I think of myself as a pacifist. Whilst I’ve always enjoyed studying war and the breakdown of rational foreign relations, I’ve always seen violence – especially that committed by states – as useless, destructive and damaging. I can’t begin to fathom the need to destroy so many lives simply to make a point, gain some resources or respond to a murder. I would gladly see the billions and billions spent on the military by all the nations of the world go to alleviating poverty, tackling climate change or exploring space. I’d scrap Trident in a heartbeat. I’d ban advertising of military jobs. I’d seriously reduce the budget of the MOD and increase that of DFID and the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
In an ideal world, if I were in power, I’d focus my energy on peace, on working with the United Nations, on building lasting accords in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine and all the other places we’ve gotten ourselves embroiled in. Diplomacy would be my only weapon, the olive branch of friendship extended out to all. The United Nations would create lasting peace and we would live in a world where war was never an option.
This isn’t an ideal world. And unfortunately, my pacifism and ideal of non-aggression have been seriously tested in a horrific few days. The crisis in Syria has reached new levels, with it looking almost certain that the regime of Bashar Al-Assad fired chemical weapons, or nerve gas, at rebels and civilians in the suburbs of Damascus. This attack killed hundreds, and caused horrendous injuries for many more, crossing the ‘red-line’ that President Obama set a few months ago before military action would be seriously considered. The Western powers (led by the USA, France and UK) are gearing up for military action, most likely limited missile strikes at key targets to prevent something like this happening again. The United Nations Security Council, crippled by the veto of either Russia or China, is powerless to do anything, and looks once again to be completely redundant in the face of unilateral (and possibly illegal) action from the West.
And here I am, torn. Torn between the knowledge that Assad will continue to brutally murder civilians with all the tactics he can to remain in power, and the understanding that military action from the West will not only cause more immediate civilian deaths, but it will draw us into something we cannot get out of. This could be in contravention of international law, could further destabilise the Middle East and even cause retaliation from Iran, Russia and the kind of fundamentalist groups that follow the ideology of Al-Qaeda. I imagine many of you are torn too, and I suppose that’s a good thing. International diplomacy should be difficult, and committing to murder albeit to save lives in the long run should not be a decision taken lightly.
International law is a funny thing. It does not exactly exist in any concrete way, and is more about guiding principles than anything else. Sure, we have the International Criminal Court which tries war criminals, although the United States and other big powers aren’t signed up to it. And yes, we have things like the Geneva Convention, which banned chemical weapons as early as 1929, the Kyoto Protocol, which set states limits on carbon emissions, and all the United Nations bodies from the Human Rights Commission to UNICEF, but when it comes to humanitarian intervention or international peace, the Security Council is really the only arbiter and, due to its arcane post-war structures, this can often seem a hindrance rather than a help.
States like the UK have a duty to protect not only its own citizens, but the citizens of the world from harm. When these citizens are attacked by their own governments, something does have to be done. We seem to have exhausted all channels of diplomacy and sanctions, and the Assad regime will continue to attack its own citizens – whether with chemical warfare or not. Yes, I think we should seek approval from the United Nations first. Yes, we should wait until the UN inspectors have assessed what really happened in Damascus. And yes, we should absolutely make sure that any action we take is limited, is solely to make sure Assad cannot used chemical weapons again, and is not going to destabilise an already unstable country. We need to be very clear that we are not there for regime change, or for a long drawn out process, or to provide arms to the kind of groups that we fight so hard against in other parts of the Middle East.
But, if all else fails, and it’s only the UK, France and the USA standing up for the rights of people not to be gassed by their own governments, then something will need to be done. When we have exhausted all channels, military action to knock out Assad’s capabilities will need to be taken. We moved unilaterally in Kosovo, in Iraq and in Libya and, whilst different situations that should not be used as reasons for or against action in Syria, these in some way succeeded in protecting citizens. I agree with the Labour Party, and with the new stance from the Government, that we should wait for the UN to finish its inspections before acting. But we should act.
When governments attack their own citizens with such heinous weapons, it is up to the international community, and our own consciences as members of humanity, to defend those that cannot defend themselves. I hate war, and I hate violence, but sometimes strategic military action is the only way to protect those that are most in need.