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.