Syria, the UN, and parliamentary democracy: Are we up to scratch, down here?

The game-changer in the Syrian crisis is not the US soliloquy whether a unilateral strike is to be or not to be.  That is a normal phenomenon of the past half-century. It is the impressive working of parliamentary democracy in the United Kingdom.  That is not.

Last week, the British Parliament was recalled to debate possible military engagement in Syria in support of a US-led strike.  Under the British constitutional system, the Executive has exclusive power to decide on deployment of armed forces in the ‘national defence’.  But Prime Minister Cameron agreed to table a Govt. motion before the House, hold a debate, then a vote, and abide by that vote.  He lost by 285 to 272.

The searing experience of British military engagement in Iraq in 2003, and in particular the then Prime Minister’s determination to order up a second legal opinion from his Attorney-General to suit his taste, has instilled in the British psyche a caution over any repetition.  The subsequent Chilcott Inquiry had its critics, but at least it brought the ex-PM before it, testifying with whatever dignity he was able to retain. Second time round 10 years later, a Conservative leader has learnt the lesson of a Labour predecessor’s mistake.

No such luck down here in Aotearoa which, more than any other state, has inherited its constitutional system from the UK.  We have no system for automatic debate on foreign affairs issues.

We did hold a debate in 2003 and got through the Iraq crisis by deciding not to send forces in support.  But in the case of Syria in 2013, it is less likely – we are, after all, led by a National Government.

So yesterday I asked a question in the House of the Prime Minister.  The PM was absent and the question went to Mr Groser, in whatever capacity.

Unlike in the UK, the Government here has no intention of holding a vote, or even a genuine debate, on the Syrian crisis.  ‘Should action be taken against Syria’, a ministerial statement will be given to the House at the appropriate time. That will ‘allow the House and the member to make any statement they wish to make’.

Not totally correct.  A ministerial statement is followed by one statement from each party of 6 MPs, i.e. Labour, Green and NZ First.  The other parties may not speak.  Each statement is limited to 5 minutes.  The Minister may reply for 2 minutes. That amounts to a series of statements lasting 22 minutes.  This compares with the British debate which lasted 245 minutes.

What might justify, I asked, a parliamentary vote, if it is not issues of NZ policy over the use of force in international relations?   Mr Groser ‘would not wish to speculate’.

Does the PM recognise that the legal justification the US is preparing for a strike, pertaining to the ‘responsibility to protect doctrine’, applies to protection of civilians, not punitive action?  Mr Groser: it would be ‘highly irresponsible’ to enter into speculative discussion on the legal questions.

This is what passes for democratic debate on issues of peace and war in the NZ Parliament.

The only way forward is to request an Urgent Debate.  Then, the proposer may speak for 15 minutes and other leaders for 15 and 10.  The number of speakers is unlimited.

But three criteria must be met. Is it a case of recent occurrence?  Does it involve ministerial responsibility?  Does it require the immediate attention of the House and the Government?  Only about 1 in 5 requests are approved by the Speaker.

The NZ public deserve a full and open debate in the Parliament on the crisis of Syria, and what New Zealand’s policy should be.  Right now, it looks as if we shall not get one.

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30 Comments Posted

  1. “the US did not join in support of the rest of the “free” world during WWII, until the Japs bombed pearl harbour.”

    To be fair, New Zealand also sat on its hands while Imperial Japan colonised Korea and northern China and invaded Mongolia. We only got involved when they most unsportingly grabbed countries the British had grabbed first.

  2. Oh and also least the world forget, the US did not join in support of the rest of the “free” world during WWII, until the Japs bombed pearl harbour. They would have quite happily sat back and let the axis powers beat everyone else down (after all the less people there are, the easier it becomes to control them). But now the “cowardly Bully” expects everyone else to support a battle that they started themselves! I myself will not!

