Labour and Humanitarian Military Intervention – First, Do No Harm

With Syria at war, Iran threatening to explode (literally) and stalemate in Afghanistan it is overdue for the Labour Party to define its position on humanitarian military intervention. Universally, doctors follow the principle of primum non nocere “first do no harm” as to matters of medical intervention. I propose we adopt that as our lodestar too. Just as misguided surgery and drug therapy can make the patient worse, an ill-conceived war can leave a country equally poisonous and scarred.

Leaving aside wars to defend our shores (WWW 2) or our citizens abroad (Falklands) and wars to liberate sovereign territory from occupation (Kuwait 1991, East Timor 1999) I am addressing the increase in “humanitarian military interventions” that originated with the Balkans in the 90’s.

The Military Intervention Legitimacy Test I would like to see become Labour policy is as follows:

1)      Transparently articulated and evidenced reasons for intervention.

2)      Unequivocal compliance with international law freely confirmed by legal officers.

3)      Clearly defined and feasibly achieved military and political objectives.

4)      Delineated limits to the extent of engagement.

5)      A plan for conducting eventual withdrawal from engagement and for post-war relations.

Clause 1 excludes hidden ulterior (non-humanitarian) motives such as business dividends e.g. Vice President Cheney’s old employer Halliburton mopping up contracts in Iraq, President Sarkozy’s pre-war deal with Libya’s NTC guaranteeing 35% of new oil contracts to French firms. Clause 2 will draw international support instead of the division within and opprobrium outside the UK e.g. in the absence of a second Security Council resolution over Iraq. Clause 3 will prevent mission creep (or disguised plots to effect regime-change) by specifying in advance whether a ceasefire, permanent truce, disarmament, stepping down of an individual, partition or internationally monitored elections is the goal. The deliberate ambiguity of the resolution over Libya “all necessary means to protect civilians” being one example. Clause 4 prevents public approval for logistical support, intelligence, arms supplies or training morphing without consent into boots on the ground. Clause 5 protects our armed forces from being sucked into open-ended deployment, with unplanned escalating financial cost and worse, unnecessary exposure to disabling or fatal danger of British troops e.g. in Afghanistan.

This does not discount Regime Change as an honourable objective of military intervention. However such a policy would be subject to

6)      Where regime change is the purpose, this should be made explicit in advance and only take place in support of a united opposition with popular support wedded to democratic values and committed to equal rights for women and religious and ethnic minorities.

The above criteria would still justify the SAS restoring Sierra Leone’s deposed elected President Kabbah in 2002 and NATO’s Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia Herzegovina in 1995. But it would have excluded arming the Afghan Mujahideen in the 80’s which led to the toxic stew of warlords, Taliban, al-Qaida, civil war and corruption still claiming victims today. It would have kept us out of Iraq in 2003 but allowed for an intervention that tragically never happened, in Rwanda in 1994.

Most relevantly it stops us getting militarily involved in Syria and repeating the mistake the party made supporting fighting in Libya. That patient has been made worse: MSF and AI report 8600 mainly black Africans illegally detained in Tripoli and Misrata prisons suffering torture; the NTC  appointed 42 male ministers and one woman and refuses to help the Met investigate the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher; the Zintan militia has jailed 4 officials of the ICC; the Kikla militia occupied the offices of Prime Minister Keib to extort money; Health Ministry envoy Dr. Salem Forjani was tortured by Supreme Security Committee in Tripoli and the UK Ambassador attacked with RPG’s in Benghazi. While 500 militias vie for power, the East claims autonomy from the West and the leader of Tripoli’s Military Council, Abdelhakim Belhadj runs the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group previously banned by the UN as an al-Qaida affiliate. MI5 chief Jonathan Evans describes the post-revolution situation as “a more permissive environment” for Islamic terrorist groups.

Pertinently, the same Saudi Arabia who quartermasters the Free Syrian Army sent tanks to put down Bahrain’s protesters, choices predicated on Sunni / Shia polarities not the moral values on which humanitarian intervention must be based.

I am not advocating the “Splendid Isolation” of Disraeli but given that a no-fly zone can turn into a city bombed to rubble at a button’s push, a mission to liquidate one terrorist group drag into a 11 year war, Labour needs to establish clear criteria before we abandon diplomacy backed by economic and political sanctions, and ever again send British servicemen and women to kill and to die thousands of miles from home.

More from LabourList