Syria: Politicians should act as leaders, not try to be lawyers

If military action against Assad is morally justified then that surely must be the case regardless of whether or not it is 'legal'.

Ed Miliband released a statement on Syria yesterday in which he said he would be willing to support military action against the regime of Bashar al Assad “on the basis that it was legal”.

“When I saw the Prime Minister this afternoon I said to him the Labour Party would consider supporting international action but only on the basis that it was legal, that it was specifically limited to deterring the future use of chemical weapons and that any action contemplated had clear and achievable military goals.”

“We will be scrutinising any action contemplated on that basis.”

The lawyerly emphasis here on perceived legality (or lack of) reminds me of the contortions certain politicians went through in the lead up to the war in Iraq. Rather than come out in straightforward opposition to military action, certain political figures said they could support military action against Saddam Hussein but only if it was backed by a UN Security Council resolution.

In other words, the correctness of removing one of the world’s worst dictators was to be left at the whim of regimes on the UN Security Council which in some cases were bloating and sating themselves at the feet of the Iraqi regime.

Unsurprisingly they weren’t particularly keen on toppling their profitable client.

Opposing the Iraq war was the correct position to take in my view; but that was evidently the case whether military action was vetoed by certain post-Communist autocracies and morally bankrupt French politicians or not.

The same is true today of Syria: if military action is an appropriate response to genocide and the use of chemical weapons, that remains the case even if the thuggish tyrannies of Russia and China feel differently.

If Miliband is genuinely serious about not supporting military action unless it is “legal”, and if by legal he means endorsed by a resolution from the UN Security Council, then he is either being deliberately obtuse to differentiate his position from that of David Cameron, or he has no stomach for military action and wishes to couch that in lawyerly references to ‘legality’.

Viewed from the angle of UN legality, military action against Assad cannot possibly be legal: Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas and Russia will not assist in fastening the hangman’s rope around the neck of its client in Damascus.

If military action against Assad is morally justified then that must be the case regardless of whether or not it is ‘legal’. For, as Norman Geras puts it:

“A system of law that would countenance mass atrocity without any remedy simply because the interests of a veto-wielding power at the UN blocks remedial action is morally unacceptable, indeed intolerable.”

10 Responses to “Syria: Politicians should act as leaders, not try to be lawyers”

  1. swatnan

    Ed, I should forget about whether it is legal and focus more on whether it is right and justifiable and practical. The Lawyers will come in later to support whatever decision is reached.

  2. Roy Anderson

    What morality is it that the warmongers are trying to justify? Who actually used the chemicals as a weapon of war? The USA cannot even justify their own policies of drone attacks and murders. The USA and their hangers on are morally repugnant and criminally responsible for countless murders around the world in their support of dictators and multi national companies
    and for profit before people.

  3. JR

    “from the angle of UN legality, military action against Assad cannot possibly be legal”


    The blessing bestowed by the UN is difficult to get for a reason. Just because it is hard, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be sought. Short cuts to enable the escalation of conflict are a poor precedent to argue for in international relations or, indeed, moral justification.

    Further, you mis-use Norman Geras. He argues that legal intervention is possible without use of the Security Council. He does not suggest justification outside of the framework of international law, nor does he dismiss the role of the UN.

    You need to justify your moral outrage more clearly and do so on the terms of those who disagree, rather than in the language of one who has already made up his mind. In fulfilling the role of an effective opposition, it is Ed Miliband’s place to ensure Government also applies this rigour of judgement. Jumping to the end-game may feel justified, but it will serve nobody well.

  4. Kevin Leonard

    Once again we listen and watch as UK politicians debate and decide on the fate of foreign national within their own country. NEWS FLASH we are no longer a dominant force within the world we do not have any powers whatsoever to determine the lives and politics within another sovereign nation state regardless of what they or their subjects are doing to each other.

    Should Miliband decide that it is justifiable(NEVER) to attack another country without the declaration of all out war on our behalf then he has failed as a leader not only of his own party but of those who support the Labour party. The greater majority of people (up to 80% in some cases)do not want UK interference within the middle east.

    Tragic though it is this is a problem only those within the middle east should be told to sort out. It is unfortunate however that the most influential countries within the middle east who are beholden to the west for their own power are unwilling to tackle the problem as they can then see others in the region holding them to account for their own atrocities towards their own marginalised communities.

  5. Michael Simpson

    Does anyone remember Iraq? Nope? Good. Then let’s proceed.

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