  3. We should not support the US in a war on Syria, the whole thing is just another ruse so that the US can continue in it’s bid to gain control of the worlds major oil resources. Noticed that lately it’s only Arab countries being targeted by the US. Check this video , then decide who’s people are being dictated too! Especially after Obama signed on 16 March 2012 a new executive order which puts the Govt completely above the law. How does that run with the American constitution? But it basically allows them to be fascist dictators to their own people! Now through their suck up puppets like Key they are trying to subvert us to their cause. I think the Arabs saw the writing on the wall way before us, which is why they have been fighting a war against the biggest wolf in sheep’s clothing (the US). Flippantly I say maybe we should be supporting them. Otherwise preferably distancing ourselves from those that seek to include us in their criminal actions.

  4. I don’t know if and in what form our civilisation should response to a chemical weapon attack in the 21st century, and I know that we need to take a deep breath on this but looking at the following footage I was wondering why do we need to wait on the the UN Inspector’s Report?
    What else could have caused this tragedy?
    After watching this I was wondering if they should get away with a “warning” and what would we do if this happens to our children and what would we hope for?
    Wouldn’t we hope for an US response given the fact that there won’t be an UN Resolution due to the fact that Russia will block any UN Resolution to protect their only marine base in Mediterranean Sea?

  5. BTW, If we can buck the norm to the degree of actually having a civilised and constructive exchange of views and information on a blog, surely we can bring peace to Syria? Thanks! 🙂

  6. I didn’t make any exception for Arab, or for that matter, Syrian, observers of the ‘Arab Street’. As I pointed out before, a Damascus-based observer is unlikely to give an honest opinion of Al Asad’s public support, unless they are very brave or very stupid.

    Foreign intervention isn’t just a matter of money, nor a matter of what has happened in the last couple of years.

    It was foreign intervention that supplied the heavy weapons and aircraft you point to a evidence that the regime could survive without foreign intervention. Where would the Al Asad regime be if not for Russian and Iranian (and a sprinkling of Eastern European, Chinese and French) weapons and ammunition, trade, diplomatic support over decades, and now the direct military contributions of Iran and Hezbollah?

    I’m not sure about your point regarding ‘quality’ of military spending – probably something that could be argued about forever – but I’d note that the Syrian army is mostly conscripts, rather than professionals, and since military service is compulsory for males, I doubt many of the rebels are completely untrained.

  7. There is no doubt the Syrian government is propped up by foreign money, particularly in the current situation.

    Best analysis by Jane’s indicate that military funding to pro and anti government forces over the last 2.5 years has been relatively even at about $3Bn p/a, with a high likelihood that funding to the rebels has been underestimated given the murky nature of the participants.

    However, the counterfactual that without foreign money, the government would be on the ropes is higly unlikely, purely as it does not address the quality of that military spending – funding on one hand to untrained citizen militias supported by a core of seasoned foreign militants, on the other a professional army (admittedly including conscripts) with significant aerial and heavy weapon capacity.

    While it’s very true that observers are naturally subjective – no reportage is truly impartial after all – a number of the references I listed are in ‘the Arab street’ (often in the Damascus street) as opposed to reporting from a geo-political or cultural distance.

  8. It intrigues me that you can state that “without foreign intervention the rebellion would be over” without the obvious codicil that “without foreign intervention the rebellion would have triumphed”. Al Asad’s regime has been propped up by foreign support, as much, if not more than, the opposition.

    It seems to me that observers of the attitudes of ‘the Arab street’ are often guided by their own preconceptions, rather than impartial and quantitative information. The latter is often very lacking, which is why I’m drawn to the conclusion that we can’t make definite conclusions as to levels of support for Al Asad.

  9. We’ll agree to disagree, Sam.

    I might have confused you by lumping my reasons suggesting domestic support and why without foreign intervention the rebellion would be over together, rather than applying them point by point. I’m didn’t intent for you to read a conflation of military supremacy to popular support. As you state, quite separate issues.

    The simple point I’m trying to make is that most observers (see last para of my previous comment) have concluded that both the scale of internal opposition to Assad and its chances of success have been vastly overstated.

