Ed Miliband's Commons statement on Syria: full text

"I do not rule out supporting the Prime Minister but I believe he has to make a better case than he did today".

I rise to move the amendment standing in the name of myself and my Right Honourable friends.

And I start by joining the Prime Minister in expressing revulsion at the killing of hundreds of innocent civilians in Ghouta on the 21 August.

This was a moral outrage and the international community is right to condemn it.

As the Prime Minister said, everyone in this House and most in the country will have seen the pictures of men, women and children gasping for breath and dying as a result of this heinous attack.

I can assure members of this House that the divide that exists does not exist over the condemnation of the use of chemical weapons and the fact that it breaches international law.

Nor does it lie in the willingness to condemn the regime of President Assad.

The question facing this House is what if any military action we should take and what criteria determines that decision and that’s what I want to focus on in my speech today.

And I think it’s right to say at the beginning of my remarks that the Prime Minister said a couple of times in his speech words to the effect of ‘we’re not going to get further involved in that conflict. This doesn’t change our stance on Syria’.

Now I’ve got to say to the Prime Minister, with the greatest respect, that is simply not the case.

For me that does not rule out military intervention – I want to be clear about this. But I don’t think anybody in this House or anybody in the country should be under any illusions about the effect of our relationship to the conflict in Syria if we were to militarily intervene.

Now as I say and as I will develop in my remarks, that does not for me rule out intervention, but I think we need to be clear-eyed about the impact that this would have.

Let me also say Mr Speaker that his is one of the most solemn duties that this House possesses.

And in our minds should be this simple question, which is upholding international law and legitimacy - how we can make the lives of the Syrian people better.

And we should also have in our minds the duty we owe to the exceptional men and women of our armed forces and their families who will face the direct consequences of any decision that we make.

The basis on which we make this decision is of fundamental importance, because the basis of making the decision determines the legitimacy and moral authority of any action that we undertake.

That is why our amendment asks this House to support a clear and legitimate road map to decision on this issue.

A set of steps which enable us to judge any recommended international action.

And I want to develop the argument of why this sequential road map is I believe the right thing for the House to support today.

Most of all, if we follow this road map, it can assure the country and the international community that if we take action we will follow the right, legitimate and legal course, not an artificial timetable or a political timetable set elsewhere and I think that is very very important to any decision that we make.

This is fundamental to the principles of Britain.

A belief in the rule of law.

A belief that any military action we take must be justified in terms of the cause and also the potential consequences.

And that we strain every sinew to make the international institutions that we have in our world work to deal with outrages such as the ones we have seen in Syria.

Let me turn to the conditions in our motion.

First, and this is where the Prime Minister and I now agree, we must let the UN weapons inspectors do their work and let them report to the UN Security Council.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, said yesterday about the weapons inspectors: “let them conclude their work for four days and then we will have to analyse scientifically with experts and then we will have to report to the Security Council for action.”

So the weapons inspectors are in the midst of their work and will be reporting in the coming days.

That is why today could not have been the day when the House should be asked to decide whether to take military action.

For this House, it is surely a basic point: Evidence should precede decision not decision precede evidence.

And I am glad that on reflection, the Prime Minister accepted this yesterday.

Now it is true the weapons inspectors cannot reach a judgement on the attribution of blame.

That is beyond their mandate.

Now some might think that makes their work essentially irrelevant.

I disagree.

If the UN weapons inspectors conclude that chemical weapons have been used, in the eyes of this country and the world, that confers legitimacy on the finding beyond the view of any individual country or any intelligence agency.

What is more, it is possible that what the weapons inspectors discover, could give the world greater confidence in identifying the perpetrators of this horrific attack.

The second step in our road map makes clear there needs to be compelling evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for the attacks.

I welcome the letter from the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee today and I note the Arab League’s view of President Assad’s culpability.

Of course, in conflict there is always reason for doubt.

But the greater the weight of evidence the better.

On Tuesday we were promised that there would be the release of American intelligence that there was proof of the regime’s culpability.

We await the publication of that evidence which I gather will be later today, but that evidence too will be important in building up the body of evidence that President Assad was responsible.

The third step is that in light of the weapons inspector’s findings and this other evidence, and as the Secretary General said, the UN Security Council should then debate what action should be taken and indeed should vote on action.

I have heard it suggested that we should have “a UN moment”.

They are certainly not my words.

They are words which do no justice to the seriousness with which we must take the United Nations.

The UN is not some inconvenient side-show.

And we don’t want to engineer a “moment”.

Instead, we want to adhere to the principles of international law.

I am also clear that it is incumbent on us to try to build the widest level of support among the fifteen members in the Security Council, whatever the intentions of particular countries.

The level of international support is vital should we decide to take military action.

