Humanitarian Intervention,  Labour

Will Labour discuss humanitarian intervention?

If I were British, I would almost certainly be a member of the Labour party– not just because I mostly agree with its social and economic policies (although I probably lean slightly to the party’s right) but because of its proud history of standing for genuine democratic socialism and social democracy as opposed to Communism.

I especially like this account of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to Britain in 1955 (from a book called The Fifties by Peter Lewis):

Mr K, as the headlines called him, was pleasantly enough impressed by the hospitality of [Conservative Prime Minister Anthony] Eden’s dacha, Chequers, by tea with the Queen, and by learning from Winston Churchill how to eat oysters. He also watched Churchill nodding off in his seat in the Commons. It was a peaceful scene of bonhomie, but it was shattered by the Parliamentary Labour Party. [At a dinner they gave him] Hugh Gaitskell, the party leader, presented a list of Social Democrats imprisoned in Eastern Europe. Khrushchev asked truculently why he should care what happened to the enemies of the working class. George Brown shouted, “God forgive you”, Aneurin Bevan shook his finger at the guest with the warning “Don’t try to bully me!” and Khrushchev roared above the din: “I haven’t met people like you for thirty or forty years!” Unused to the rough and ready answering-back of British socialism, he remarked next day that if he lived in Britain he would be a Tory.

Aneurin Bevan, then the leader of the Labour party Left, wrote in 1951: “The Communist party is the sworn inveterate enemy of the socialist and democratic parties.”

I knew that Labour had a strong “anti-imperialist” strain, and I knew that many Labour MPs felt deceived when the intelligence on which they based their votes to authorize military action in Iraq turned out to be faulty.

But I was shaken when not a single Labour MP voted to approve even possible military action against the Syrian regime in response to its murder of hundreds of people with poison gas.

(It’s a discussion that both Democrats and Republicans on this side of the ocean ought to be having too. Judging from how members of Congress were preparing to vote on President Obama’s now-postponed call for military action in Syria, Republicans are more averse than Democrats.)

I hope at least some of those Labour MPs are not entirely comfortable with that vote. And it would be nice if– in addition to the 10 issues mentioned by Paul Bernal– there was some discussion at the upcoming Labour party conference of the whole matter of humanitarian intervention.

As a starting point for that discussion, I would recommend a recent piece in The Washington Post by the author and frequent war correspondent Sebastian Junger, who makes the case as well as anyone:

Every war I have ever covered — Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Liberia — withstood all diplomatic efforts to end it until Western military action finally forced a resolution. Even Afghanistan, where NATO troops stepped into a civil war that had been raging for a decade, is experiencing its lowest level of civilian casualties in more than a generation. That track record should force even peace advocates to consider that military action is required to bring some wars to an end.

And yet there’s been little evidence of that sentiment in American opposition to missile strikes against military targets in Syria. Even after 1,400 Syrian civilians, including 400 children, were killed in a nerve gas attack that was in all likelihood carried out by government forces, the prospect of American military intervention has been met with a combination of short-sighted isolationism and reflex pacifism — though I cannot think of any moral definition of “antiwar” that includes simply ignoring the slaughter of civilians overseas.
The ethnic slaughter in Bosnia was stopped by a two-week NATO bombardment after well over 100,000 civilians died. Not a single NATO soldier was killed. After Kosovo came Sierra Leone, where a grotesquely brutal civil war was ended by several hundred British SAS troops in a two-week ground operation in the jungles outside Freetown. They lost one man. In 2003, the Liberian civil war was easily ended by a contingent of U.S. Marines that came ashore after every single faction — the rebels, the government and the civilians — begged for intervention. Not a shot was fired.

The civilian casualties where there were strikes were terribly unfortunate, but they constituted a small fraction of casualties in the wars themselves.

Finally, there is the problem — the pacifist problem — of having no effective response to the use of nerve gas by a government against its citizens. To one degree or another, every person has an obligation to uphold human dignity in whatever small way he or she can. It is this concept of dignity that has given rise to international laws protecting human rights, to campaigns for prison reform, to boycotts against apartheid. In this context, doing nothing in the face of evil becomes the equivalent of actively supporting evil; morally speaking, there is no middle ground.

The civil war in Syria has killed more than 100,000 people essentially one person at a time, which is clearly an abomination, but it is not defined as a crime against humanity. The mass use of nerve agents against civilians is a crime against humanity, however. As such, it is a crime against every single person on this planet.
At some point, pacifism becomes part of the machinery of death, and isolationism becomes a form of genocide. It’s not a matter of how we’re going to explain this to the Syrians. It’s a matter of how we’re going to explain this to our kids.