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.”

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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.

  6. Hampshire Hog

    The comments are all about whether the attack would be legal but Eds other two conditions are equally important i.e. to ensure the action is specifically limited to deterring the future use of chemical weapons and that the goals are clearly laid out and achievable. Actually I am trying to work out how anything could be specifically limited to deterring the future use of Chemical weapons. How would that be proven? And we would also want the goals to be laid out, desirable and agreed, rather than just laid out and achievable.

  7. Hampshire Hog

    so maybe all three requirements sound alright but are a bit dodgy when you look at them too closely

  8. Wyrdtimes

    It’s not even learning the lessons of history any more – we’re still in Afghanistan. The UK govt wants permawar – the perfect antidote to a crumbling nation at home

  9. Carl Gardner

    You’re right that moral and political opposition to intervention shouldn’t hide behind legalism. I think there was a lot of that over Iraq. You’re right, too, to point out the arbitrariness of hanging the international rule of law on the consent, for any or no reason, of Russia and China.

    But I think you’re wrong to suggest law doesn’t matter. I think it matters a lot (though maybe that’s because I’m a lawyer). I think in particular it’s important for progressive politics globally for the “responsibility to protect” to be as widely accepted as possible as having effects in international law. That means an approach to international law that puts pressure on Russia, China and all nations to take situations like Syria seriously, and enables democracies to take action legally within a known and accepted framework if Russia and China cause the UN to flunk it.

    In other words, this isn’t a struggle between legality on one side, and not caring about law on the other. We mustn’t let opponents of humanitarian intervention frame it that way. It’s a struggle between two approaches to international law, a traditionalist “great powers and sovereignty” approach and a more liberal humanitarian approach. I want Ed Miliband to be on the right side.

    I’d worry if Ed Miliband didn’t care about international law, and I’d worry if he took a conservative view in which UN vetoes trump and erase all the international community’s responsibilities.

  10. JR

    I totally agree with you on the importance of the law. However, I think you need to further acknowledge the toxicity of the neo-conservative doctrine across the UK (evidenced by SNP and Plaid responses).

    The ‘small c’ conservative view that you note (where the security council trumps all) is a useful way of diffusing action by large powers that may be misbehaving, but lack of consensus will halt action in less clear cut cases. However, the humanitarian interventionist view in this debate is remarkably close to the neo-conservative interventionist view if there is no evidence. Without engaging in debate and creating consensus, UK politicians should rightly worry about the impact of their actions on a fragile region. Russia is singing this song for their own ends, but that doesn’t mean intervention is the right thing to do by default.

    Of course part of this is also a domestic problem for UK politicians, created in part by the Iraq war and the pre-election environment. So long as the Security Council is split, this domestic facet will not go away.

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