  10. Your evidence doesn’t seem to say anything about Al Asad’s public support, just that he is winning, or at least, surviving.

    (i) this isn’t a movie – a popular rebellion doesn’t always win against a well armed, powerful opponent;

    (ii) the fact of anyone at all demonstrating against a government in a police state is remarkable. You certainly can’t measure popular support by numbers at protests, which are more defined by level of fear, degree of organisation and resourcing and expectations of success;

    (iii) military victories aren’t a demonstration of public (or other) support (unless you are a Confucian and believe victories demonstrate a heavenly mandate);

    (iv) foreign military forces have shown mixed results – sometimes sucessful, sometimes disappointing, in any case, this has nothing to do with public support;

    (v) slowing desertions and re-defections are largely a sign of military sucess rather than changing political loyalties;

    (vi) nobody said the government was losing control. Syrian government control is based on exerting power, not public support.

    With the (partial) exception of the point about foreign fighters, all your evidence could equally have been applied to ‘prove’ the SPDC regime in Burma enjoyed public support – protests were small, rebellions were failing, the government army was winning militarily, rebels were accepting ceasefires or defecting to the government,negotiations were non-existent. But it manifestly did not have general public support.

  11. I’m unclear as to what information leads you to believe that he has significant domestic support…

    A number of reasons:

    (i) if the rebellion was general, Assad wouldn’t be in power. He would have gone the way of Mubarrak.

    (ii) the anti-government protests in the early days were both small in number/size and generally focussed on the accelaration of Assad’s proposed reforms, not his removal.

    (iii) there is no doubt that the Syrain army is winning the ground war.

    (iv) the most effective rebel fighting forces are largely made up of an controlled by foreign nationals.

    (v) desertions from the Syraian army have effectivly ceased. In fact it appears that a significant number of more moderate rebel units (including citizens militia) are accepting an amnesty and re-defecting to the government side.

    (v) if the government was losing control it would be attempting to negotiate either to stall for time in order to regroup or cut there loses. No such negotiation has been attempted.

    All this can be found in the regular press (The Guardian, The Telegraph, Al Jazeera, FT), the alt press (Counterpunch, MintPress) and trade rags (Janes Defence, Foreign Affairs, Middle East Policy Review, Le Monde Diplo).

  12. I would agree that there is little, if any, reliable information as to how Syrians generally view Al Asad’s government. Given the nature of his rule, few Syrians would be dumb enough to admit opposing his government while any chance remains of it surviving.

    I’m unclear as to what information leads you to believe that he has significant domestic support or why you think Al Asad would have defeated the rebellion if he, and his opponents, hadn’t had foreign support. That is something I would suggest is also “yet to be objectively tested and is prone to manipulation for propaganda purposes.”

  13. Sam – I’m not convinced by any reliable information that any more than a by small minority of Syrians reject their government. This premise has yet to be objectively tested and is prone to manipulation for propaganda purposes.

    Best independent estimates put the active rebellion at less than 1% of the population – 200,000* combatants of a population of 23 million. Even if we were to infer that each of these people independently represented 10 other non combatants with no population crossover, that’s still less than 10%.

    Assad’s administration may be distasteful but there is no doubt that (a) they have significant domestic support (b) that support will grow as the war becomes more vicious and (c) without foreign meddling, the Syrian government would be mopping up the rebellion by now.

    *note that this number includes foreign militants so is likely far fewer in terms of Syrian nationals.

  14. Nice philosophical questions, but unanswerable ones I think. We could, I suppose, create rules to test the legitimacy of governments.

    I can’t imagine many governemnts would pass any legal test if we were to question their origins given almost all governments are a result of a usurption of power by force, or are descended from a previous government which has taken power by force. I understand the Somaliland government went through a lengthy process to gain the consent of those it intended to govern, but this is a rarity indeed.

