We must plan for military action in Syria

Each time the Assad regime gets away with these despicable acts, the world becomes less stable.

Editor's note: The New Statesman's leader on Syria can be read here.

Following the appalling savagery at Houla, Kofi Annan declared: “we are at a tipping point”. We are not, we are already peering into the abyss, watching those suffering within it, and ignoring their calls for help as we pontificate on the niceties of international law and power-politics. Given his experience of the Rwanda genocide, Annan knows that there is no “tipping point” above which the number slaughtered either shocks the perpetrators into relending, or shames the international community into acting. The UN and international community have previously stood by as hundreds of thousands of innocents perished, and will do so again unless the moral case for the responsibility to protect is articulated more forcefully. To do this, we must listen to and then act on behalf of the victims, or else their human rights enshrined in ‘international law’ shall once again be shown to be worth little more than the paper on which they're written. Given the futility of diplomacy, robust military intervention must now be planned.  

In domestic politics, the rights of victims of crime are often forgotten amid our clamour to uphold those of defendants. This pattern, when transferred to the international stage, helps perpetuate an ‘aggressor’s charter’ prioritising the rights of criminal governments over those of civilian populations. It is time for a reversal so that in future the rights of ordinary human beings to life and liberty trump an illegitimate government’s right to protection from outside interference in its affairs, or the broader strategic interests of their allies. Only the superb reporting of journalists such as the late Marie Colvin, Tom CoghlanMartin Fletcher (£), and Alex Thomson (to name but a few) has given voice to these voiceless thousands, from which we should conclude that each time the Assad regime gets away with these despicable acts, the world becomes less stable and less safe for us all.

It is of course important to ponder whether an alternative naval base might be found for Russia in the Mediterranean or how they might keep their base in a post-Assad Syria; whether a Yemen-style top-level political solution can be found through which Assad goes but the regime clings on; whether the nature of Syria’s air defences render attack impossible; or whether Syria’s multi-ethnic composition and lack of unified opposition mean any intervention would merely provoke far greater human suffering in future. However, the geopolitical strategic calculations and debates about the practical implications all too often ignore the voices and interests of the civilians, the victims, who matter most.

At this stage of the crisis, three fundamental conclusions can be drawn. First, in its desperation to cling to power, this regime will countenance depravity up to and beyond the level of his father’s massacre of 20,000 civilians at Hama in 1982. Second, diplomatic pressure alone is no deterrent. The Annan Plan has failed because in seeking to end violence on both sides, it delegitimised the right of civilians to resist a dictator who is oppressing them, whilst simultaneously failing to afford them either the physical security or the democratic reforms they desire and deserve. Equally, like Milošević and Saddam Hussein, Assad is well-versed in Stalin's doctrine: 'how many divisions does the Pope have?' and will only desist when confronted by overwhelming military force. Third, Russia and China's diplomatic and military support for Assad, confirmed again on Wednesday, is likely to remain sufficiently robust as to prevent the Security Council sanctioning of any form of military intervention, thereby bolstering Assad's confidence that he acts with impunity.

What can be done to break this impasse? The most credible military option, the creation of militarily-protected safe zones in North West Syria, is now being mooted by, amongst others, serious and experienced people such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Director of Planning at the US State Department, and Ann Clwyd MP, Tony Blair’s former special envoy to Iraq and now a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Even this would probably fall foul of the Chinese and Russian veto. Therefore, the international community, and indeed each of us, must ask whether for the sake of not offending the sentiments and interests of these Security Council members, we are willing to allow the death-toll to rise from 18,000 towards the levels of Bosnia or Sudan?

International law should not be conflated with doing the right thing, and the victims of Houla and countless other places in Syria, require that for once, we protect them, rather than protecting a discredited, immoral international political system. The Arab Spring has shown that ordinary citizens rising up in pursuit of freedom and democracy can topple nefarious regimes. The ferocity of Assad's response indicates his deep fear of the unstoppable, eternal urge of people to govern their own destiny and live in dignity. Facing down cynical, brutal evil has never been easy and will not be this time. We owe the innocent civilians of Syria our support, for their sake, and in defence of the principle that the rights of ordinary people must prevail.

