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.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

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