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Better late than never: the need for a firm stance on ISIS

Parliament will today debate the case for airstrikes in Iraq against Isis. It is about time. The United Kingdom’s inability to take a firm position on this issue (whichever way) has risked further undermining our international standing. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, we have a duty to work for global peace. We cannot simply wait for others to take a lead. Members of parliament and peers now have a responsibility to think through and debate the potential use of force. They should do so using just war criteria, as I have outlined for Christians on the Left. They should also argue forcefully for a consistent and considered foreign and defence policy.

The motion before parliament and the government’s position on military action in Iraq highlight the threat posed by Isis and the formal request by the Iraq government for American-led assistance. The UK government has made clear that action in Syria would require further consideration by parliament. This has increased the probability that MPs will support air strikes and other military assistance in Iraq. However, this position does raise questions.
The US has mounted a series of air strikes in Iraq against Isis positions. It has also attacked Isis and other groups in Syria this week. It has been backed by the UK government. In his speech to Labour Conference on Tuesday Ed Miliband supported the United States’ action against Isis the previous night without distinguishing between air strikes in Iraq or Syria. Labour has called for a UN resolution authorising military action in Syria before the UK becomes involved.

The formal position is that the Iraq government requires help to defeat Isis, which occupies much of the country. In that situation, international law allows for other nations to provide assistance. However, what if Isis attacks Iraq from within Syria? Perhaps that is impracticable or irrelevant in terms of firing weapons, but what about supply lines, of fighters and materiel, or control centres? Would we not regard those as legitimate targets? Perhaps we would rely on the US to deal with them but be reluctant to commit our own forces. There might be practical reasons behind such a decision but the position would be ethically difficult if not. If we believe action in Syria is necessary we should say so. If we believe it requires separate UN authorisation we should push for it in the Security Council. We should also be clear what we would do if a permanent member (e.g. Russia) vetoed action.

The decision appears to be between backing the government or doing nothing, since that is the choice facing MPs. However this is too simple. Labour should demand assurances on the questions raised by the Just War tradition before voting for action. There are people in danger and where we can protect them, we should, having taken account of the ethical issues and potential consequences. Labour also should insist that the humanitarian aid effort be boosted and sustained. Finally, Labour must press the government to adopt a foreign and defence policy that matches the challenges we face.
This article was first published by Progress on 26 September 2014.

Progress, 26 September 2014, 28/09/2014

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