Friday, 30 August 2013

The Speech I gave last night

Both Motions by the government and Opposition setting out a road map for the UN Investigators and the UN involvement, and the need for a second vote by the Commons were defeated last night. I set out below the speech I gave in a long and difficult debate.
7:52 pm

Guy Opperman (Hexham, Conservative)
I am a former human rights and criminal lawyer who has worked in this country and abroad, and I want to address the legality of the process we face today. The effectiveness of chemical weapons is beyond doubt—that is why people want to use them. Their usage is a war crime and a humanitarian catastrophe, and I agree that the perpetrator, in any circumstance, should face justice.
It is a sad fact that all of our constituents are scarred by the Iraq and Afghanistan experience, which has poisoned the well of public confidence in so many ways. The public clearly lack confidence in our attempts at foreign policy. I know that the majority of my constituents in Northumberland and the majority of those in this House of Commons do not want to get involved in a civil war in Syria. Neither do I. I am clear that I have no desire for land forces or long-term involvement in this civil war, however abhorrent both sides are. I am grateful that both the Government and the Opposition have made that point clear. The reality of the situation is that we are only discussing the limited use of potential air strikes to diminish chemical weapons capacity.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s approach in holding the debate today, the decision to hold a second debate in the future, the publication of the Joint Intelligence Committee report and the Attorney-General’s legal summary. I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the meeting yesterday. The revised motion gives a stronger and greater role to the United Nations. If anybody could urge the United Nations to resolve this, all of us would do so. Both the motion and the amendment seek the UN’s assistance. Whether we would be able to achieve that is a separate matter.

On usage and evidence, many have made the case that there is widespread and extensive evidence—from multiple intelligence agencies and the Arab League—of the repeated use by Assad of chemical weapons in the past couple of years, certainly in excess of a dozen times. All participants admit the usage on 21 August, when 300-plus were killed and 3,000-plus were maimed. If there is a delay, we hope that the UN can assist, but what do we do if 98% of the UN wish to pass a resolution but a country such as Russia blocks us? That has been the reality for some time and I suspect that that will be the reality in the future. One has to pose the question that if an incident like the holocaust were to happen tomorrow and one of the Security Council objected, what would the rest of the world do? We have to ask whether we are prepared to allow Russia to be the sole determinant of which part of international law is to be observed. Exact parallels can be found in the Kosovo situation in 1999, when Russia sought to prevent any NATO action.

Robert Buckland (South Swindon, Conservative)
I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend’s analysis of the UN. The General Assembly is about to meet. Does he agree that using the General Assembly as a mechanism by which we could obtain a recommendation for action in Syria would be a sensible option for us to consider before exhausting all mechanisms within the UN?

Guy Opperman (Hexham, Conservative)
I completely endorse that. In Kosovo in 1999 there were three broadly supported UN resolutions. Although not enough to get over the UN hurdle that we seek to overcome, they did provide assistance and support that such a course would entail. We have to address what the legal basis is for any proposed action by the British or other international troops.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham, Conservative)
I will make one point. I very carefully studied United Nations Security Council resolutions in 1992 as an authority for action. It is only the Security Council of the UN, as it is currently constituted, that will give authority for international action under article 6 or article 7.

Guy Opperman (Hexham, Conservative)
With no disrespect to my hon. Friend—my honourable and respected military friend—I disagree. Subsequent to 1991, the responsibility to protect protocols were introduced, particularly post-1999 in Kosovo. I accept that we are not in a UN article 51 charter case. We are not acting in self defence. We are not, as a nation, in any way threatened. However, the process of R2P does allow NATO to act when certain preconditions, as set out in the Attorney-General’s guidance, are maintained.

On this particular point, I urge my hon. Friend Colonel Bob Stewart, the Member for Beckenham, and anyone who is concerned about this issue to go through the Attorney-General’s guidance, which has been published today. An objective has to be identified. In this case, it would be the objective of attempting to stop the specific spread and repeated use of chemical weapons. There could be little doubt that such an outrage constituted a humanitarian disaster, and we would need to be satisfied that every means, short of force, had been taken to resolve this specific situation in Syria. To that end, the revision of the motion and the encouragement of the UN makes specific the assistance on this particular problem that a military officer, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham, would have previously had in those circumstances. We would then have to consider that the proposed action was the only means to averting further and immediate human catastrophe. As the Attorney-General made clear, the force proposed would need to be both proportionate and specifically directed to stop the possible future use of chemical weapons.

I have already mentioned the example of Kosovo in 1999, but historians and lawyers could set out similar actions. Action was taken in Liberia in 1990 and elsewhere in the past 20 years. Surely the point is this: R2P was brought in to address the question of whether, as a last resort, humanitarian intervention is authorised under international law. We are clearly not yet in that situation, but the power to act and a lawful course are clearly set out.

Today is not about military action or involvement in another country’s civil war; all agree that the issue is not about boots on the ground. It is about a war crime—the massive use of chemical weapons—and several countries in the world attempting to prevent the extended and further use of such weapons. Before any further specific action is taken, the House will have a second debate and will be provided, I hope, with an understanding of our objectives and strategy, the upsides of action or inaction, and an exit policy. I welcome and support the revised motion on those grounds.