Labour must ensure civilian protection is at the heart of its foreign policy – no matter how difficult the circumstances

26th January, 2017 7:00 am

civil war in Syria under President Assad

The question of what is right when it comes to military intervention is a familiar area of debate within the Labour movement, and with good reason. No decision to introduce military force into a country should ever be taken lightly, and the consequences of such actions should be considered with great caution.

However, certain examples, such as the cases of Kosovo and Sierra Leone, clearly demonstrate that intervention can save lives, and in the face of mass atrocities – such as genocide and ethnic cleansing – we must not forget our country’s commitment to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Across the globe today, armed conflict continues to have a devastating impact, with innocent victims paying the biggest price; and despite assertions from anti-interventionists that western interference would not help in such cases, it must be understood that the message behind inaction speaks just as loudly as that of action. With inaction, however, those suffering through the most horrific circumstances hear us say “We are not coming to help, no matter how brutal your oppressors are, no matter how many children’s lives are taken from them.”

In Syria, hundreds of thousands have been murdered by the regime and its allies since the peaceful uprising began almost six years ago, with Assad and associated forces most recently continuing their bombardment on civilians in Wadi Barada, despite a proclaimed ceasefire. In Yemen, UK-made weapons are being used by the Saudi regime to target civilians and civilian infrastructure in a conflict which has now seen up to an estimated 10,000 innocent people killed. In South Sudan, violence between Kiir’s government and opposition forces loyal to Machar has led to civilian massacre, with the UN estimating at least 50,000 deaths. These are merely a few examples of the scale of atrocities being committed today. As mentioned, no decision to introduce military force should be taken lightly; but once all other options have been exhausted, how can we turn our backs on those who, without our help, face extermination?

It is understandable that the Iraq war has led to widespread concern around British intervention. But we cannot allow the circumstances associated with Iraq to eclipse the circumstances in, for example, Syria. Such confusion around the differences between invading a country, and intervening in a war that is already happening in the interest of civilian protection, must be corrected and challenged. Western inaction in Syria, following the vote in the House of Commons in 2013 on our military response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people, has allowed such abhorrent war crimes in the country to continue unabated. That we failed to challenge a brutal dictator, leading a campaign to wipe out the Syrian population, resulted in devastating and far-reaching consequences, and that must never be forgotten.

That is not to suggest that we shouldn’t learn from our past mistakes. Intervening to prevent further atrocities is often not enough, and as part of our responsibility to protect, we must also recognise our responsibility to rebuild. The end of war does not mean the beginning of peace, and the example of the 2011 Nato intervention in Libya, while clearly necessary to protect civilians from immediate danger, witnessed our failure to support state building and civil society in the period afterwards, allowing the country to collapse into chaos. It is imperative that we acknowledge such risks when debating military force and ensure an effective post-intervention strategy is always in place.

In discussing intervention, the Labour Party must consider that we, as a movement, should instinctively stand in solidarity with the oppressed. Abandoning our commitment to R2P, and militantly adhering to anti-interventionist rhetoric in the face of war crimes, serves only to strengthen the oppressor. We must remember Britain’s commitment to civilian protection, the necessity of which is outlined by a statement from Labour Campaign for International Development, which MPs are signing today. The statement serves as a reminder of our internationalist values, and shows that we value humanity; that if, and when, a leader or government abuses their position to carry out mass atrocities, we will not sit back and allow it to happen. More than 50 MPs from across the Labour Party have signed the statement so far, and you can view it here.

In addition, a report being released today by Policy Exchange, which Jo Cox began work on before her tragic death, and Alison McGovern assisted in finishing alongside Tom Tugendhat, highlights the cost of inaction, and the importance of taking responsibility in conflict situations to save lives. Such voices in support of internationalist values are necessary; particularly now, in the face of Brexit and a Trump presidency, at a time when isolationist arguments are fighting to occupy the political spotlight. There is a greater need, now more than ever, to speak out in solidarity with those suffering worldwide, and the Labour Party must ensure that civilian protection is always at the centre of its foreign policy, no matter how difficult the circumstances may be.

Edie Fairservice is secretary of the Labour Campaign for International Development. The Cost of Doing Nothing: the price of inaction in the face of mass atrocities is published today based on work begun by Jo Cox (1974-2016) and Tom Tugendhat and completed by Alison McGovern and Tom Tugendhat.

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