Strong on oration, weak on facts

This piece is now at and can also be found below:

Image by Voice of America News: Scott Bob report from Azaz, Syria. Wikipedia (Public domain)

Hilary Benn’s closing speech during the House of Commons debate on intervention in Syria has been hailed by the media as ‘extraordinary’ (The Guardian), a ‘truly great speech’ (The Independent), ‘historic’ (Sky News), ‘outstanding’ (ITV News), ‘one of the greatest in Commons history’ (The Evening Standard’), ‘one of the best’ (The Times). Undoubtedly it was a great piece of oratory. But how does it stack up in terms of substance?

Benn started out by insisting that UN Security Council resolution 2249 provided “clear and unambiguous” authorisation for the UK to engage in air strikes against ISIS in Syria. He quoted from the resolution, saying that the UN has specifically called on member states “to take all necessary measures” against ISIS, but conveniently omitted what immediately follows that phrase in the resolution, which is “in compliance with international law”. Resolution 2249 calls on member states “to take all necessary measures, in compliance with international law, and in particular with the United Nations charter” to deal with ISIS. What does that actually mean?

The United Nations charter is actually clear and unambiguous in how it defines what member states can and cannot do to each other or on each other’s territories under international law. Bearing in mind that Syria is also a member state of the United Nations, it is protected under chapter I of the UN Charter from “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”. The UK is operating in Iraq under the direct invitation of the Iraqi government, which is very different from the case in Syria, where the only outside actor operating at the invitation of the Syrian government is Russia.

Benn also refers to Chapter 51 of the UN Charter, saying that “every state has the right to defend itself”. However, what Chapter 51 actually says is that:

“Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”

The UN Charter does not give states a blanket right to defend themselves however or whenever they feel like it, based on intelligence that they may be facing an ‘imminent’ threat or based on any other security concerns, however legitimate they may be. Under the UN Charter, the right of self-defence applies only if and when an armed attack (by another state) has actually occurred. Even under those very limited circumstances, self defence against an invader is only authorised until such time as the UN Security Council has been able to intervene with a collective UN response to the situation.

Chapter VII of the UN Charter spells out what a collective UN response entails under international law, and although it has rarely been put into practice, the procedure is clear and unambiguous. Only the UN itself is authorised to ‘take action’ to restore international peace and security under Chapter VII, and when a UN Resolution ‘calls on member states’ to take action, that is clearly and unambiguously different, in UN parlance, from the UN deciding to take action itself, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

So while Hilary Benn and David Cameron may feel confident that they have a clear and unambiguous legal basis for bombing ISIS in Syria, in fact there is no more legal basis for bombing ISIS than there was for going to war in Iraq in 2003. The simple fact is that UK is now engaged in offensive military actions on the territory of a member state of the UN who has not given us permission to do so. That is clearly and unambiguously acting outside of international law.

Hilary Benn then went on to talk about the ‘achievements’ of coalition air strikes in Iraq, saying that these have ‘halted’ the progress of ISIS in Iraq and gave as specific examples the cities of Sinjar and Kobani which were under ISIS control and have since been ‘liberated’. These two examples, however, show up exactly the weakness of the case for bombing ISIS in Syria right now. Both Sinjar and Kobani were re-taken by Kurdish forces on the ground supported by aerial bombardments of ISIS positions by coalition bombers. But no one is seriously suggesting that Kurdish forces on the ground in Syria are ready or willing to re-take Raqqa, the ISIS ‘capital’ and main focus for Cameron’s air war. Without such a force, bombing by itself can achieve very little.

Benn did not at any point address this fundamental flaw in the argument for bombing, except to suggest that however many troops there may be available for taking back Raqqa right now, there will be fewer of them the longer we wait to ‘act’. “The threat is now,” says Benn, “to wait for a peace agreement is to miss the urgency.” But nowhere did Benn explain how a knee-jerk reaction to the atrocities in Paris is actually going to make a difference to the situation in Syria. He merely flailed around saying we have to do it, whether it makes any difference or not. That may be good oratory but it is a very weak argument.

