So will the UK government make a habit of by-passing MPs when contemplating future military action?
On 16 April Theresa May came to the House of Commons to answer questions about the air-strikes she and her Cabinet authorised against Syrian targets on the 14th.
It’s a wonder she didn’t arrive by abseiling onto the roof of Parliament from a helicopter. Or, in the style of the Iron Lady, driving through the gates at the helm of a Challenger tank, chiffon scarf fluttering in the Westminster breeze.
Her party whips had been busy. An army of Conservative puppets danced to a rehearsed tune with plenty of carefully scripted questions. The situation was a minefield but nobody planted a truly high explosive charge in Mrs May’s path. Just a handful of harmless thunder flashes were lobbed. She was not held to account. And she came through it looking much more confident than when she faced the press on 14 April.
She started proceedings with this statement:
Let me set this out in detail: we support strongly the work of the OPCW [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] fact-finding mission that is currently in Damascus, but that mission is only able to make an assessment of whether chemical weapons were used. Even if the OPCW team is able to visit Douma to gather information to make that assessment – and it is currently being prevented from doing so by the regime and the Russians – it cannot attribute responsibility. This is because Russia vetoed, in November 2017, an extension of the joint investigatory mechanism set up to do this, and last week, in the wake of the Douma attack, it again vetoed a new UNSC [United Nations Security Council] resolution to re-establish such a mechanism… For as long as Russia continued to veto the UN Security Council would still not be able to act. So we cannot wait to alleviate further humanitarian suffering caused by chemical weapons attacks.
Secondly, were we not just following orders from America? Let me be absolutely clear: we have acted because it is in our national interest to do so. It is in our national interest to prevent the further use of chemical weapons in Syria and to uphold and defend the global consensus that these weapons should not be used, for we cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised – within Syria, on the streets of the UK or elsewhere.
So we have not done this because President Trump asked us to; we have done it because we believed it was the right thing to do. And we are not alone. Over the weekend I have spoken to a range of world leaders… All have expressed their support for the actions that Britain, France and America have taken.
Thirdly, why did we not recall Parliament? The speed with which we acted was essential in co-operating with our partners to alleviate further humanitarian suffering and to maintain the vital security of our operations. This was a limited, targeted strike on a legal basis that has been used before. And it was a decision that required the evaluation of intelligence and information, much of which was of a nature that could not be shared with Parliament. We have always been clear that the Government have the right to act quickly in the national interest. I am absolutely clear, Mr Speaker, that it is Parliament’s responsibility to hold me to account for such decisions, and Parliament will do so. But it is my responsibility as prime minster to make these decisions – and I will make them.
She went on to assure MPs that the military action “was not about intervening in the civil war in Syria or about regime change”.
In reply, Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn said:
I believe that the action was legally questionable, and on Saturday [14 April] the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, said as much, reiterating that all countries must act in line with the United Nations charter, which states that action must be in self-defence or be authorised by the United Nations Security Council. The prime minister has assured us that the attorney-general had given clear legal advice approving the action. I hope the prime minister will now publish this advice in full today.
As regards the disputed humanitarian intervention doctrine he remarked:
The foreign secretary said yesterday that these strikes would have no bearing on the civil war. The prime minister has reiterated that today by saying that this is not what these military strikes were about. Does, for example, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen entitle other countries to arrogate to themselves the right to bomb Saudi airfields or its positions in Yemen, especially given its use of banned cluster bombs and white phosphorus? Three United Nations agencies said in January that Yemen was the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, so will the prime minister today commit to ending support to the Saudi bombing campaign and arms sales to Saudi Arabia?
Given that neither the UN nor the OPCW has yet investigated the Douma attack, it is clear that diplomatic and non-military means have not been fully exhausted.
The problem [regarding Douma] is that the investigation is being stopped. The regime and the Russians are preventing the OPCW from investigating. Moreover, again, the regime has reportedly been attempting to conceal the evidence by searching evacuees from Douma to ensure that they are not taking out of the region samples that could be tested elsewhere, and a wider operation to conceal the facts of the attack is under way, supported by the Russians…
I think it important that this was a joint international effort. The strikes were carefully targeted, and proper analysis was carried out to ensure that they were targeted at sites that were relevant to the chemical weapons capability of the regime. We did this to alleviate further human suffering…
MPs from all sides then piled in, as called by the Speaker.
