Diane Abbott on Syria

Diane Abbott (MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington) on the Syrian debate: 

I am glad to have this opportunity to take part in this important debate. It seems that tonight Parliament has stepped back from the brink of giving the Prime Minister carte blanche to involve British forces in the bombing of Syria this weekend. I believe that the British public, whatever political party they support, will be glad that we have done so. We know—the polls tell us—that the public are overwhelmingly against such a military strike. The British public do not want to be drawn into yet another war in the middle east. They have seen that movie and know how it ends.

For the avoidance of doubt, I should say that had I been pressed by my own party to vote on a motion that authorised the bombing of Syria, in the current state of knowledge, I was always going to vote no—whatever the pressures and consequences. It would not have been a party political gesture, which some Government Members have mentioned. I was one of the Labour MPs who voted against their own Government on Iraq. I say to Government Members who may be wondering what to do tonight that I have never had reason to regret that vote.

It seems that the Prime Minister may be coming back to the House of Commons to authorise his war, and it may be helpful for me to set out my reservations as matters stand. The first question is about the facts. Have chemical weapons been used and who has deployed them? I heard what the Prime Minister said about the

Joint Intelligence Committee and I know the opinion of Vice-President Biden. It is clear that the balance of probability is that Assad used chemical weapons. However, whatever the Americans say and the Joint Intelligence Committee conjectures, I do not believe that it is wise entirely to rule out the possibility that the chemical weapons were wielded by Assad’s opponents.

In these circumstances, we always have to ask, “Cui bono?”—“Who benefits?” Assad’s opponents know that only chemical weapons would trigger a reluctant President Obama to authorise a military intervention. Whatever the Prime Minister says, a military strike would inevitably tilt the scales of the civil war in favour of Assad’s opponents. Earlier, we heard that the UN investigator Carla Del Ponte said in May:

“according to testimonies we have gathered, the rebels have used chemical weapons, making use of sarin gas”.

They did it in May, and they may have done it again.

My other point is about legality. I have heard a lot about Kosovo and how in some sense it sets a precedent for this Syrian war. At the time of the Kosovan war, I was a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. We carried out a major inquiry into Kosovo, taking a great deal of evidence about its legality. We took oral evidence from Professor Christopher Greenwood QC, Mark Littman QC and Professor Vaughan Lowe, among others, and there was a whole host of written evidence from others. What the all-party Select Committee concluded was that the Kosovo operation

“was contrary to the specific terms of what might be termed the basic law of the international community”.

We went on:

“at the very least, the doctrine of humanitarian intervention has a tenuous basis in current international customary law, and…this renders NATO action legally questionable.”

Those who want to rest the argument for a Syrian war on the Kosovan precedent need to read their law again.

Finally, let me say this. In the run-up to the Iraq war, Colin Powell cited the Pottery Barn rule—Pottery Barn is a string of American china shops. The rule is, “You break it? You own it.” The notion that we can make a military intervention on the narrow point of chemical weapons is disingenuous to say the least. Were we to intervene militarily in Syria, we would take ownership of the outcome of the civil war. I see no endgame, no idea of what victory would look like in those circumstances.

I am glad to be here to speak for my constituents. I will be glad to follow my leader into the Lobby tonight, but in my view we cannot support war in the House unless it has the stamp of the United Nations.


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