Even more disturbing is Benn’s apparent loss of memory about what has been happening over the past 14 years. British, US and other countries’ warplanes have been dropping tens of thousands of bombs in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya for most of that time, and yet during that same period groups like ISIS have grown rather than shrunk, and terrorist atrocities around the world have increased, not decreased. So where is the logic that yet more bombing will somehow produce an effect that 14 years of bombing so far has not?

The rest of Benn’s magnificent piece of oratory focused on the evils of Daesh and a comparison between them and the fascists of the 1930s. “What we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated… we must confront this evil,” he said as he built up to his final crescendo. His unspoken assumption was that the only way to defeat ISIS is to bomb them, whereas an important argument against bombing rests on the historical fact that bombing is not what got rid of fascism in the 1940s and it is not likely to get rid of ISIS in the 2010s.

While the media are lapping up the great oratorical skills of Hilary Benn and even hailing him as the next leader of the Labour Party, his speech looks insubstantial and weak compared to the one his father gave in 1998, railing against the ineffectiveness of bombing in general and the importance of standing by the UN Charter in dealing with a situation which successive British governments have only made worse and his son now thinks will be solved by yet more bombing. (see with a much younger Jeremy Corbyn listening behind him!)



Let’s Make War History

Let’s Make War History Too!

Tim Wallis, Peaceworkers UK 28/1/05

At the UN Millennium Summit in September 2000, 147 world leaders committed themselves to the lofty ideal of eradicating world poverty. This in itself is hardly significant, since politicians put their names to lofty ideals all the time. But in this case, what the leaders of the world signed up to was in fact a set of specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound targets, spelling out exactly what they were committing themselves to achieving by the year 2015.

These 18 targets which constitute the ‘Millennium Development Goals’ (or ‘MDGs’) provide a means of measuring the progress of every country towards the achievement of those goals. Regardless of whether these goals are actually achieved within the agreed timeframe, the fact is that the existence of these goals and their translation into a set of very detailed and specific indicators has radically transformed the global development movement and moved global poverty to the top of the political agenda.

Never before have governments been so exposed to the scrutiny of promises made to their citizens and to the rest of the world, and never before has the eradication of world poverty seemed so achievable. Civil Society Organisations around the world have galvanised their members to hold the world’s leaders to these promises. ‘Make Poverty History’ is the new slogan of this movement as we approach the 5-year review of the Millennium Goals and this will be the focus of international meetings and events throughout 2005.


What has attracted much less attention over the past 5 years is that at the very same Millennium Summit in 2000, world leaders also committed themselves to the lofty ideal of eradicating the scourge of war. Although they did define this commitment in terms of eleven achievable ‘goals’, these were not formulated in anything like the detail and specificity of the Millennium Development Goals. It is no wonder then, that no equivalent pressure has been put on world leaders to deliver on their peace promises.

But the eradication of war is no less important to the people of the world than the eradication of poverty. Indeed, without achieving peace in many of the poorest countries of Africa, achieving the millennium development goals is simply an impossibility. This is now widely recognised and the urgency of ending wars and preventing new ones is firmly on the agenda of the development movement. What is needed now is to bring this urgency to the forefront of the world’s political agenda and to tie it inextricably to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. What better way to achieve this than to urge world leaders to agree a set of Millennium Peace & Security Goals to complement and supplement their existing commitment to the Development Goals?

When world leaders gather in September 2005 to review the promises they made five years ago, we must demand of them, not only a re-affirmation of their commitment to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, on time and within budget! We must further demand of them the setting of clear, achievable and measurable targets for the eradication of human misery, death and destruction caused by war. A new set of Millennium Peace & Security Goals should be agreed and quantified such that progress towards their achievement can be clearly monitored. These Security Goals should sit side by side with the Development Goals and be seen as mutually complementary.

