I know many of you will share my horror at the chemical attack in Douma, Syria on Saturday 7th April. The images of suffering children and devastated families were horrific.
It is quite obvious the Syrian Government is responsible for this atrocity. The chemicals were reportedly delivered by barrel bombs launched from helicopters. Only the Syrian Government has this capacity. This also fits a wider pattern of similar attacks perpetrated by the Syrian Government which have been verified by a UN Security Council investigation at the time.
Since 2017 Russian Government has blocked any attempt to hold the perpetrators of these crimes to account by using their veto six times in the UN Security Council. Furthermore, last week Russia blocked a resolution that would have established an independent investigation into this latest attack.
The fact finding team from the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is being prevented from visiting Douma and undertaking their investigations by Russia and Syria. I asked the Prime Minister about this in the House of Commons on Monday 16th, to which she made clear the UK Government’s commitment to supporting the independent OPCW’s investigations – but these are being hindered by Russia.
In the light of this, regrettably an immediate diplomatic solution is impossible given the use of the Russian veto in the UN Security Council. Meanwhile, the lives of innocent civilians in Syria are at risk from future attacks with all evidence pointing towards a willingness of the Syrian Government to continue using chemical weapons unless they are held to account for their actions.
Limited, proportionate military action was needed to limit the ability of the Syrian Government to produce and use chemical weapons and to deter their use. The targets of the intervention were, a centre for the research and development of chemical weapons and various chemical weapons bunkers and stores.
This limited approach was designed to register the disgust at the use of chemical weapons and minimise the chances of wider escalation and to prevent any further usage.
Some have questioned the legality of this action, given there was no authorisation from the UN Security Council. Firstly, given the veto system a country could commit atrocities with impunity so long as they have the support of a UN Security Council Member. As Dominic Grieve QC MP said to the Prime Minister, in this case instead of upholding international law it would be fatally undermined.
Therefore, as was the case in NATO invention in Kosovo and with the no fly zones in Iraq in the early 1990s, humanitarian intervention can be the legal justification for the use of force. There are three requirements for this, which have been met.
- There is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;
- It must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved; and
- The proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian suffering and must be strictly limited in time and in scope to this aim (i.e. the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose).
When it comes to the approval of Parliament for military action, sometimes given the speed at which a decision needs to be taken and the need for the secrecy of the type of intervention prior Parliamentary approval is not possible.
Parliament has, and will continue, to be able to scrutinise the Government for this intervention. On Monday the Prime Minister was in the House of Commons for three hours and took questions from 140 Members of Parliament. Today there is a further debate on the use of force in Syria which the Prime Minister is leading.
Of course military action cannot be the only solution. The UK, having given almost £2.5 billion, is now the second biggest bilateral donor for Syrian refugees in the region. Since 2012, across Syria and the region, UK aid has delivered over 26 million food rations that feed a person for a month, 10.3 million medical consultations, 9.8 million relief packages, and over 8 million vaccines. In 2016/17 alone, UK aid reached over 5 million people with clean water.
The UK Government will also continue to press for humanitarian access to civilians in Syria which is being blocked by Russia and the Syrian Government.
The Government is also looking at further economic sanctions against Syria and will be working with the Foreign Affairs Council of the EU at this. There are already considerable international economic sanctions against the Syrian Government.
Finally, in situations like this, when faced with an atrocious humanitarian disaster the House of Commons can usually be seen at its best with MPs from all sides coming together to support actions against those responsible. Elements of this was seen yesterday, with many Labour backbench MPs supporting the Government’s actions.
However, the position of the Labour Opposition and Jeremy Corbyn means the UK would stand by and do nothing to stop future atrocities from being committed despite having the means to work with our partners against this. It means our foreign policy would be determined by the Russian veto at the UN. This is a dangerous and unrealistic policy and would greatly undermine the security of the UK and civilians across the world were it carried out.