UK parliament rejects vigilante violence against Syria

By Savi Hensman
August 30, 2013

The UK parliament has prudently rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s call to join in military action in Syria which would almost certainly have been unlawful. While tough measures are needed, vigilante ‘justice’ contrary to international law could have catastrophic consequences. A US attack is still likely.

Syria’s regime, at war with various rebel groups, is undoubtedly guilty of brutal violence that has killed large numbers of civilians. Strong evidence emerged of use of chemical weapons, probably by a faction of the armed forces – though it is not certain who was responsible.

US president Barack Obama announced that he would attack, though the United Nations had not agreed to such measures and indeed had weapons inspectors in Syria still investigating the situation. UK armed forces seemed set to join in.

After a strong reaction from the public and many lawmakers, military and regional experts, plans were revised to be less blatantly disrespectful of the UN. Nevertheless, the House of Commons voted by 285 to 272 against an attack that could have further escalated violence in Syria. Though the attorney general argued that such measures could be legally justified, it seemed highly unlikely that the necessary conditions could be met without doing far more by diplomatic and other means.

Where law enforcement is weak, the temptation to violent vigilantism is understandable. Yet the end result can be an escalation of violence and further undermining of legality and civic norms. Giving way to anger can reduce the chance of achieving peace and justice. At international level, in a volatile region where several governments armed with weapons of mass destruction have strategic interests, the potential damage is even greater.

Undoubtedly military action by a US-led coalition would be seen by many in the Middle East as a factional intervention favouring the West’s allies and own thirst for oil. Some of these allied regimes blatantly abuse human rights and themselves, shielded from the consequences by the world’s most powerful nation, which, uniquely, has used both nuclear and chemical warfare to devastating effect.

Earlier in the House of Lords, after several peers had questioned the legality and effectiveness of intervening, Lord Alli argued that “we must take military action only if it complies with international law and is evidence-based.” He pointed out that “If we are to be able to make sense of the lessons of the war in Iraq, we must understand that mission creep is the enemy of the international community and the friend of chaos and fundamentalism.”

He was followed by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who explained that he did not want to repeat “the powerful points that have been made on international law, which is itself based on the Christian theory of just war.” However he mentioned that “In a conflict in another part of the world—a civil conflict in which I was mediating some years ago—a general said to me, ‘We have to learn that there are intermediate steps between being in barracks and opening fire’. The reality is that, until we are sure that all those intermediate steps have been pursued, just war theory says that the step of opening fire is one that must only be taken when there is no possible alternative whatever under any circumstances.”

Welby had “talked to a very senior Christian leader in the region yesterday and he said that intervention from abroad will declare open season on the Christian communities. They have already been devastated.”

He added that “In civil wars, those who are internal to the civil conflict fight for their lives, necessarily. Those who are external have a responsibility, if they get involved at all, to fight for the outcome. That outcome must be one that improves the chances of long-term peace and reconciliation. If we take action that diminishes the chance for peace and reconciliation, when inevitably a political solution has to be found, whether it is near-term or in the long-term future, then we will have contributed to more killing, and this war will be deeply unjust.”

Later in the debate, Baroness Cox quoted “Damascus-based Gregorios III, Melkite Greek Catholic Church Patriarch of Antioch”, who had urged that “instead of calling for violence, international powers need to work for peace”. He had described the threat of western armed intervention as “a tragedy—for the whole country and the whole Middle East”.

Ministers are predictably unhappy at having lost the vote. But the UK government, if not in breach of international law, will have increased moral authority when using diplomatic measures to push for curbs on violence against civilians in Syria. Rather than being locked in a contest of power with Russia, UK leaders could instead try to bring them on board.

In the longer term, a crackdown on arms sales to brutal regimes such as that in Syria, and a foreign policy that puts principle above the business interests of huge Western corporations, could reduce atrocities against non-combatants. It may also be time for international action to increase public awareness of the laws governing armed conflict, so often broken, and put pressure on governments to abide by these.

Mass killings of defenceless children and adults in Syria, whether using chemical or conventional weapons, are utterly unacceptable. However vigilante violence by a few nations without proper legal authority would be likely to make matters worse, whereas alternative approaches would probably be more effective.

* More on Syria from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/syria

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(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, social justice, welfare and religion. She works in the care and equalities sector and is an Ekklesia associate.

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