Morality and Legality in the Syria Conflict

Today’s edition of the London Times features a leading opinion column by Prof. Nigel Biggar in which he argues the case for British military intervention in the conflict in Syria in the interests of securing greater international peace and stability.

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It’s better to break the letter of international law if that helps us to uphold its spirit. Otherwise countless more may die.

After Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya we thought we could take a holiday. Voices from the world-weary right urged Britain to act its post-imperial size and resign from playing global policeman. Voices from the utopian left counselled that, if only westerners would stop sticking their fingers into other people’s business, the world would return to its natural state of peace, and policing would be redundant.

Then came Syria in 2011. We sympathised with the rebels who took up arms against Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime. We deplored his use of chemical weapons and barrel-bombs. And we lamented the unfolding human tragedy. But we told ourselves that we were powerless to stop it.

That wasn’t quite true, however. Had Syria been as close to us as France, we’d have found the resources to do whatever it took to restore peace, because our own national security would have been on the line. But Syria was two and a half thousand miles away, our national interest was only remotely engaged, and it just didn’t make sense to expend our limited power in sorting that mess out.

There’s nothing morally grubby about that. A government has a moral duty to preserve and promote the genuine interests of its own people, so far as justice allows. “What should we think, truly,” wrote the political philosopher Yves Simon, “about a government that left out of its preoccupations the interests of the nation it governs?”

It’s perfectly reasonable for people to ask why they should bear the burden of military intervention in faraway parts of the world. It’s reasonable for them to ask why their uniformed sons and daughters should be put in harm’s way. And the answer has to come in terms of their nation’s own legitimate interests.

Two years ago, parliament reckoned that we didn’t have enough of a dog in the Syrian fight, so it refused to let the government support the US and France in threatening punitive strikes against the Assad regime for its use of weapons of mass destruction.

Now, parliament is gearing up to vote again on using military power in Syria. With several hundred of our own citizens helping Islamic State to murder its way across Iraq, with £1 billion of taxpayers’ money supporting refugee camps in Jordan, and with asylum seekers in their hundreds of thousands banging on the gates of Europe, Syria has become our problem and solving it is in our interest.

Would military force be the solution? Not alone, of course. But often the soft cop of diplomacy is only persuasive when backed by the bad cop of force. The IRA decided to enter Northern Ireland’s peace process in the 1990s only after it had been wrestled to a military stalemate by the dogged persistence of the British Army. And right now there is little sign that either Islamic State or Assad is sufficiently fatigued to be susceptible to sweet reason.

If military force is needed, then someone has to deploy it. As a member of the Permanent Five of the UN Security Council, and as one of a small handful of nations capable of projecting force overseas, Britain has a special obligation to use its military power to help to punish egregious violations of international law and impose international order.

Ideally we’d act in concert with the rest of the Security Council. But since Russia is determined to prop up Assad, that could only mean joining the despotic Syrian regime in crushing all opposition, both extreme and moderate. The result might terminate the immediate jihadist threat, but it wouldn’t give the millions of Syrian refugees a tolerable political home to return to. Nor would it do much to enhance our moral self-respect.

The alternative is to use military force against Isis and the Damascus regime, in order to destroy the former and drag the latter to the negotiating table. That would require action inside Syria. According to some international lawyers it would be illegal, since the Security Council hasn’t authorised intervention and Assad hasn’t invited it.

For others such a myopic view can only be held by those who refuse to look beyond what Yale’s professor of international law, Michael Reisman, scathingly calls “the paper world of the [UN] Charter”. These legal literalists remain supremely undisturbed by the grave damage done to the law’s authority when its letter permits a despot to crush his own people indiscriminately, aided and abetted by one of the Security Council’s own permanent members.

They also remain wilfully oblivious to the fact that the sovereignty they seek to uphold is a legal fiction. Were there a genuinely sovereign state in Syria, we could expect it to contain and suppress Isis, and there would be no need for our intervention. In fact, however, vast swathes of Syria lie beyond the effective control of Damascus. So either we help the regime reassert its control (which we can’t do in good conscience), or we let Isis thrive within Syria’s borders (which neither we nor the international community can afford), or we intervene directly.

International peace urgently requires that the conflicts in Syria be settled. Humanitarian concern requires their settlement to suppress the jihadists and remove Assad. Military action aimed at those ends and undertaken by a wide range of states, both western and Muslim, would perform an international public service, even while necessarily motivated by national interests. And as in the case of Nato’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo, it would save the authority of international law by breaking its letter.

Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral Theology at the University of Oxford and author of In Defence of War

The Place of Religious Reasoning in Medical Ethics

JMEThe April 2014 issue of Journal of Medical Ethics, one of the leading international journals in bioethics, featured an article by Prof. Nigel Biggar arguing the case for the place of religious reasoning in medical ethics.  The article provoked three critical commentaries from Dr. Brian Earp (Oxford Centre for Neuroethics) (here), Dr. Kevin Smith (Abertay University) (here), and Xavier Symons (Sydney University) (here).  A brief report of part of this exchange can be found on the bioethics news aggregator, BioEdge.  The online version of Prof. Biggar’s response to all three commentaries was published today.

On Not Apologising for the Iraq War

In a leading column in today’s edition of the London Times, Prof. Nigel Biggar responds to a recent pledge by Jeremy Corbyn, front-runner in the race to head the British Labour Party, that as leader he would issue a public apology on behalf of the party for its ‘deception’ of the British people over the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and for the subsequent suffering endured by Iraqis.