John Slinger is chair of Pragmatic Radicalism and blogs at Slingerblog. He was formerly researcher to Ann Clwyd MP (accompanying her to Baghdad in 2005 & 2006 when she was the Prime Minister's Special Envoy to Iraq on Human Rights).

Twitter: @JohnSlinger

Members of the Free Syrian Army's Commandos Brigade near Qusayr, nine miles from Homs. Photograph: Getty Images.

John Slinger is chair of Pragmatic Radicalism and blogs at Slingerblog.

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Is this the beginning of the end for Northern Ireland’s abortion ban?

A High Court ruling has found it to be “incompatible with human rights law”.

A High Court judge has today ruled that Northern Ireland’s ban on abortion constitutes a breach of human rights. Belfast High Court Judge Justice Horner has said that the province cannot justify its continued ban, which refuses terminations in all circumstances unless a woman’s life is in danger, proclaiming it “incompatible with human rights law”.

The Court has recommended that exemptions to the ban be allowed for women who have conceived as a result of rape or incest, as well as women carrying foetuses with such severe abnormalities or disabilities that they will not survive outside the womb.

As it stands, the most recent legislation on abortion relating to the province is the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, passed under Queen Victoria. Unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland was exempt from the 1967 Abortion Act which legalised terminations for women in England, Scotland and Wales. 

At least 1,000 women travel from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK to have abortions every year. The judge ruled that it was inconsistent for Northern Irish women to be denied abortions locally but for the law to permit the same women to travel to access services. He said: “If it is morally wrong to abort a foetus in Northern Ireland, it is just as wrong morally to abort the same foetus in England. It does not protect morals to export the problem to another jurisdiction and then turn a blind eye.”

Rather, Justice Horner said that forcing women to go abroad caused women to suffer undue emotional distress and financial hardship, without in any way reducing the number of pregnancies or abortions undertaken by local women: “There is no evidence before this Court, and the Court has in no way attempted to restrict the evidence adduced by any party, that the law in Northern Ireland has resulted in any reduction in the number of abortions obtained by Northern Irish women. Undoubtedly, it will have placed these women who had to have their abortions in England under greater stress, both financial and emotional, by forcing them to have the termination carried out away from home.” 

He noted that travelling abroad was only realistically an option for wealthy women as the entire process can cost up to £2,000, whilst the poorest women were forced to continue pregnancies: “That smacks of one law for the rich and one law for the poor.”

Finally regarding victims of sexual crimes such as rape and incest, the judge ruled: “She [a victim] has to face all the dangers and problems, emotional or otherwise, of carrying a foetus for which she bears no moral responsibility and is merely a receptacle to carry the child of a rapist and/or a person who has committed incest, or both... The law makes no attempt to balance the rights of the women that are involved.” 

The pronouncement has shocked many in Northern Ireland, where religious communities remain strong. Undoubtedly there will be backlash amongst churches and anti-abortion campaign groups. Attorney General John Larkin is outspoken in his opposition to abortion and has previously described the procedure as akin to shooting a baby. Speaking this morning in response to the ruling, he said he was “profoundly disappointed” and is considering appealing the decision. 

A spokesperson for Amnesty International, who have backed the court case, said that the campaign group are awaiting clarification as to whether new legislation would need to be passed by Stormont to incorporate today’s ruling, or if the ruling alone will be enough to legalise terminations for rape victims, incest victims and severe disability. Stormont remains vehemently opposed to abortion on demand, with Sinn Fein stating that abortion in some circumstances is acceptable. If today’s High Court ruling alone is not enough to affect local laws, it is highly unlikely that Stormont will act on the decision. 

Yet, the High Court’s clear message today cannot be ignored. When Stormont most likely refuses to enact it over the coming months, then the House of Commons might find themselves with an ethical obligation to intervene. Westminster has long refused to get involved in the debate, citing the principle of devolution that Northern Ireland gets to have the ultimate say over its own laws. However, as of today, human rights abuses are officially being committed against British citizens through the Northern Irish abortion ban, which would make for a legally compelling case for Westminster intervention.