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Lord McConnell: Britain must stand for international law following Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria

3 min read

Turkey's invasion of north-east Syria is a disaster for global standards on human rights - the UK must move on from the years of inconsistent and indecisive foreign policy and take a stand, writes Lord McConnell. 

Events in north-east Syria over the last two weeks are not just a catastrophe for those living there but it is also a disaster for the balance of power in the region and global standards on human rights.

Turkey’s invasion of north-east Syria might have been predictable but the lack of predictability in the policy and actions of the United States, and the lack of consultation and cooperation within NATO member states more generally, has helped exacerbate the scale and speed of the crisis.

Allies have been abandoned, religious minorities are threatened, and refugees may be returned against the principles of international law.

Since the Iraq War, the UK has too often seemed unable to act with clarity or consistency, or sometimes act at all. But we have a direct interest and a role to play, and we must engage.

Daesh may have been defeated in Northern Iraq and Syria, but their fighters remain in camps or on the loose and they will, if they can, regroup and come back to haunt us again.

When international justice is abandoned, we all lose.

Given our recent history in Iraq, our membership of NATO alongside Turkey and the United States, our participation in the allied coalition against Daesh and our role on the UN Security Council (not to mentioned our role still inside the European Union) we need clarity of policy and we need to be willing to participate in the action in order to affect the outcome.

But what should be that action?

First and foremost, the UK should be insisting that captured Daesh fighters and supporters must be held securely and those holding them must be protected. To argue, as some have done, that only 100 or so fighters have escaped is to ignore the impact that one suicide bomber can have in Iraq, or on the streets of Europe or North America.

Secondly, as a significant international humanitarian force, we must take immediate action with others to protect and support those who have been forcibly moved or are under threat from the Syrian regime, the Turkish invasion, or the armed gangs with records of persecuting religious minorities. We must insist that any refugees returning to Syria from Turkey are doing so voluntarily and under international protection and we should take every step possible to rescue and return home British children stuck in ISIS camps. And, of course, we must protect our allies, the Kurds, from persecution too.

And third, we need to say loudly and clearly that the use of such overwhelming force is not a justifiable way to deal with political disputes. The use of chemical weapons, either by the Syrian regime or the Turkish army, is not acceptable and must be fully investigated and prosecuted. The UK must stand for international law, for the Responsibility to Protect, and for global and neighbourhood relationships that are based on discussion and agreement not on force and persecution. So we must stop arms sales to those who use such force; and press consistently for legal action when breaches of international law occur.

Perhaps it is too much to suggest the UK could have this clarity and influence in the very near future, but we must start somewhere. We must move on from years of inconsistent and indecisive foreign policy and we need to lift our heads from the introspection of the Brexit debate.

‘Global Britain’ will promote the UK on the global stage, but we need to promote our values as well as our goods. We need to take a stand when it matters, as it does today in north east Syria.


Lord McConnell is a Labour Peer in the House of Lords. 

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