    We could ignore history and just test governments’ legitimacy based their current ability to gain the consent of those they govern, but this is manifestly unfair – the powerful are always able to use power to create support by coercion, fear, reward, propaganda, importing sympathisers (important in the New Zealand case), ideology and manipulation of information (the manufacturing of consent, as it has been described). So I don’t know what such an exercise would achieve other than to rubber-stamp the currently powerful. Certainly a collective of governments, such as the UN, is never going to be a neutral party in such a process, given that they will inevitably look to legitimise themselves.

    If a free, independent, global network of civil society organisations existed, we could delegate the task to them, but any move to bring together such groups would be prevented by the more dictatorial states, and the results ignored by most others, so I think the answers you are wanting are not just hard, but impossible, to deliver.

    Given that, we are back to the present question – the Syrian state is clearly illegitimate, many of its citizens have resolved to overthrow it, certain foreign states and organisations are intervening on one side or the other. Should we wash our hands and leave the outcome to be formed by others’ actions, or take whatever seems to be the best option in the present circumstances, aware that no option is anything but fraught and that there is no legal route or set of rules that can effectively be applied?

  15. But that brings to the question what is a “legitimate” state, and perhaps more importantly, who has the right to make that determination, and perhaps more importantly again, where does one nation-state, or indeed a collective of nation states get the right to impose its will (or collective will) on another?

    (Which is a very different question as to when a citizenry gets the right to overthrow the state)

    I don’t ask these things with abandon; these are hard questions, and to misquote you, they do need universal answers, or they are fundamentally unfair.

  16. “If it suited the Americans to do that, that is exactly what they would do.”

    Sorry, I meant, in the course of a debate here about the legitimacy of states, I don’t think anyone is going to stand up and try and maintain that Al Asad’s government is legitimate.

    Of course other states are going to support their current state mates, though whether they’d even bother to argue their legitimacy is debateable.

  17. Beat me to it dbuckley.

    Support of violent, kleptocratic, nepotistic dictatorships by the powers that be is pretty much BAU as I understood it – as long as important interests are served.

    jc2 – I suspect Prince Bandar was describing exactly that scenario to Putin when he got laughed out of the room.

  18. I wonder what would have to happen, diplomatically, for Russia to support Syria joining the chemical weapons convention, and being inspected and relieved of those weapons.

    For example, if there was a realistic threat of the Syrian state losing, chemical weapons being given to the least reasonable people in its opposition, and being used on Russia’s southern border, would that do it?

    It’s unlikely to happen, because the USA gains side-benefits from its current proposal.

  19. I don’t think anyone is going to go in to bat for the legitimacy of a rule created by a military coup followed by bequeathing the presidency to the coup leader’s son.

    If it suited the Americans to do that, that is exactly what they would do. The Americans (and other “allies”, and other colonial powers in years prior) have supported dodgy goings on for centuries.

  20. “For the purpose of debate, I’d like to rephrase that as “(some of) the citizens are trying to overthrow the state”.”

    I can’t see that your rephrasing alters anything one iota. Nor can I see what making comparisons with the possibility of people trying to overthrow other states has to do with anything. We aren’t trying to create some sort of universal principle here.

    In any case, while we could debate the legitimacy of the state, I don’t think anyone is going to go in to bat for the legitimacy of a rule created by a military coup followed by bequeathing the presidency to the coup leader’s son.

  21. One very real concern, among others, is why should the public have any confidence in what it is told by Western leaders? From ‘remember the Maine (leading to Spanish-American War), to Tonkin incident (to justify bombing N.Vietnam), to ‘babies being thrown out of incubators’ (justifying Gulf War 1), Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction…Isn’t it time for us the public and our media to show some skepticism?

  22. In terms of the relative barbarity notion, while I agree that the premise of moral inequivalence between types of murder is flawed, quite simply there are binding international agreements prohibiting the use of chemical weapons – though importantly Syria is not a signatory – while there aren’t binding international laws regulating the State’s exclusive right to exert murderous force over its citizens.

    If there was, pretty much every government in the world would be in the dock.

  23. There is only one reason why chemical weapons are frowned upon by the UN and many of the signatories, and that has nothing to do with how horrible chemical weapons are. Many of these signatories have, in days gone by, used chemical weapons.