Hostile questioning was generally too polite, causing May little discomfort. I missed many of the contributions while yawning, but there were some that I thought worth passing on.
Sir Nicholas Soames, Churchill’s grandson, asked:
My Right Hon. Friend will agree that the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances, is illegal, contrary to all the laws of war and utterly reprehensible. Will she therefore confirm that the government will at a later date seek the arraignment at an international court of those who instigate these vile acts, whoever they may be?
Soames is pro-Palestinian and a sharp critic of Israel, so the thrust was obvious. But she sidestepped it, replying:
My Right Hon. Friend is absolutely right about the illegality of the use of chemical weapons and the impact of their use. We believe that those who are responsible should be held to account.
But, clearly, her government would be doing no such thing.
There are many Conservatives and Labourites in the House who voted for the Iraq war and are still too dim to repent or learn the simple lesson. They and many newcomers queued up to express support for the bombing. Among them was glamorous Priti Patel (Witham, Conservative) who, only six months ago as former international development secretary, had numerous meetings with Israeli politicians (including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his security minister) during a family holiday in Israel without telling the Foreign Office, her civil servants or her boss Theresa May, and without government officials present – a gross breach of security.
There are many Conservatives and Labourites in the House who voted for the Iraq war and are still too dim to repent or learn the simple lesson.
She now seems anxious to rehabilitate herself in the corridors of power. “There are no words to describe the appalling nature of the humanitarian disaster that confronts Syria,” she told May, “which is why I commend my Right Hon. Friend for the strong action that she has taken and the support she is giving to the Syrian people. Will she assure the House that in the face of the abhorrent abuses perpetrated by the Assad regime, hers will continue to be a strong voice in favour of the international rules-based system, and will she show that Britain will not stand idly by when cruel weapons are used to murder innocent children and families?”
Patel had toured the Golan Heights (Syrian territory stolen in 1967 by the Israelis and illegally occupied ever since) with the thieving occupation army – another monumental diplomatic blunder. So this avid Israel stooge has little concern for international rules. Fellow stooge May managed to leave open the option to continue idly ignoring Israel’s crimes. “We will ensure that our voice is heard. It is absolutely right that it was the right thing to do and was in our national interest, but it is also important that we are standing up for that international rules-based order and continue to do so.” Words are cheap; we never see action.
Other MPs were suspicious of May’s I-did-it-my-way act. Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion, Green) challenged her on the point that the legal basis relies on there having been no practicable alternative. She enquired whether the UK had asked the OPCW to inspect the Him Shinsar and Barzeh sites. The prime minister responded: “We have been very clear that we would like it to be possible for the OPCW to investigate sites in Syria, for there to be proper identification of the chemical weapons and for there to be proper accountability for the use of those chemical weapons.”
Caroline Lucas: “Did you ask?”
May: Last Tuesday at the United Nations Security Council, there was going to be a proposal and resolution that would have enabled a proper investigative mechanism to be re-introduced to look at the use of chemical weapons and at what chemical weapons were available in Syria and held by the regime and at their capabilities and to be able to ascertain accountability for those chemical weapons? That draft resolution was vetoed by Russia.
That’s not quite how I read the UN’s own account of the situation. However…
Laura Pidcock (North West Durham, Labour) wanted to know whether the prime minister was planning to use executive powers again with regard to military action in Syria – in breach of the commonly understood parliamentary protocol that would have given the House a say in a matter of war. She said:
There is clear opposition from British people to air strikes, and I think the public are right to be sceptical, so will the prime minister also explain how air strikes have improved the safety and security of Syrian people practically, when we are aware that the bombing and violence is continuing unabated throughout the region?
The strikes that took place were about degrading the chemical weapons capability of the Syrian regime… the assessment we have made is that the strikes were successful… It is by degrading its chemical weapons capability that we can have an impact and ensure that we are reducing the likelihood of the humanitarian suffering in the future.
Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West, SNP):
The policy paper on the UK government’s legal position says the UK is permitted under international law, on an exceptional basis, to take measures in order to alleviate overwhelming humanitarian suffering. It does not, however, cite any authority for that proposition: it does not quote the UN charter, and it does not refer to any Security Council resolution nor any international treaty of any kind. Will the prime minister tell us why that proposition is unvouched for in the policy paper?
The basis on which we undertook this action is one that has been accepted by governments previously and one under which previous action has been taken. I believe that it continues to be the right basis for ensuring that we can act to alleviate humanitarian suffering, and I would have thought the alleviation of humanitarian suffering was something that should gain support from across the whole House.
Fiona Onasanya (Peterborough, Labour) quoted the prime minister from her statement that she was “confident in our own assessment that the Syrian regime was highly likely responsible”. Surely, she asked, “the burden of proof should be beyond reasonable doubt, as opposed to being ‘highly likely’?” In addition, she said, “I would be interested to know who ‘we’ are, given that Parliament was not consulted.”
May replied: “The government made their assessments. Those were not just the view of the UK government; they were shared by our allies and on that basis we acted.”
Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun, SNP) was quite bold:
So far today the prime minister has ducked out of questions about Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world – Yemen – and she has not answered why she did not wait until the outcome of the OPCW inspections. She has not explained why a parliamentary recall would jeopardise the action that President Trump had already tweeted about. She has not answered about providing further humanitarian assistance and additional support for refugees, and yet she talks about parliamentary scrutiny. How is a statement after the event parliamentary scrutiny when she will not answer any hard questions?
To which the Prime Minister replied: “The Hon. Gentleman talks about me not answering questions on refugees, but I have done so, or on the OPCW, but I have done so. I have answered many questions… ”
David Duguid (Banff and Buchan, Conservative) gave her a friendly lob: “Can my Right Hon. Friend reassure the House that, contrary to claims over the weekend, there is no evidence that any British defence export products have ended up in the wrong hands in Syria?”
The prime minister: “I can certainly give my Hon. Friend that assurance.”
But is it true?
Attempt to rein in wayward prime ministers
For the record, the policy paper published by May’s government setting out the case for military intervention states:
The UK is permitted under international law, on an exceptional basis, to take measures in order to alleviate overwhelming humanitarian suffering. The legal basis for the use of force is humanitarian intervention, which requires three conditions to be met:
(i) there is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;
(ii) it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved; and
(iii) the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian suffering and must be strictly limited in time and in scope to this aim (i.e. the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose).
Of course, this could just as easily apply to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where nearly 2 million starving people have been under the cosh of Israel’s vicious blockade and bombardments for more than 10 years. Or in Yemen. But UK parliamentarians and US Congressmen would wet themselves at any thought of air strikes against the despicable regimes they are in bed with.
May denied that she took orders from Trump yet had seemed desperate to fit in with Trump’s timetable and jump the gun on the OPCW inspectors’ reports. And she could easily have recalled Parliament during the week leading up to the strike had she wanted to.
The next day, 17 April, in an emergency debate secured by Corbyn, MPs discussed Parliament’s role in (and exclusion from) approving military action in Syria. Corbyn used the occasion to accuse the prime minister of by-passing Parliament, saying she had “tossed aside” the precedent set by the 2003 Iraq War vote because it was “inconvenient”, and it was now time for Parliament to “assert its authority” over UK military action and take back control. Otherwise, he said, authorising air strikes without Parliament’s approval, if it became the norm, could lead to more dangerous action in the future.
Corbyn called for a new War Powers Act that would require Parliament to be consulted on military intervention. Mrs May reacted angrily to suggestions that Donald Trump had been given more say in Britain’s part in the air-strike than the UK Parliament.
At the end of the debate, MPs voted in favour of a woolly motion that they had “considered Parliament’s rights in relation to the approval of military action by British forces overseas”, which of course moves us no further forward.
May was buffeted by the Syrian bombing affair but escaped the severe mauling she deserved. Within the Westminster bubble she emerges unscathed. Only time and the truth about Douma and Salisbury (when it is eventually known) will tell whether she can get away with it in the outside world.