It is not enough for the west to punish Syria's use of chemical weapons alone

The stance taken by the US and the UK fails those vulnerable to 'conventional' slaughter and emboldens murderous regimes present and future.

It appears that, belatedly, the US, UK, France and their allies have concluded that a limited military attack on Syria is necessary to punish what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the "moral obscenity" of Assad’s chemical weapons attack in Ghouta last week. Already western policy-makers are making the case for action that does not require explicit UN authorisation, causing predictable anguish for many who will see yet another dangerous, unilateral intervention. But the true danger, for those whose anguish is measured not in column inches or Newsnight debates, but in mortal danger, lies not in bypassing the moribund and morally-flawed UN Security Council, but in framing the justification for action so narrowly.

This intervention will be spun by our leaders as an act of moral strength, but this is only half true. Kerry's powerful, heartfelt entreaty that "the cause of our common humanity" requires "accountability" for the use of chemical weapons, could mask a devastating corollary: that the US and broader international community will tolerate crimes against humanity carried out using conventional weapons. Our Prime Minister offers an even more narrowly defined casus belli, saying "this is not about wars in the Middle East, this is not even about Syria. It’s about the use of chemical weapons and making sure as a world we deter their use." This fails those vulnerable to 'conventional' slaughter and emboldens evil regimes present and future, which might now calculate that 100,000 'conventional' deaths will be tolerated, especially if they have a UNSC ally, yet 1,000 WMD deaths will be punished.

Another problem concerns the apparent Damascene conversion of William Hague and his counterparts to the view that, as many proponents of intervention have long argued, it is "possible to respond to chemical weapons without complete unity on the UN Security Council...to take action based on great humanitarian need and humanitarian crisis". Hague’s volte-face on the fallacy of equating UNSC authorisation or lack thereof with moral rectitude is not the problem. It is that this newly ethical and assertive approach to international law is to be reserved exclusively for what he terms chemical weapons "outrages". On the surface we see moral strength in waiving a reliance on UNSC unanimity to pursue a clear ethical approach to an egregious crime. But underneath we should see punitive, not protective action.

Since so much recent commentary has focused on the blurring of President Obama’s 'red lines', the actual enforcement of them in the coming days will obscure the far more dangerous blurring of moral lines. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s statement indicates just how little has really changed: "What we are not considering is regime change, trying to topple the Assad regime, trying to settle the civil war in Syria one way or another. That needs to be settled through a political process." We find ourselves in the bizarre position of planning military action against a regime that Kerry asserts has offended the "conscience of the world" through its wicked use of chemical weapons against its own people yet, despite this, we pledge at the outset not to seek its removal from power. This is akin to punishing an assailant for having committed a heinous murder with a gun, but leaving him free to roam so long as future killings are carried out with a machete.

People should not be lulled into the sense that the world has grown up and learned to enforce its own basic rules, the most important being "the right to life, liberty and security of person" as stated in Article 3 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The red line of the use of chemical weapons should indeed be punished severely. But our moral assertiveness must not end there. There are much bigger red puddles of blood throughout Syria and across our world, which surely outrage our "common humanity". For the sake of victims of illegitimate, un-democratic, vicious regimes, it is vital that the "conscience of the world" does not cower behind artificial red lines, and wherever possible, takes action against all crimes against humanity.

A man wears a mask and holds banners reading 'Save Syrian People now!' on August 28, 2013 outside the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496