Without a commitment to the Security Goals, world poverty cannot be eradicated. But likewise, without a commitment to the Development Goals, the scourge of war cannot be eradicated. We need to build a new partnership between those primarily concerned with development and those primarily concerned with peace and security, so that we can work together more effectively to achieve both.

There are many other issues demanding the world’s attention, not least the urgent problem of global warming. But the primary focus of 2005 will be on global poverty, and we must make the connection with peace and security that is already there for so many of those involved in development. Never before has there been such a broad consensus about the need to seriously tackle the problem of war. We must seize this opportunity to ‘make war history’ as we go about trying to ‘make poverty history’.

Operationalising a Set of ‘Millennium Peace & Security Goals’ (or ‘MPGs’)

What 147 heads of state agreed to in Sept 2000 were 11 lofty ambitions which continue to form the basis of international thinking on global peace and security, most recently in the UN High Level Panel report on ‘Threats, Challenges and Change’ which came out in December 2004:

  1. Strengthen the rule of law
  2. Make the UN more effective
  3. Strengthen regional cooperation
  4. Implement international treaties
  5. Take action against terrorism
  6. Counter the world drug problem
  7. Fight transnational crime
  8. Minimise adverse effects of sanctions
  9. Eliminate weapons of mass destruction
  10. End illicit traffic in small arms
  11. Prohibit anti-personnel mines

The great significance of the Millennium Development Goals is that there can be no ambiguity about whether they are being achieved or not. The goals themselves can be, and have been, broken down by year and by country to monitor exactly how progress is or is not being made on a case by case basis. Can the lofty objectives above be similarly translated into specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound targets, with corresponding indicators that will enable progress towards their achievement to be closely and accurately monitored? So long as we focus on the goals themselves, rather than on the various means proposed for achieving those goals, it should be possible to be as specific, measurable and achievable as the MDGs.

The ‘measurement’ of peace and security is not as difficult as it may sound, and we have a great many baseline statistics from which to build such measurements. Although there may be academic differences in the way these are defined, we can, for instance, count the number of wars taking place at any one time. We can count the numbers of people being killed in those wars. We can count the numbers of refugees and IDPs displaced by war. We can count the number of small arms and light weapons in circulation. We can count the number of landmines still unexploded in the ground and we can count the injuries caused by these.

We can also count the numbers of countries that flout international treaties and agreements and the numbers of times they do it. We can count the numbers of weapons – from the smallest guns to the most powerful nuclear missiles – that are being stockpiled, produced, bought and sold. We can count the number of terrorist incidents and the numbers arrested for, and affected by, drugs traffic and other transnational crimes. We can even count the numbers of crimes against humanity being committed, the numbers of these being put to trial, nationally or at the ICC, and the numbers of successful convictions.

We do not need to explain exactly how a reduction in any of these numbers would be achieved, although that may well be a useful contribution for civil society organisations to make. Our objective in the first instance must be to get governments to translate the 11 security goals in the Millennium Declaration into specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound targets. That alone would be a huge step forward in terms of holding those governments to account and measuring their progress against an agreed yardstick. It must then be up to governments to find ways of meeting the targets once they have agreed to them.

Will the world’s leaders be prepared to commit themselves to halving all the numbers above by 2015? Perhaps it is more ‘realistic’ to try to cut the number of wars and the number of people affected by war by, say, 20% over the next 10 years? What the precise numbers might be that would attract universal or near universal agreement among the world’s leaders is purely a matter of political positioning and bargaining that can begin once the principle of setting some numbers is agreed. Our first task is to get that agreement of principle and then to work on public opinion and the media to push world leaders to be as ambitious as possible on this. The Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict provides an opportunity both to galvanise a global movement in support of MPGs and a forum in July to push for this to be on the agenda of the Summit of world leaders in September. In the meantime, there are numerous opportunities coming up that can be used to build support for this at UK and EU levels.