    No, the reason that chemical weapons are frowned upon is that they can significantly alter the balance of power.

    If you want to take on an army, you need to have appropriate manpower and equipment, and that doesn’t come easy or cheap.

    Whereas a small number of people using chemical weapons can overwhelm a huge number of people, even when the huge numbers are well equipped. Thus the advantage of the better equipped and larger foe can be overcome.

    Those signatories are all examples of “larger foes”. They have big armies and lots of equipment, and thus by banning chemical weapons they prevent the little guy from getting an advantage.

  24. I’d just like to explore one element of your discourse

    When desperate people are fighting a dictatorial regime…

    For the purpose of debate, I’d like to rephrase that as “(some of) the citizens are trying to overthrow the state”.

    So the question then becomes, how sacrosanct is the concept of “the state”? How should a state respond when someone tries to overthrow them? What would (or should) John Key do if there were an armed uprising against the NZ government? Or Obama in the face of an uprising in the USA?

  25. I think the world needs to take a collective ‘deep breath’ & wait for UN report on this.. BUT it sounds like Obama/Kerry/McCain are already taking on the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld rhetoric “WMD.. regime change etc.”
    WMD : words of mass deception ??

    Methinks Key & his cronies are just puppets to the US Govt. If the US say jump; Key will say “how high master ?”

    The UK voted ‘No’ but I heard today that they have Subs & fighter jets stationed in the Eastern Med (why.. just waiting for it to start & then join in ?)


  26. There are two things that bug me about the debate over intervention in Syria. One is the apparent acceptance that the issue is whether or not Al Asad, or others, used chemical weapons, thus privileging the use of certain forrms of horrific barbarity over other forms of horrific barbarity. That Al Asad, and his dad before him, have been guilty of a string of deadly attacks on civilians appears to be forgotten.

    Making chemical weapons the point of concern seems to be allowing the US government, with its continual propaganda about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in the hands of its rivals, to set the terms of debate and cherry-pick the atrocities that must be responded to.

    My second concern is the lauding of non-intervention as a moral option (or the deferring of the decision to the UN, which in practice amounts to choosing non-intervention). Once again, the US government appears to have set the agenda by instilling in peoples minds’ that ‘intervention’ constitutes US missile or air attacks. Therefore we are presented with the false choice of either doing nothing or supporting pointless US attacks.

    The first great examples of ‘non-intervention’ of course were in the 1930s when Britain’s conservative party led an international campaign to leave Spain to fight its military and fascists unaided, and to legitimise Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia. In the case of Spain, as will be the case in Syria, the backers of totalitarianism – fascist Italy, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany – ignored the ban on support, while the supposed supporters of democracy (with the honourable exception of Mexico) remained aloof. The Spanish were left to suffer under fascism, flee, be executed, or rot if concentration camps in France.

    It may be that there is nothing we can usefully do about the situation in Syria. But for God’s sake, let us not pretend that doing nothing, as the British have chosen to do, is anything but an act of either despair or self-interest. The debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate the failures of poorly executed interventions led by the wrong people for the wrong reasons employing the wrong strategies. They should not be used to build a case for isolationism.

    We should not accept that the lines on maps drawn by the British and French colonialists when they divided the Middle East into nation states are some sort of sacrosanct barrier which we are morally obliged to respect. When desperate people are fighting a dictatorial regime; backing it out of self-interest, for fear of repercussions from the regime or its possible sucessors, or simply fleeing the whole awful mess; we should not be thinking about whether or not to intervene, but how.

    If there is a way we can act in solidarity with Syrian people, we should take it, regardless of the legal niceties.

  27. NZ is controlled by Nat govt which is controlled by Key and J Key will do what he is told by Obama govt and some big foreign Corporations
    (sadly again mostly American ones)…including our foreign policies.

    Is this going to be another war we will be told to help to foot the bill?
    How about our own people in this country who suffer daily due to poverty caused by all those brainless policies from the current govt…?

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