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‘Jeremy Corbyn can apologise for the invasion of Iraq if he likes. But not in my name.

Saddam Hussein’s regime was monstrous. In the 15 years before the 2003 invasion it killed up to half a million of its own citizens. After the failed 1991 uprising in the south, its agents poured petrol down the throats of rebels and set them alight. Back in Baghdad the Special Treatment Department was busy dismembering living prisoners with chainsaws, squeezing their skulls in metal vices until brain-matter oozed out, and making parents watch their flailing children disappear under swarms of wasps in confined spaces. We know all this because it’s recorded on video. Such a regime deserved to be toppled; its vile nature was sufficient just cause for invasion.

Of course, we can’t afford to take on every nasty regime. So legitimate national interest must help us to discriminate. Fending off the threat that an atrocious regime like Saddam’s might acquire nuclear weapons as Pakistan had, North Korea has, Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya almost did, and Iran has only just been dissuaded from doing, gave the UK such an interest.

Yes, it turned out that Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction and so the threat wasn’t immediate. But since no one doubts that Saddam was intent on getting them, a longer term threat persisted. As Dr David Kelly, the WMD expert sadly famous for his suicide, wrote on the eve of the invasion: “The long-term threat . . . remains Iraq’s development to military maturity of weapons of mass destruction — something only regime change will avert.”

But what about the lies for which Mr Corbyn is so keen to apologise? There weren’t any — at least, not on this side of the Atlantic. The claim that Iraq possessed WMD was a serious mistake, but an honest one. It wasn’t fabricated by Washington and London, but was shared by all other western intelligence services, as well as Russia’s. In 2000 German intelligence reckoned that Iraq would have nuclear weapons capable of hitting Europe by 2005.

As for the “dodgy dossier” of January 2003, its only sin was to have borrowed material from a PhD thesis without the courtesy of acknowledgement; the material itself was perfectly sound. It’s true that the previous September’s dossier on WMDs was unclear whether its claim that Iraq could launch WMD within 45 minutes referred to tactical or strategic weapons; and when the media failed to ask, the government failed to tell them. That omission deserves censure, but it doesn’t (quite) amount to a lie.

Maybe the Chilcot report will yet reveal the smoking gun so eagerly expected by devotees of the ugly cult of scapegoating Tony Blair. But I doubt it.

Besides, even if the government had lied, it still wouldn’t follow that the invasion was unjust. In 1941 President Roosevelt bolstered American support for Britain by “sexing up” a naval incident into a Nazi act of aggression, and by claiming to possess a secret map of Nazi designs on Latin America — a map far more dodgy than any Iraq dossier, since the British had forged it and Roosevelt knew. Few would infer from this, however, that the US was wrong to enter the war against Hitler.

What, then, about the invasion’s illegality? That remains a moot point, since there is no international court to decide the case. But even if the invasion was illegal, it could still have been moral. As the leading international lawyer, Martti Koskenniemi, observed of Nato’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo, “most lawyers have taken the position that it was both formally illegal and morally necessary”.

Without doubt the coalition’s planning for post-invasion occupation was woefully inadequate, and its consequent inability to secure order was a major failure. For that it deserves blame. But if an apology is fitting here, it’s not for too much intervention, but too little: the problem wasn’t too many boots on the ground, but too few.

What’s more, the vast majority of the 200,000 casualties of the ensuing anarchy were killed, not by American or British soldiers, but by Iraqi insurgents and al-Qaeda terrorists. And unless we subscribe to the racist view that non-westerners can’t be blamed because they aren’t full moral agents and only do bad things as the passive effects of western causes, then the primary responsibility for the carnage must rest with the perpetrators.

Most important, the coalition didn’t walk away from its mistakes. Rather, it strove to correct them by sustaining a costly military commitment for seven years, achieving a dramatic improvement in Iraq’s stability by the end of 2007.

Six years later, the Times’s Anthony Loyd, a journalist with more than twenty years’ experience of covering conflicts, was able to report that “contrary to the perception among western publics . . . the lot of the clear majority of Iraqis today is measurably improved. Many have a better quality of life, greater freedom of expression and more opportunity than during Saddam’s era.”

Since then, of course, things have taken a turn for the worse. For that the responsibility lies mainly with prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian government, but also with President Obama’s abandonment. Whether Iraq’s future can be retrieved from its current woes depends partly on how we respond to the new government’s pleas for help.

Five years ago I asked a group of young Iraqi professionals what they thought about the invasion. Their spokesman replied: “It’s good that it happened. It could have been done better. And it isn’t over.”

I cannot disagree. So Mr Corbyn will have to apologise without me.’

Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral Theology at Oxford University and author of “In Defence of War”

Death by Degrees

Following the Second Reading of Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill in the House of Lords last month, Prof. Nigel Biggar has contributed to a recent exchange of letters on physician-assisted suicide in today’s edition of the London Times.

To view the letter, please click on the image below:
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Remembering Hiroshima

hiroshimaOn August 6 the world marked the seventieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and the beginning of the atomic age.  Prof. Nigel Biggar joined a discussion of the ethics of nuclear weapons on the BBC radio program “All Things Considered” with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s Vice President, Bruce Kent; the Reverend Guto Prys ap Gwynfor, Chairperson of Cymdeithas Y Cymod, the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Wales; and oral historian Elizabeth Chappell.  The edition can be accessed from the program’s podcast platform here.  Prof. Biggar also contributed an article on the question of nuclear weapons to this month’s edition of Premier Christianity.