Syria Debate

30 August 2013

Parliament was recalled to debate and vote on the UK’s response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, a serious and sombre issue that I know from my email inbox many of my constituents have been taking a keen interest in.  Here I set out how I approached the issue and why I decided to support the motion.


Driving back to Westminster from a few days’ holiday in Cornwall on Wednesday afternoon, my mind was grappling with the dilemma of the forthcoming Parliamentary debate and vote on Syria.

I’ve never been quick to imagine that military action is a good response to problems elsewhere in the world – I don’t think we in the UK have all the answers, and the unintended consequences of action can prove far worse than whatever injustice they are intended to right.  Back in 2003, along with many East Dunbartonshire residents of all ages and backgrounds, I marched in Glasgow against the prospect of war in Iraq.

Yet I also believe strongly that we are part of an international community, of one humanity around the globe, and atrocities taking place in countries far from our own should not be ignored just because they are miles away.  My experience in Chechnya listening to the families of people who were murdered or “disappeared” by the authorities, and of seeing brave citizens in Sierra Leone working to rebuild their country after brutal civil war, have reinforced to me how our global community is interlinked and how all people have the same desires – and rights – for health, happiness and safety for their loved ones.

In 2011 I supported the action that we took with allies in Libya to prevent a massacre in Benghazi, confident that this was supported by the United Nations, the Arab League and, importantly, the Libyan people themselves.

I do believe that the deliberate and indiscriminate use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians is a new low in the already hellish world of warfare, as reports like this of last Wednesday’s attack in the Damascan suburb of Ghouta highlight:

But I felt sick to the stomach at the prospect of the impending vote when the radio news told me that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was pleading for the UN weapons inspectors to have more time.

I accept that the doctrine of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ can mean that action to prevent humanitarian calamity is appropriate.  I don’t accept that a country like Russia or China that has such scant regard for the human rights of its own citizens should always be able to stop an otherwise united and outraged international community from acting in extreme circumstances.

But the first port of call must be the United Nations – for all its imperfections, it is the best institution for international diplomacy and debate that we have.  Even in the face of hostility from one or two Security Council members, every effort should be made to build a consensus, potentially within the General Assembly as well to demonstrate wider international agreement.

So it was in a state of some agitation that I tried to find out what exactly we would be asked to vote on.  No motion or wording had yet been published, and I recognised it was quite possible that I would not feel able to support what was put forward.

I expressed my concerns through the party channels, and directly to Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister. I was reassured by the extent to which Nick himself had been echoing my worries and pushing for the United Nations approach.

When I saw the text we were being asked to vote on, I was relieved.  Contrary to the media reports suggesting we’d be asked to sanction military action, the motion in front of us did no such thing.  The wording clearly condemned the use of chemical weapons as a war crime, and recognised the crucial role of the United Nations, explicitly calling for the UN inspectors to have the time they needed to report to the Security Council.  Crucially, it made clear that no British military action would be taken until we had this information, and there had been a further debate and vote in the House of Commons.

The debate in the House of Commons was a good one, and I listened intently to many speakers over several hours.  Different opinions, respectfully expressed.  Rightly, there was consensus over the horror of the chemical attacks last week, with many on both sides of the House recognising that a strong international response to deter future use of chemical weapons could have merit.  No course of action was without risks or dangers, as many recognised, regardless of their particular view on the best approach to take.

I voted for the motion, because I agreed with what it said.  Far from being a headlong rush into military action, it demanded that Britain takes the time to work through the United Nations to create an internationally legitimate and appropriate response to the abhorrent use of chemical weapons. You can read it here:

The House of Commons overall supported neither the Government motion nor the Opposition amendment, and the Prime Minister responded swiftly recognising the will of Parliament.  That’s as it should be in a free democracy.  I wish more people around the world were as lucky as I am to be able to live in one.

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