It is vital in the eyes of the world. That is why it can’t be seen as some sideshow or some moment, but actually an essential part of building the case if intervention should take place.

There will be those who argue that in the event of Russia and China vetoing a Security Council Resolution then any military action would necessarily not be legitimate.

I understand that view. But I don’t agree with it.

Because I believe if a proper case is made, then there is scope in international law, our fourth condition, for action to be taken even without a chapter VII Security Council resolution.

Kosovo in 1999 is the precedent cited in the Prime Minister’s speech and in the Attorney General’s legal advice.

The Prime Minister didn’t go in much detail of the Attorney General’s legal advice, but it is worth noting that in the Attorney’s legal advice he has three conditions:

Convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as whole, of extreme humanitarian distress.

Objectively clear there is no practical alternative to the use of force, if lives are to be saved.

And the proposed use of force must be proportionate and strictly limited in time.

So the Attorney concludes in his advice, and it is very important for the House to understand this, that there could be circumstances in the absence of a Chapter VII Security Council resolution for action to be taken, but subject to those three conditions. And that is the case that must be built in the coming period.

These principles reflect the Responsibility to Protect, a doctrine developed since Kosovo which commands widespread support.

Additionally, the Responsibility to Protect also demands a reasonable prospect of success in improving the plight of the Syrian people.

The Responsibility to Protect is an essential part of making this case.

This takes me to the final point of the roadmap.

Any military action must be specifically designed to deter the future use of chemical weapons.

It must be time limited, with specific purpose and scope, so that future action would require further recourse to this House.

And it must have regard for the consequences of any action.

We must ensure that every effort is made to bring the civil war in Syria to an end.

The principal responsibility for that of course rests with the parties in that conflict, and in particular President Assad.

But the international community also has a duty to do everything it can to support the Geneva 2 process.

And any action we take must assist this process and not hinder it.

That is the responsibility that lies on the Government and its allies to set out this case.

There will be some in this House who say that Britain should not contemplate action because we do not know precisely the consequences that will follow.

I am not with those who rule out action.

The horrific events unfolding in Syria rightly prompt us to consider all the options.

But we owe it to the Syrian people, to our own country, and to the future security of our world, to scrutinise any plans on the basis of the consequences that they have.

By setting this framework today, we give ourselves the time and space to actually scrutinise what is being proposed by this Government to see what the implications are.

I do not believe we should be rushed to judgement.

In the coming days the Government has a responsibility to build on the case it has set out today.

I do not rule out supporting the Prime Minister but I believe he has to make a better case than he did today on this question and frankly he cannot say to the House and to the country this does not change our stance on Syria, this does not change our involvement in the Syrian conflict, because frankly it would and we all have a duty to assess it.

Our amendment sets out a road map from evidence to decision that I believe can command the confidence of the House and the British public.

And crucially it places responsibility for the judgement about the achievement of the criteria for action – reporting by the weapons inspectors, compelling evidence, vote in the Security Council, legal base and time limited and proportionate and successful action - with this House in a subsequent vote.

I hope the House can unite today around our amendment today because I believe it captures a shared view on all sides of this House both about our anger at the attack witnessed on innocent civilians and also a coherent framework for making the decision on how we respond.

We’re not going to be supporting a Government motion which was briefed this morning setting out an ‘in principle’ decision to take military action. It would be the wrong thing to do and on that basis we will oppose the motion.

We could only support military action when the conditions of the amendment are met and if they are met.

We all know that stability cannot be achieved by military means alone.

Let me end by saying this: the continued turmoil in the country and the region in the recent months and years further demonstrate the need for stability across the region - to protect the innocent civilians involved, and uphold the national interest and the security and future prosperity of the whole region and world.

I am sure the whole House recognises that this will not and cannot be achieved through a military solution.

Whatever our disagreements today, we on this side of the House stand ready to play our part in supporting measures to improve the prospects for peace in Syria and the Middle East.

It is what the people of Britain and the world have the right to expect.

But this is a very grave decision which should be treated as such by this House and will be treated as such by this country

In the end the fundamental test will be this: as we think about the men, women and children who have been subjected to this terrible atrocity, and we think about the prospects for other citizens in Syria, can the international community act in a lawful and legitimate way that will help them, that will prevent further suffering?

The seriousness of our deliberations should match the significance of the decision we face.

And that is why I urge this House to support our amendment today.

Ed Miliband attends the launch of mental health charity MindFull on 5 July 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Where Labour has no chance, hold your nose and vote Lib Dem

May's gamble, MacKenzie's obsession and Wisden obituaries - Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

In 2007 Gordon Brown allowed rumours to circulate that he would call an early general election for the spring of 2008. When he failed to do so, he was considered a coward and a ditherer and never recovered. Theresa May has tried a different strategy. After firmly denying that she would call an early election and killing off speculation about one, she suddenly announced an election after all. Will this work better for her than the opposite worked for Brown?

