We’ve all heard today that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, lost a vote in the House of Commons and the UK will not now be involved in any attack on Syria in response to the Syrian government’s assumed use of chemical weapons. I thought the whole thing a little odd and odder still that, though the conventional media covered this story at length, none of them explained what the motion was that was defeated in the House of Commons. I thought it would be worth looking up exactly what the motion was.
Below I’ve listed the government motion as appears on Parliament.uk along with an amendment put forward by Ed Miliband which was voted down.
To my mind, the interesting part of the government motion is paragraph 7 which states that “a United Nations process must be followed as far as possible” leaving it open to sideline the UN. Also paragraph 9 which states that “before any direct British involvement in such action a further vote of the House of Commons will take place”.
So, though it gave room to bypass the UN, it also prevented Cameron from acting until another vote had taken place meaning that even if the House voted for the motion it would have a further opportunity to prevent British involvement if the UN weapons inspectors reports were not sufficient to justify the attack.
The amendment put forward by Ed Miliband seems to replace the text with a similar version which builds in stronger caveats that the UN must first be allowed to determine if the Assad regime was responsible for the use of chemical weapons.
The full text of the debate is available on the They Work For You along with a record of how MPs voted. The result of the divisions seems to have caused quite a commotion as the Speaker is reported to have said “Mr MacNeil, you are like an erupting volcano. Calm yourself, man!”. In division 69 the amendment was rejected and in division 70 the government’s motion was rejected. It might seem that the Tories did not want to be constrained by the UN and so rejected the amendment and Labour did not want action without a UN mandate and so rejected the government motion but both the motion and the amendment built in a requirement for a second vote prior to any British involvement.
All a bit rum if you ask me and it is the rejection of the amendment which has probably caused all the furor in the press because it meant that the House not only rejected British involvement in an attack, it rejected British involvement even if the UN should decide that military action is necessary. I guess this is what has all the pundits raving about a cock-up and I wonder what would have happened if the House had voted on the government motion first and then, when this was rejected, voted on the amendment?
I’d like to drag Blair back into this. As if his legacy were not bad enough, I wonder if the British people and parliament are now so cynical about foreign interventions that, now that there may be a legitimate case for intervention to stop outrageous atrocities, we shy away from it.
Here’s the text of the government motion:
That this House:
Deplores the use of chemical weapons in Syria on 21 August 2013 by the Assad regime, which caused hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries of Syrian civilians;
Recalls the importance of upholding the worldwide prohibition on the use of chemical weapons under international law;
Agrees that a strong humanitarian response is required from the international community and that this may, if necessary, require military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on saving lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons;
Notes the failure of the United Nations Security Council over the last two years to take united action in response to the Syrian crisis;
Notes that the use of chemical weapons is a war crime under customary law and a crime against humanity, and that the principle of humanitarian intervention provides a sound legal basis for taking action;
Notes the wide international support for such a response, including the statement from the Arab League on 27 August which calls on the international community, represented in the United Nations Security Council, to “overcome internal disagreements and take action against those who committed this crime, for which the Syrian regime is responsible”;
Believes, in spite of the difficulties at the United Nations, that a United Nations process must be followed as far as possible to ensure the maximum legitimacy for any such action;
Therefore welcomes the work of the United Nations investigating team currently in Damascus, and, whilst noting that the team’s mandate is to confirm whether chemical weapons were used and not to apportion blame, agrees that the United Nations Secretary General should ensure a briefing to the United Nations Security Council immediately upon the completion of the team’s initial mission;
Believes that the United Nations Security Council must have the opportunity immediately to consider that briefing and that every effort should be made to secure a Security Council Resolution backing military action before any such action is taken, and notes that before any direct British involvement in such action a further vote of the House of Commons will take place; and
Notes that this Resolution relates solely to efforts to alleviate humanitarian suffering by deterring use of chemical weapons and does not sanction any action in Syria with wider objectives.
Here’ is the text of Ed Miliband’s amendment:
Line 1, leave out from ‘House’ to end and add
‘expresses its revulsion at the killing of hundreds of civilians in Ghutah, Syria on 21 August 2013; believes that this was a moral outrage; recalls the importance of upholding the worldwide prohibition on the use of chemical weapons; makes clear that the use of chemical weapons is a grave breach of international law; agrees with the UN Secretary General that the UN weapons inspectors must be able to report to the UN Security Council and that the Security Council must live up to its responsibilities to protect civilians; supports steps to provide humanitarian protection to the people of Syria but will only support military action involving UK forces if and when the following conditions have been met that:
(a) the UN weapons inspectors, upon the conclusion of their mission in the Eastern Ghutah, are given the necessary opportunity to make a report to the Security Council on the evidence and their findings, and confirmation by them that chemical weapons have been used in Syria;
(b) compelling evidence is produced that the Syrian regime was responsible for the use of these weapons;
(c) the UN Security Council has considered and voted on this matter in the light of the reports of the weapons inspectors and the evidence submitted;
(d) there is a clear legal basis in international law for taking collective military action to protect the Syrian people on humanitarian grounds;
(e) such action must have regard to the potential consequences in the region, and must therefore be legal, proportionate, time-limited and have precise and achievable objectives designed to deter the future use of prohibited chemical weapons in Syria; and
(f) the Prime Minister reports further to the House on the achievement of these conditions so that the House can vote on UK participation in such action, and that any such vote should relate solely to efforts to deter the use of chemical weapons and does not sanction any wider action in Syria.’