Funeral in Kobane, November 2015. Demotix/ Soran Qurbani. All rights reserved,Hilary Benn’s closing speech during the House of Commons debate on intervention in Syria has been hailed by the media as ‘extraordinary’ (The Guardian), a ‘truly great speech’ (The Independent), ‘historic’ (Sky News), ‘outstanding’ (ITV News), ‘one of the greatest in Commons history’ (The Evening Standard’), ‘one of the best’ (The Times). Undoubtedly it was a great piece of oratory. But how does it stack up in terms of substance?
Benn started out by insisting that UN Security Council resolution 2249 provided “clear and unambiguous” authorisation for the UK to engage in air strikes against ISIS in Syria. He quoted from the resolution, saying that the UN has specifically called on member states “to take all necessary measures” against ISIS, but conveniently omitted what immediately follows that phrase in the resolution, which is “in compliance with international law”. Resolution 2249 calls on member states “to take all necessary measures, in compliance with international law, and in particular with the United Nations charter” to deal with ISIS. What does that actually mean?
The United Nations charter is actually clear and unambiguous in how it defines what member states can and cannot do to each other or on each others' territories under international law. Bearing in mind that Syria is also a member state of the United Nations, it is protected under chapter I of the UN Charter from “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”. The UK is operating in Iraq under the direct invitation of the Iraqi government, which is very different from the case in Syria, where the only outside actor operating at the invitation of the Syrian government is Russia.
Benn also refers to Chapter 51 of the UN Charter, saying that “every state has the right to defend itself”. However, what Chapter 51 actually says is that:
“Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.” ( my underlining)
The UN Charter does not give states a blanket right to defend themselves however or whenever they feel like it, based on intelligence that they may be facing an ‘imminent’ threat or based on any other security concerns, however legitimate they may be. Under the UN Charter, the right of self-defence applies only if and when an armed attack (by another state) has actually occurred. Even under those very limited circumstances, self defence against an invader is only authorised until such time as the UN Security Council has been able to intervene with a collective UN response to the situation.
Chapter VII of the UN Charter spells out what a collective UN response entails under international law, and although it has rarely been put into practice, the procedure is clear and unambiguous. Only the UN itself is authorised to ‘take action’ to restore international peace and security under Chapter VII, and when a UN Resolution ‘calls on member states’ to take action, that is clearly and unambiguously different, in UN parlance, from the UN deciding to take action itself, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.
So while Hilary Benn and David Cameron may feel confident that they have a clear and unambiguous legal basis for bombing ISIS in Syria, in fact there is no more legal basis for bombing ISIS than there was for going to war in Iraq in 2003. The simple fact is that UK is now engaged in offensive military actions on the territory of a member state of the UN who has not given us permission to do so. That is clearly and unambiguously acting outside of international law.
Hilary Benn then went on to talk about the ‘achievements’ of coalition air strikes in Iraq, saying that these have ‘halted’ the progress of ISIS in Iraq and gave as specific examples the cities of Sinjar and Kobane which were under ISIS control and have since been ‘liberated’. These two examples, however, show up exactly the weakness of the case for bombing ISIS in Syria right now. Both Sinjar and Kobane were re-taken by Kurdish forces on the ground supported by aerial bombardments of ISIS positions by coalition bombers. But no one is seriously suggesting that Kurdish forces on the ground in Syria are ready or willing to re-take Raqqa, the ISIS ‘capital’ and main focus for Cameron’s air war. Without such a force, bombing by itself can achieve very little.
Benn did not at any point address this fundamental flaw in the argument for bombing, except to suggest that however many troops there may be available for taking back Raqqa right now, there will be fewer of them the longer we wait to ‘act’. “The threat is now,” says Benn, “to wait for a peace agreement is to miss the urgency.” But nowhere did Benn explain how a knee-jerk reaction to the atrocities in Paris is actually going to make a difference to the situation in Syria. He merely flailed around saying we have to do it, whether it makes any difference or not. That may be good oratory but it is a very weak argument.
Even more disturbing is Benn’s apparent loss of memory about what has been happening over the past 14 years. British, US and other countries’ warplanes have been dropping tens of thousands of bombs in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya for most of that time, and yet during that same period groups like ISIS have grown rather than shrunk, and terrorist atrocities around the world have increased, not decreased. So where is the logic that yet more bombing will somehow produce an effect that 14 years of bombing so far has not?
The rest of Benn’s magnificent piece of oratory focused on the evils of Daesh and a comparison between them and the fascists of the 1930s. “What we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated… we must confront this evil,” he said as he built up to his final crescendo of warmongering fervour. His unspoken assumption was that the only way to defeat ISIS is to bomb them, whereas the whole argument against bombing rests on the historical fact that bombing is not what got rid of fascism in the 1940s and it is not likely to get rid of ISIS in the 2010s.
While the media are lapping up the great oratorical skills of Hilary Benn and even hailing him as the next leader of the Labour Party, his speech looks insubstantial and weak compared to the one his father gave in 1998, railing against the ineffectiveness of bombing in general and the importance of standing by the UN Charter in dealing with a situation which successive British governments have only made worse and his son now thinks will be solved by yet more bombing. (See here with a much younger Jeremy Corbyn listening behind him!).