Syria is a global human tragedy. I used to live in the Middle East. I was there during 9/11. I know the intensity of feeling among the Arab nation on these things. I often went into Syria, including Damascus. I revisited the Syrian border last year. I entered the refugee camps inside Jordan, and met with Syrian refugees.
In one of those camps I befriended a refugee. Mohammed Abdul Aziz had walked 400 km from Homs to Jordan, with his young wife and five children. They had seen his wife’s mother flattened by a tank. They walked south, desperate to seek safety. I swapped shoes with him, since mine were in better shape. My Syrian shoes, over the past year, have done walkathons through New Zealand and Australia to raise money for the refugees. I have sent personal financial support to him. We are in touch through face-book. It is not too much to say that we love each other, from afar – the kind that is spawned by human plight.
So I know the horror of Syria. And I know it of Palestine, having witnessed, once, the final stages of a house demolition in West Bank, down the hill from Ramallah. The tragedy of the Middle East grips me, today, as it did in the days of 9/11.
But the carnage in itself does not justify an immediate military strike. There can be no lawful military action in Syria without proof of chemical weapon use to the UN Security Council. And even if proof is provided, there can be no military action without authorisation by the Council. That is not a matter of political judgement. It is a non-negotiable legal requirement.
Even if the UN Security Council were to authorise military action, thereby making it legal, which is unlikely, it would require a separate decision as to its political merit. The critical issue is whether the action proposed would relieve suffering rather than cause more – it is almost certain it would not.
If we ever need a lesson for caution, it is the illegal military action against Iraq by the US, UK and Australia in 2003. Evidence adduced to the Security Council as proof of an Iraqi nuclear weapons programme proved to be false, indeed part fabrication.
For its part, the much-maligned UN Security Council declined to agree to such an invasion. That was not simply a French veto – a majority of the Council opposed the US proposal for military action. Yet those three countries proceeded without UN authorisation.
And if, in the case of Syria, the Council chooses not to act because of a veto, it does not mean that the Council is dysfunctional and is not doing its job. It means the Council has decided not to act. Actually the Council would be doing its job, just as it did with Iraq in 2003.
Many in the West might resent that fact, retaining a 20th-century sense of moral and political superiority. But they cannot disown the fact. Indeed, they created it. They created the UN. And they refuse, to this day, to change the Charter when the prospect of doing so is before them. They refuse to surrender, or even circumscribe, their veto. And then, when they confront a situation when another permanent member casts a veto, they seek to circumvent that veto, by acting around it.
It is worth noting that the most vetoes cast by a permanent member in the past 23 years is by the US. Most of those concern Israel. Syria is to Russia what Israel is to the US. The US provides political cover for Israel’s retention of nuclear weapons. Israel, as well as Syria, has not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention.
So, if the US and UK are concerned about vetoes impeding Security Council action, they can rectify the situation by agreeing to surrender the veto. Or at least agree to its strict circumscription when only their vital national interests of survival are at stake.
A heinous act has been committed in Syria. It does not follow that one state has to respond with air strikes that will cause great carnage. Let us pause, draw breath, and proceed with due care and circumspection.
Let New Zealand hew to the rule of international law, the tug of human morality, and the political wisdom that we need in this time of crisis.