Mark Brophy

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The Smokescreen of Legality


David Cameron has recalled Parliament, to meet on Friday on the question of whether to take part in the bombing of ISIS/ISIL forces in Iraq by a US-led gang of nations. Ed Miliband, leader of the Opposition, has indicated that the Labour party will support UK forces involvement in bombing raids on Iraq, though not yet in Syria where the terror group are also heavily involved.

Miliband has apparently stated that he requires a resolution to be tabled at the UN Security Council approving this, but by the most tortuous of logical tricks neither do Labour require that resolution to actually pass a vote. Chief in Miliband’s reasoning appears to be the legality of such a move therefore, or rather the appearance of it. Miliband deserves credit for his brave and principled stance a year ago on refusing to allow the bombing of Assad in Syria but this bears all the hallmarks of the worst of the buildup to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. A case is being constructed and so long as everything bears the superficial appearance of legality, the actual legality is neither here nor there. Just as then, when dodgy dossiers were tweaked and false claims made of impending threats to make an aggressive attack appear legal, we’re being fed the existence of a UN resolution as enough to satisfy the requirements of law, whether or not the UN actually vote for it or not.

Miliband’s derailing of last year’s rush to war in Syria presents him with a problem now. Hugh Robertson MP, a foreign office minister at the time of that vote in 2013, was vocal today in claiming that not attacking Assad then was a mistake. He claimed that we appeared weak in not attacking and that Assad took advantage of the reprieve to wipe out moderate opponents, which in turn left a space for ISIS/ISIL to fill. So by this reasoning Miliband was directly responsible for the rise of ISIS/ISIL in the region. Ignore for a moment that this is an alternate reality version of events. It’s clear that if Miliband doesn’t support this attack he is in danger of being painted as having the attribute considered most contemptible for any national leader: pacifism.

Part of the constructed justification is sought in the fact that the Iraqi government have requested military assistance from the UK and others, which supposedly means that no UN resolution is required anyway. It’s an interesting premise. It’ll be even more interesting to see if it still applies the next time Bahrain, for instance, invite intervention by the Saudi military to suppress internal protesters who the Bahrain government feel threaten their position.

Another justification is if there is a humanitarian emergency, and if that is so then no UN resolution is required. This is by no means tried and tested international law anyway, but it is an unfortunate fact that although there certainly are horrific activities going on in Iraq they are not restricted to one side or the other. This would seem to prevent intervention on this basis unless it is to halt the fighting altogether rather than to wipe out one of the combatant parties which seems to be the proposed purpose that MPs will be voting on soon.

The reason Miliband is shying away from approving an attack on Syria as well as Iraq is that Bashar-al-Assad has not asked for help from anyone as yet. It’s inconvenient to point out right now that it was Assad who would have been destroyed by a western attack last year. Now it seems his government must be preserved by military intervention if necessary. In Geoffrey Robertson QC’s piece in the Independent linked above, he justifies the air strikes already delivered there by the US by saying that the Syrian state

“…has not complained and its consent to the attack on its most dangerous enemy can be inferred”

So not only can we attack by invitation, if that isn’t forthcoming we can do it via our own inferral of the invitation by the state involved. Who knows, perhaps Assad is wary of inviting the West into his country knowing as he does that there is no guarantee those forces would also leave on his request, and would rather fight his own battles?

In none of this is morality considered, what is right. Our nation has no justification for military intervention in another nation unless the community of nations agree collectively that it has to happen. Syria’s status as a Russian client is frequently listed as reason why the West shouldn’t rely on a vote at the UN, but surely this is the whole point of the veto. It ensures that one bloc cannot override another and only when all sides agree are the ultimate sanctions applied. The US are not the world’s policeman, and nor are we. Nor are either a contracting air force available to human rights abusers to enable them to wipe out opposition. We would all do well to remember that.


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