Yesterday, we debated the following motion on Libya:

That this House welcomes United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1973; deplores the ongoing use of violence by the Libyan regime; acknowledges the demonstrable need, regional support and clear legal basis for urgent action to protect the people of Libya; accordingly supports Her Majesty’s Government, working with others, in the taking of all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack in Libya and to enforce the No Fly Zone, including the use of UK armed forces and military assets in accordance with UNSC Resolution 1973; and offers its wholehearted support to the men and women of Her Majesty’s armed forces.

Unfortunately, after spending the day in the Chamber, I was not called to speak.  Had I been called, I would have said broadly what follows:

I came to the House today minded to abstain on this motion, or even to vote against the Government, but I rise to offer qualified support.

I am persuaded that, if we accept the right of the policeman and the judge to intervene in the activities of the criminal, then we should accept the role of the United Nations in preventing and halting mass atrocities under the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, which emerged following the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

I want to express support for the Armed Forces. The Prime Minister has set out the justice of their cause and I do not doubt that they will now meet this challenge.

I have great sympathy with their position. In my time, I helped enforce the no fly zone over the former Yugoslavia. I have seen my wife sent to war three times – once to Afghanistan and twice to Iraq. I forget how many times she was deployed in connection with the Iraqi no fly zone, over the years.

Were it not for the speeches of honorable members before me, I would defer to no one in my loathing of war.

I am profoundly sceptical of the use of armed force – and force generally – to produce good outcomes. I am deeply concerned about the full range of the situation in which we find ourselves, including the variable support of the Arab and Muslim peoples and nations.

Colleagues outside the House have put to me the classical liberal case for non-intervention: that Libya is not aggressing against the UK; that we cannot afford the cost in blood and treasure; that the record of the United Nations is risible; and that the record of Iraq and Afghanistan speaks for itself.

That argument assumes that the international order is an anarchy amongst nation states, which it is not. It also provides no answer to mass atrocities in the world, such as the one which threatened to engulf Benghazi: I believe that the world must have an answer to such problems.

Whether people like it or not, the nations of the world exist within the framework of the United Nations, which adopted the Responsibility to Protect in 2006, reaffirming it in 2009.

RTP is an international norm which focuses on preventing and halting four crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. States have a responsibility to protect their own populations against such crimes. If States cannot so protect their populations alone, the international community has a responsibility to assist.

Finally, under RTP, if a State is manifestly failing to protect its citizens from mass atrocities and peaceful measures are inadequate, the international community has the responsibility to intervene at first diplomatically, then more coercively, and as a last resort, with military force.

I have mixed feelings about this responsibility. On the one hand, it provides for a world in which nations do not stand by in the presence of mass atrocities. On the other, it may be a burden that cannot be borne.

The foreign policies of the Western nations have been a counterproductive mess for an extremely long time. We find ourselves once again engaged in armed conflict against a brutal dictator whom we have recently supported. As we survey the Arab world’s own Springtime of the Peoples, we see now more clearly than ever before, that the prime purpose of democracy is to avoid violent revolution.

Perhaps we now accept universally that government has no source of power but the sovereign people,  that only those governments freely elected are valid. We should apply this principle universally and consistently, though we should not back it with force.

Many of my constituents will want to know what all this means for Kashmir. With Kashmir in mind, they allege that we are quick to do the right thing, when it is in our own interests. It has been put to me that it is humiliating that, after so much time and campaigning for self-determination for Kashmir, the world has leapt so quickly to aid Libya.

Since we have not delivered self-determination for Kashmir, since we did so little for the people of Sri Lanka, since we sell arms to the unelected and since we have ignored brutal tyranny where we could, then perhaps, if my constituents allege selective morality, they may be forgiven.

I wish the situation were otherwise, but wishful thinking is of no use in this world. I accept that relations between and, in extremis, within nations are governed by the institutional framework of the United Nations and so I give my support to the Government in its efforts to protect the people of Libya from a mass atrocity. But it is qualified in this: I go no further.

This long and unpredictable journey began before the House gave its consent. Now that it is in progress, we must hope and pray for a swift end to conflict and a lasting peace.

There is and will be much to lament about this situation. I have no enthusiasm for this conflict or any other.  But I cannot accept a world order in which we forever turn away from crimes against humanity. For all my misgivings, I believe it was right that I supported this motion.

See also the Prime Minister’s speech and the Foreign Secretary’s.


  1. A very difficult decision indeed, Steve: as a fellow classical liberal, I feel exactly the same. But there are times when we can’t stand back and watch massacres take place, and I think this is one of them.

    I think you made the right call!

  2. NATO’s war against Yugoslavia in 1999 was not based on a U.N. resolution. Indeed, a British House of Commons committee concluded that NATO had no legal right to launch the war without U.N. consent. Does this make any difference to how you view the Yugoslav war in retrospect?

  3. Looks like we are going to be stuck with another open ended unwinable military operation! Like we dont have enough as it is. No exit strategy.

  4. Hello Steve,

    I have been trying to think through this issue from first principals and I believe the moral basis of your argument in favour of the intervention in Libya is based on a flawed analogy.

    “I am persuaded that, if we accept the right of the policeman and the judge to intervene in the activities of the criminal, then we should accept the role of the United Nations in preventing and halting mass atrocities under the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, which emerged following the Rwandan genocide of 1994.”

    I believe the only time you can legitimately intervene is at the actual or assumed request of the person being attacked, since it is legitimate for a person to delegate their own security to another.  If you intervene by using force against the attacker, and it turns out that the person being attacked didn’t support this then you have illegitimately violated the rights of the attacker, and they may justifiably seek recompense (attack you for example).

    It is also true that if, in the process of defending the person being attacked, you violate the rights of an innocent bystander, then their rights have been illegitimately violated and they can seek recompense.  And I think this is where your analogy breaks down.

    Police, for all their failings, do not solve crimes by dropping bombs on people.  If I was to kill an innocent bystander in the process of defending someone, then at the very least I’m guilty of manslaughter.  It is so highly unlikely that any pilot or cruise missile controller will face prosecution for causing the death or injury of an innocent person, that I believe it is wrong to support this intervention.  Whilst it is theoretically possible that only those who have committed murder will be killed, it is so improbable that the only rational thing to do is to oppose intervention.

    The trouble is that the issue is clouded by the involvement of the government and their military.  The military is mainly involved in conducting war, and war is a magic word that means individuals can risk killing innocent people with impunity providing the goal is considered worthwhile. If you get it wrong you don’t get prosecuted you get embarrassed by some bad press coverage and move on.

    Terms like ‘mass atrocities’, ‘war crimes’, ‘ethnic cleansing’ add nothing to whether intervention is just or not.  For example, ‘crimes against humanity’ can’t exist.  Only individuals have rights, so crime can only be perpetrated against individuals.  Humanity is a collective noun and collective noun’s don’t have rights that can be violated.