Global Britain: The Responsibility to Protect and Humanitarian Intervention Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Airstrikes in Syria

1.Whilst noting the divisions in legal opinion around the concept of humanitarian intervention, we agree that it seems unlikely the creators of the UN Charter would have expected that the prohibition on the use of force would be applied in a way that prevented states from protecting civilian populations and stopping mass atrocities. We therefore believe that under specific circumstances, proportionate and necessary force should be available to be used as a last resort to alleviate extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale. The absence of humanitarian intervention as a final recourse could result in the paralysis of the international system and a failure to act, resulting in grave consequences for civilian populations. (Paragraph 18)

2.The Government should provide further clarification and definition in setting out the general conditions for when a humanitarian intervention can take place. The published legal opinion in relation to the April 2018 airstrikes refers, for example, to “an exceptional basis”, “overwhelming humanitarian suffering”, and “convincing evidence”, but the parameters of what these terms mean are not sufficiently clear and therefore risk being misused and misapplied, as has been argued by some in relation to the humanitarian intervention in Libya. In its response to this report the FCO should set out with greater precision the definitions of these terms and how they are applied when determining whether or not a humanitarian intervention is required. Whilst we accept that clarity is difficult in inherently complex conflict situations and that no definition will cover each and every circumstance, definitions can help to ensure that humanitarian intervention is undertaken in future for the right reasons and in the appropriate situations. (Paragraph 19)

Applying R2P to the Syrian Conflict

3.Prevention will always be better than a response. The Government should be doing all it can do to prevent atrocities from occurring in the first place. The obvious and driving impetus for this is the lives saved. As the situation in Syria has illustrated in the most devastating of ways, waiting to respond to crises means that it will inevitably be too late for some, or in this case many. Successfully preventing atrocities also has domestic implications such as reducing the likelihood of the need to deploy the armed forces and contributing to achieving national security objectives. (Paragraph 24)

4.In our first report of this session on the Violence in Rakhine State and the UK’s response we called on the Government to prioritise atrocity prevention in political and diplomatic conversations. Everything we have heard as part of this inquiry has strengthened our belief that an atrocity prevention strategy is now more vital than ever. The Government needs to act urgently to produce a comprehensive atrocity prevention strategy and implementation plan to ensure it moves beyond words and towards concrete actions. Such a strategy would benefit from consultation and we call on the Government to produce a draft strategy for consultation by April 2019. (Paragraph 25)

5.We agree that the UNSC is the right authority to mandate collective use of force. However, we believe that the P5 states, in holding a right to veto, have a responsibility to ensure that the narrow interests of a few do not stand in the way of protecting the many. It is an abuse of the moral responsibility entrusted to the permanent Security Council members to block action sought to prevent or alleviate suffering from mass atrocities. Just as there are risks to undermining the authority of the UNSC through invoking the ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution, so there are similar risks if the UNSC fails to respond when a state is perpetrating mass atrocities against its own citizens. (Paragraph 30)

6.The Government should commit to implementing France’s 2013 proposal to refrain from use of the veto where there is credible evidence of genocide and it should encourage other P5 members to do the same. The Government should explain how it intends to encourage P5 members to commit to this proposal and, if other members fail to adopt voluntarily the French proposal, how it intends to work with those states to secure this commitment. (Paragraph 31)

The price of inaction

7.The airstrikes have shown, as one witness put it, that “when western Governments want to act, they can act.” Whilst the Committee notes the action taken by the UK Government in responding to the chemical weapons attacks in Douma, we are concerned that the Government has responded only to chemical weapons attacks rather than conventional weapons attacks and other grave breaches of international humanitarian law, which have caused many more deaths and injuries. In so doing the Government risks creating what has been described to us as a “hierarchy of atrocities”. (Paragraph 35)

8.Whilst international humanitarian law prohibits and regulates the use of weapons in conflict, the continued flouting of those laws in Syria by the regime and other actors suggests that more needs to be done to bolster and strengthen the application of those rules in order to protect civilians. The Government should update its protection of civilians in armed conflict strategy to include a focus on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. As part of that strategy the Government should set out the measures it is taking to reduce the impact of these weapons on civilians and on the essential services that civilians rely on, such as healthcare facilities. (Paragraph 36)

9.There has been a manifest failure to protect civilians and to prevent mass atrocity crimes in Syria. This failure has gone beyond the heavy toll paid by the Syrian people to the surrounding region, and had repercussions in Europe and the UK. It is the Committee’s view that this failure derives principally not from the actions taken by the international community but inaction. Whilst we recognise the UK’s significant contribution to the humanitarian effort in Syria and its support of other mitigating measures, the failure to intervene has had severe consequences and is about political engagement and will. The international community’s inaction created an opportunity for others, particularly Russia and Iran, to intervene, changing the politics of the conflict in Syria. (Paragraph 40)

10.While the cost, complexities and challenges of intervening have been well documented through previous inquiries, such as the Iraq Inquiry, the consequences of not acting are less well understood. We believe that the consequences of inaction can be every bit as serious as intervening. The decision not to intervene in Syria has had very real consequences for Syrians, their neighbours, the UK and our allies. We believe the Government needs to understand the role the UK’s inaction has had and learn the lessons from it for the future. Whilst the Committee agrees with the Foreign Secretary that the UK has remained engaged in Syria throughout the conflict, this engagement has focussed more on measures that respond to crises, rather than proactive measures that prevent them. It remains our view that the Government should establish an independent inquiry into the decision-making processes leading to, and the consequences of, non-intervention. (Paragraph 41)

Published: 10 September 2018