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How to vote on Syria - a brief guide

The case for armed intervention in the Syria has divided opinion. As MPs debate the issue today and again next week, they will be discussing a subject which we can at the moment only see ‘through a glass darkly’. So, how should our representatives be judging the case for action? They should work through Just War criteria. Here is a brief guide.

It appears to be beyond doubt that chemical weapons were used in Syria, though the UN inspectors should be able to verify this soon. That the weapons were used by Assad’s regime is highly likely; again hopefully clearer evidence will soon emerge. That the use of chemical weapons should be a considered a war crime is also a given. The correct response is not.

There are two, understandable, kneejerk reactions.

The first is to deploy immediate overwhelming military force to teach a lesson not only to the Assad regime, but to set an example for any future regimes contemplating using chemical weapons.

The second reaction is to insist that we are looking at a civil war which is nothing to do with us and we should therefore not get involved. I suspect this view has been heard on the hustings in many a selection meeting, as the experience of Iraq has been invoked. I hope the proponents of such a view have a robust strategy for helping prevent the massacres of tens of thousands of civilians (not that governments around the world are doing much better). The UK does have a responsibility, not only due to our sense of morality but also because we are a permanent member of the UN Security Council; like it or not, it is our job to work for global peace. However, that does not mean that we simply target and fire a few cruise missiles now that chemical weapons offer an apparent justification for armed intervention.

At times such as these, the Just War tradition is often invoked. This is a useful framework for considering military action. It is one I researched in the Christian Socialist Movement in the years leading to the invasion of Iraq, which many Christian Socialists opposed. An important point is that Just War tradition does not provide the answers. It is always clear that we have a responsibility to work through the criteria ourselves. But it does provide a structured way to adopt an ethical approach to conflict. Here is a quick guide, based on that work:
  • The use of armed force is evil and can only be seen as a necessary evil under strict circumstances.
  • War may only be waged by a legitimate authority.
This can be a nation or the United Nations, with obvious consideration for international law. The tradition does not provide easy answers for a situation in which some nations veto action for national interests. In such cases, we at least have to be more certain than ever that other criteria are complied with. Moreover a good question to ask is, who should act even if action is justified?
  • War may only be fought for a just cause
The offence must be actual, not simply possible (ie it is not enough to simply say a country ‘might’ have chemical weapons). The offence must be intentional, important, objective and verifiable, and unilateral (the circumstances need to be carefully defined). The offence could be an act of aggression, or a threat or injustice (which must be carefully defined). It could be committed against a third nation (eg the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq) or it may be moral guilt demanding punishment (eg in the interests of world order; use of chemical weapons could fall into this category).

The verification of an offence must be robust. In the case of Iraq, while it had not complied with various UN resolutions, the verification that it had weapons of mass destruction was, if we are generous, badly flawed and after the war no such weapons were found. In the case of Syria, the existence of a chemical weapon appears clear; the issue is what happened.
  • War must be fought only with the right intention, both in terms of the common good (restoring peace) and in terms of motivation (eg love for victims of aggression but not vengeance)
  • War must be the last resort, with clear goals, and be conducted according to international law. The enemy must be able to sue for peace and the war must be both winnable and cause less harm than it prevents
On some of the criteria in this point, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 failed. In particular, the UK joined in war when there was no credible plan for peace after the war, and no credible reconstruction effort. Just War tradition does not require us to know for certain that action will cause less harm than it prevents, but we must be reasonably confident that will be the case. It also helps form the kind of action we might take; it could limit it or sometimes it could mean we would have to be more fully committed if we are to avoid making things worse. In other words, we should not just consider whether we have the responsibility to act, but whether in practice we are able to act responsibly.
  • The means used must be proportional
  • The means used must respect the immunity of the innocent.
The use of force, even today, often means innocent people are injured or killed. Every effort must be made to avoid this if we resort to military action and there could come a point when this requirement should prevent action.
  • The dignity of humankind must be respected
The whole experience of Iraq – and indeed Afghanistan – should teach us that all avenues to a solution have to be explored before military action is taken. For example, while we cannot just do nothing, are there other credible means to bring the perpetrators of war crimes to justice? Use of chemical weapons should have consequences for the authority responsible, but do we know what is going on in the Assad regime? It would be much easier to think this through if we were considering one country using chemical weapons against another, but we are looking into a civil war with many interested parties keen to influence us.

Debates about armed conflict tend to focus on whether action is justified. But we need to think deeper than that. The Just War framework is clear that military action must be a last resort. We must never forget however, that even if armed conflict is sometimes a necessary evil, it is an evil nevertheless.

This article was first published by LabourList on 29 August 2013.
LabourList, 29 August 2013, 31/08/2013

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