin gas. But who is to say this is not a 'false-flag' incident. Some of the extreme rebels have access to such precursors and would love the "stupid Yankees" to react by fighting Assad forces - i.e. in effect fight for the fundamentalist rebels (i.e., win the war for Al-Qaeda who are also trying to beat Assad); its too complex, WE SHOULD STAY OUT OF IT AND STOP taking so much notice of the use of this or that kind of weapon because by taking such notice we actually encourage their use. cw