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Friday 6 July 2018

Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry on R2P and Syria

Laila Alodaat, Haid Haid, and Dr Farouq al Habib before the Committee.

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee is currently holding an inquiry on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and humanitarian intervention to protect civilian populations, with specific reference to Syria.

Witnesses at the most recent hearing (video) were Dr Farouq al Habib, Director, Mayday Rescue Foundation; Laila Alodaat, Middle East and North Africa Director, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom; and Haid Haid, Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College London.

The issue of Responsibility to Protect is sometimes reduced to a debate solely about military intervention. Laila Alodaat pointed out non-military options that are not being pursued to the full extent possible, in political dialogue, and in criminal investigation, for example regarding Russian attacks on hospitals:
‘A point was raised about Russia saying that they are not hospitals but military camps. Very good; let’s have more investigation missions to go and see. Let us have the ICRC there and the commission of inquiry. That is at the core of the third pillar of R2P.

‘… Sanctions are one of the most active pacifist ways of dealing with grave human rights violations and atrocities. They have been used in a very limited way in Syria, and we would like them to be used more widely and actively. Unfortunately, even the sanctions that are in place are being reconsidered. The UK has a unilateral role on sanctions, and it is perfectly legal, unfortunately, for the UK to be a safe haven and an investment opportunity for many war criminals in Syria. This is one thing to be taken forward.

‘The protection of refugees and IDPs, and all the support being given to them, is at the core of the R2P doctrine, and that has to be pushed. We should not give up on the doctrine yet, because military intervention is blocked.’

While agreeing with Laila Alodaat, Haid Haid pointed to the limits of non-military measures when faced with the Assad regime’s commitment to violence:
When it comes to non-military intervention, I agree that some elements of the right to protect mechanisms have had a positive impact on the ground, but that impact is quite limited. In comparison with the larger scale of atrocities, it is quite insignificant. It would have allowed the right to protect civilians at large through military means, or at least willingness to use the threat of military means, even if you do not have to use them. The willingness to do that was missing, and that is why right to protect was not able to fulfil its mandate inside Syria.

The UK Government has limited its military response to Assad regime atrocities to responding on chemical weapons use only. Dr al Habib talked of how the focus on chemical weapons actually undermines the cause of protecting civilians:
‘I am afraid that the repetition of the red line is becoming very destructive inside Syria. It is understood by a lot of people that it is actually a green light to the regime to use all other kinds of weapons to kill people. The regime has killed more than 500,000 Syrian people; maybe 2,000 or 3,000 of them were killed by chemical weapons, so when the superpowers of the world keep saying that there is a red line on chemical weapons and the regime continues slaughtering people and burning them with barrel bombs, cluster munitions and all kinds of other weapons, it is a very negative message to the people on the ground, who are being killed by those weapons every day.’

Several individuals and organisations have submitted written evidence to the inquiry, including Syria Solidarity UK. Our submission included the following:

Make the protection of civilians a primary aim of the UK’s mission

The UK is not a bystander to the Syria crisis, but an active participant through its military and diplomatic engagement, through its aid policies, and through its policies on refugees. In each of these areas of policy the UK has a responsibility to protect civilians, but the UK has failed to put protection of civilians at the centre of its overall approach. The UK has as a result failed to deal effectively with the crisis and has in some regards contributed to increased suffering and loss.

On refugee policy, measures to prevent refugees travelling have increased suffering and increased the likelihood of fatalities. Restrictive policies have increased social, political, and economic exclusion of refugees, and have created conditions ripe for profiteering smugglers, sweatshop employers, and other predators exploiting the needs of refugees.

On chemical weapons, in 2013 and again in 2018, the Government’s legal justification for action was based on the concept of humanitarian protection as used in the case of Kosovo in 1999. Because the action only dealt with chemical weapons and not the other weapons causing suffering to even greater numbers of people in Syria, it could be argued that the action was not a true humanitarian intervention and that a more comprehensive strategy of civilian protection would be necessary to fully qualify.

On fighting ISIS, the UK’s justification for action in Syria given in 2015 was collective defence of the state of Iraq, not the protection of civilians in Syria. With collective defence of a state as the mission, we saw a vastly higher count of civilians reported to have been killed by the Coalition in both Iraq and Syria than was the case in Libya in 2011, where the NATO mission was legally defined as protection of civilians.

(Human Rights Watch counted 72 civilians killed by NATO strikes during the seven month intervention in 2011. The Syrian Network for Human Rights counted 1,058 civilians directly killed by Coalition action in Raqqa alone from June 2017 to October 2017.)

Before the 2015 vote, Syria Solidarity UK and Syrian community groups in the UK wrote to MPs, including the following:

“Civilian protection should be a primary concern in any military action by the UK. In the Syrian conflict, where so many have already been killed, and where so many civilians are still being killed by Assad and his allies, it is not enough for the UK to merely seek to minimise additional civilian casualties at the hands of UK forces; as an active participant in the conflict, the UK must prioritise the protection of civilians being killed by Assad forces.”


When along with Syrian community groups in the UK we wrote to the Government about the Coalition bombing of Al Badiya school on 20 March 2017, the Ministry of Defence rejected the suggestion that the UK bore joint responsibility for the actions of Coalition partners.


We therefore call on the UK Government and Parliament to make the protection of civilians a primary aim for all future military actions rather than a secondary consideration; for this aim to be central to our own strategy and tactics; and for this aim to be central to agreements with allies on joint objectives and collective responsibility.

Read our full submission. PDF version.