The Commons debate on Libya: a milestone for British democracy?

The Commons debate on Libya has been dismissed by some as irrelevant, as military intervention has already begun. Yet this is a milestone for democracy, as Cameron has acknowledged the emerging convention that parliamentary approval is required for the deployment of British forces abroad
Stuart Weir
22 March 2011

Emily Maitlis, the BBC-TV News link person, said with blithe ignorance when presenting the Commons debate on the UK’s part in the action in Libya yesterday that there didn’t seem to be any point in having a debate when the decision had already been taken.  Wow.  Where has she been since the Iraq war?  Presumably she has been stuck in some BBC news black hole where questions of constitutional significance take second place to journalistic tittle-tattle about who is where on the greasy pole of power and who is doing what to whom.

Yet yesterday’s debate on a substantive motion in the House of Commons on the UK’s role in the military action in Libya represents at least a de facto recognition of the demand for a convention that would solidify the existence of a constitutional rule requiring parliamentary approval for the use of military forces abroad.  This convention may have greater weight since the Prime Minister appeared to acknowledge the case for the executive to return to the House for further scrutiny and approval should the Libyan engagement, as it surely will, continue for some time yet. 

This is an important democratic issue, Emily (and all your mates at the BBC) because a convention that the government should have to seek parliamentary approval for going to war seemed to have been established in the wake of the invasion of Iraq.  Yet the current Cabinet Manual, which has been presented as the government’s survey of the laws, rules and conventions of governance in the UK, missed out the new convention – either by accident or design? – as posts on OurKingdom from Graham Allen and from me have pointed out.

Sorry to go on, Emily, but one unresolved issue in the way a convention might work, is what should happen if the government has to act in an emergency and too fast to ask for approval in advance?  So this is why David Cameron quite properly took the government’s decision to the House for its retrospective approval – and why it is necessary to submit a decision on the use of force to Parliament even after it has been taken.

The military action by this new ‘coalition of the willing’ has potentially wider international significance.  Graham Allen has published a set of five cogent reasons arguing that the UK should not be part of the action in a powerful post on OurKingdom. He warns that this is a selective ‘western-owned’ action that is the third such action in the Muslim world taken while the west continues to support other autocratic regimes in the area; and as such it could give Al Qaida an opening in Libya.  In other words, it is an action that could have hugely damaging geo-political consequences.

Yet not to have intervened would have left Gaddafi free to wage war on and slaughter many of his own people. The Arab League endorsed the UN resolution 1973 which made the action to protect the people in Libya possible, allowing the nations involved in enforcing it the discretion to use all possible means to do so.  The immediate result is, first, that the deployment of immense military fire-power has prevented Gaddaffi’s forces from destroying cities and lives; and secondly, it has alarmed important players in the world – Russia, China, India, Turkey among them – and shaken the Arab League’s confidence in their mission.

The long-term consequences of the use of disproportionate force, stretching the legal limits of the action as some politicians in the UK are intent on doing, or simple old-fashioned mission creep, could be very damaging and far-reaching. In 2005, the UN adopted a resolution establishing ‘a responsibility to protect’ – that is, a responsibility to protect populations around the world from genocide or massacre by their own autocratic regimes.  Blair and Bush poisoned the well with their illegal and ill-judged invasion of Iraq.  But at last, thanks largely to the intervention of the Arab League in a western-owned initiative by France and the UK – and in part to Obama’s tact in holding back – both China and Russia did not veto UN resolution 1973.  So the UN’s ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine has a chance to become part of the practice of the international community.

So long as the western powers do not over-reach themselves.  Obviously, the avoidance of civilian casualties is their most basic and important duty. Arguably, the bloody scale of the initial military intervention was necessary to restrain and beat back Gaddafi’s forces in the east of Libya.  But the attack on Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli, with its echoes of Reagan’s air strike against Gaddafi (in which Gaddafi’s daughter perished), was a clear breach of their most basic duty. Moreover, the Defence Secretary’s encouragement for the idea that Gaddafi might be a target – and then Downing Street’s repudiation of the Chief of Defence Staff’s insistence that an attempt of this kind was a violation of the UN resolution –dangerously raise the ante. Careless and insistent talk in the UK and elsewhere of regime change or of assassinating Gaddafi himself – and of landing troops on Libyan soil in actions short of ‘occupation’ – has the potential to confirm reasonable fears around the world that, once their blood is up, the western powers cannot be trusted to behave proportionately with the awesome weaponry at their command, or to respect the spirit as well as the letter of international law.  If those fears are realised by the conduct of the allies, then it will be impossible in the future to persuade sceptical nations that the UK, US and France can ever be trusted again to act on behalf of people in danger of massacre from their own governments.

There is also a more immediate danger in Libya and a longer-term threat in the Middle East and North Africa.  The worse the coalition powers behave, the more powerful Gaddafi’s ‘crusader’ rhetoric will become. The allies may be able to clear the rebels’ way to power, though that would be an illegitimate objective, but assistance tainted by indiscriminate military power and breaches of the 1973 resolution would poison the legacy that they receive and leave Libya divided. In the wider region, and among young Muslims in the west, divisions would multiply and Al Qaida militancy and terrorism would be reinforced.

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