Published: 29 August 2013
Updated: 10:51, 29 August 2013
Large-scale use of chemical weapons is a war crime and a crime against humanity. Their effects on the human body are abhorrent: frothing at the mouth, organ failure, bodies contorted in spasms and death within minutes. This is what the images and first-hand accounts coming out of Syria from last week show.
United Nations weapons inspectors are currently trying to verify facts on the ground but this much is certain: the Syrian regime admitted to possessing chemical weapons last year, and they still do.
Chemical weapons have been outlawed for the best part of a century. Ever since the First World War, the world has agreed that these abhorrent weapons have no place on any battlefield. This is why the UK along with the US, France and others made clear to the Syrian regime earlier this year that using chemical weapons is not a cost-free option.
We four believe a strong response from the international community is now necessary. Liberal Democrats are strong believers in international law. International treaties such as the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the UN Chemical Weapons Convention are the world’s defence against the atrocities that blight our shared past. It is in all our interests, regardless of our nationality, religion or race.
If the Assad regime is allowed to disregard them — despite our warnings and without any consequences — a dangerous precedent will be set. It could open the door to more use of chemical weapons in the future.
There are some who are asking if this action will embroil the UK in another Iraq — a war that was wrong and one our party alone opposed in Parliament. So we are naturally deeply sensitive to any kind of military adventurism in the Middle East.
But Syria is not Iraq. We are not talking about intervention in the Iraq form. We are not talking about regime change, or toppling a dictator, or seeking to force ourselves into Syria’s civil war. This is not about arming rebels or putting British boots on the ground. It is about upholding international law banning the use of chemical weapons. It would double the tragedy if the mistakes of the Iraq war, where many believe the West breached international law, led us to retreat from the principle of upholding international law.
Any response must be proportionate and consistent with international law, with the specific aims of stopping the use of chemical weapons again and reducing humanitarian tragedy.
As firm supporters of multilateral institutions, we are also clear that it will be far better if we are able to reach agreement for military action within the UN Security Council — not least because strong international support will bolster the message sent to Assad. The UK Government is making serious efforts to build that consensus and our hope is that China and Russia do not hold the Security Council hostage to pursue their own agendas.
But we are certain. The law is the law. No two nations have the right to prevent it from being enforced. For the humanitarian sake of the Syrian people — and in defence of peace and stability around the world — these laws must be upheld.
Nick Clegg is Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat Leader. Simon Hughes is Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader. Paddy Ashdown is a former Lib-Dem leader. Shirley Williams is former leader of the Lib-Dems in the Lords