The Prime Minister risks being seen as a liar and an opportunist. Her demand for “unity” at Westminster is alarming, because it suggests that there is no role for opposition parties on the most important issue of the day. If Labour and the Lib Dems are smart enough to co-operate sufficiently to rally the country against what looks like an attempt to instal an authoritarian, right-wing Tory regime, May, even if she wins the election, could find herself weakened, not strengthened. I never thought I would write this but, in constituencies where Labour has no chance, its supporters should hold their noses and vote Lib Dem.

Taken for granted

I wonder if May, before she took her decision, looked at the precedents of prime ministers who called unnecessary elections when they already had comfortable parliamentary majorities. In 1974, after three and a half years in office, Edward Heath, with a Tory majority of 30, called a “Who runs Britain?” election during a prolonged dispute with the miners. He lost. In 1923, Stanley Baldwin, a new Tory leader sitting on a majority of 75 obtained by his predecessor just a year earlier, called an election because he wished to introduce tariffs, an issue strikingly similar to the one raised by Brexit. He also lost. The lesson, I think (and hope), is that prime ministers take the electorate for granted at their peril.

China’s long game

Commentators compare the crisis ­involving North Korea and the US with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It doesn’t feel that way to me. For several days that year, nuclear war seemed, to my 17-year-old mind, all but inevitable. I went to the cinema one afternoon and felt surprise when I emerged three hours later to find the world – or, at least, the city of Leicester – going about its business as normal. Two nuclear powers were in direct confrontation. The US threatened to invade communist Cuba to remove Soviet missiles and blockaded the island to prevent deliveries of more weapons. Soviet ships sailed towards the US navy. It wasn’t easy to imagine a compromise, or who would broker one. Nobody doubted that the two sides’ weapons would work. The Soviet Union had carried out nearly 200 nuclear tests. North Korea has claimed just five.

For all the talk of intercontinental missiles, North Korea at present isn’t a credible threat to anybody except possibly its neighbours, and certainly not to the US or Britain. It is in no sense a geopolitical or economic rival to the US. Donald Trump, who, like everybody else, finds the Middle East infernally complicated, is looking for an easy, short-term victory. The Chinese will probably arrange one for him. With 3,500 years of civilisation behind them, they are accustomed to playing the long game.

Mussel pains

Whenever I read Kelvin MacKenzie’s columns in the Sun, I find him complaining about the size of mussels served by the Loch Fyne chain, a subject on which he happens to be right, though one wonders why he doesn’t just order something else. Otherwise, he writes badly and unfunnily, often aiming abuse at vulnerable people such as benefit claimants. It’s a new departure, however, to insult someone because they were on the receiving end of what MacKenzie calls “a nasty right-hander”, apparently unprovoked, in a Liverpool nightclub. He called the victim, the Everton and England footballer Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, “one of our dimmest footballers” and likened him to “a gorilla at the zoo”.
The paper has suspended MacKenzie, a former Sun editor, and Merseyside Police is investigating him for racism, though he claims he didn’t know of Barkley’s ancestry.

Several commentators express amazement that Sun editors allowed such tripe to be published. It was not, I think, a mistake. Britain has no equivalent of America’s successful alt-right Breitbart website, disruptively flinging insults at all and sundry and testing the boundaries of what it calls “political correctness”, because our alt right is already established in the Sun, Express and Mail. To defend their position, those papers will continue to be as nasty as it takes.

Over and out

Easter is the time to read the cricket annual Wisden and, as usual, I turn first to the obituaries. Unlike newspaper obituaries, they record failures as well as successes – those who managed just a few undistinguished performances in first-class cricket and, most poignantly, some who promised much but died early. We learn of a 22-year-old Indian who, during demonstrations against the alleged molestation of a schoolgirl, was shot dead by police and whose grieving mother (invoking the name of one of India’s greatest batsmen) cried, “Bring my Gavaskar back!” In England, two young men drowned, having played one first-class match each, and a 22-year-old Sussex fast bowler, described as “roguish” and “enormously popular”, fell off a roof while celebrating New Year with friends in Scotland. In South Africa, a young batsman was among five municipal employees killed when their truck crashed; the local mayor fled the funeral as his workmates “chanted menacingly” about unpaid wages.

Among the better-known deaths is that of Martin Crowe, probably New Zealand’s best batsman. In a Test match, he once got out on 299 and reckoned the near-miss contributed to the cancer that killed him at 53. “It tore at me like a vulture pecking dead flesh,” he said. Cricket can do that kind of thing to you. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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