To bomb or not to bomb, is that the question?

Last week David Cameron’s plan to make Britain a part of attacking Syria was fortunately scuppered, when not just the public, but many MPs too, refused to accept the argument that ‘not standing by in the face of massacres’ entails a moral duty to bomb a foreign country.

Of course, we should do what we can to stop bloodshed and prevent human rights abuses – but that responsibility towards our fellow humans does not begin and end when a state that is disliked by the US commits an atrocity. And there are many things we can do other than military strikes or invasions, which often make matters worse.

Stopping selling weapons to countries such as, er, Syria, to whom Britain recently sold substances which could be used to manufacture chemical weapons, would be a good start. David Cameron last year toured the Gulf as part of an explicit attempt to sell weapons to the dictatorships that are the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Does he genuinely believe that selling lethal technologies to the Middle East will make the region more peaceful or encourage these states to respect their citizens’ rights?

Whilst there may be a need for us to produce some weaponry for our own defence, allowing a trade in armaments is a sure fire way of creating a bloodier world. The legally mandated drive for profit means that private arms manufacturers must seek to sell as many of their deadly wares as possible – and therefore they have a vested interest in both creating conflict, and in selling to despots. Britain’s claims to a moral high ground for its invasions are undermined by these arm sales– if the UK genuinely invaded Iraq for humanitarian reasons, why had it previously flogged tanks originally intended for Iran to Saddam Hussein? Efforts to investigate the corruption that the arms trade produces has frequently been shut down for ‘national security reasons‘, that empty smokescreen for curtailing democratic debate, even as arms sales contribute to instability across the world; and divert resources from more productive parts of the economy.

Perhaps our ‘humanitarian’ war mongers should remember the old adage ‘charity begins at home’. If there is genuine concern about human rights abuses abroad, they should be respected in the UK as well – instead of which the British state is interrogating journalists and kettling protesters, while the Conservative Party would like to rescind the Human Rights act.

Part of the problem is that too often human rights are seen as woolly liberal concepts, rather than essential tools for protecting people against states and other large institutions. This in turn is a consequence of having a frozen view of human rights as those rights that were laid down by the UN charter – rather than seeing them as part of a broad philosophical, and political, tradition and debate. Part of the remedy for this is a real, and global, debate about what we consider the essentials of life to be that are due to people as people – as well as a debate about the responsibilities that go with these.

Whilst here is a clear difference between a state murdering hundreds or thousands of its citizens in cold blood, and a state detaining a journalist over a news story that it didn’t like, they both have their roots in a huge over-concentration of power, backed up by violence. Human rights offer a moral shield against this; we also need institutions and sanctions which can insure they are respected. Independent and critical journalism is itself one tool for holding states to account, and that makes the violation of the journalist David Miranda’s rights particularly worrying. Ideally, we would have a world movement of citizens capable of holding states accountable for these violations of human rights. In the absence of this, governments professing concern for human rights and democracy should support independent and democratic mechanisms to uphold them.

This means supporting and strengthening the International Criminal Court (ICC) as well as other independent institutions capable of monitoring and rating states – and corporations – for abuses of democracy and human rights. Along with this there could be a sliding scale of sanctions and inducements for states to respect human rights. If there is to be military intervention, it should be taken against the worst offenders – not at the whim of a few US-aligned Western states.

Instead of pursuing a credible humanitarian agenda abroad, the US is one of the countries that is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court (despite its current imperfections, it is at least an attempt to hold states to account), and has forced other states to sign bilateral agreements to give US soldiers and citizens immunity from ICC prosecution.

Now there is something for Obama, and Cameron, his would-be ally,  to think about.

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