Hilary Benn used the example of NATO’s bombing of Kosovo without the authority of the UN as a time when ‘not standing on one side’ was the right thing to do.
As the Labour politician addressed the Rising 15 peace symposium in Coventry Cathedral on Armistace Day, he delivered his strongest push yet for action in Syria to deal with ‘crimes against humanity’, and delivered a thinly veiled swipe at China and Russia’s vetoing of resolutions to sanction Syria and refer the crisis to the International Criminal Court.
Waiting for evidence on genocide to become conclusive may make it too late ‘to save anybody’, he told the conference, and was frank about the inability of the UN to come to an agreement at times.
He said: “We have to accept that the veto exists to bind the world’s major powers – the five permanent members of the Security Council – into the United Nations, but with it comes a great responsibility. That is why the French Government has proposed that in cases of mass atrocities permanent members of the Security Council would voluntarily agree not to use their veto. I think this is an important proposal and it should be strongly supported by the UK and others.
“But what if the UN will not or cannot act - then what? Is that an argument for standing on one side? Not in all cases some would argue, including me, as our support for intervention in Sierra Leone and Kosovo demonstrated.”
Britain took part in the NATO bombings of the former Yugoslavia in 1999, despite there being no permission to use force from the UN Security Council.
Under Prime Minister Tony Blair, the British Army was once again involved in action in Sierra Leone in Africa which he said was ‘beneficial’.
Rwanda hangs over the international community as an example of the horror that unfolds when no-one acts, said Mr Benn, while adding that military action in Afghanistan enabled 3m refugees to return home.
On the issue of deciding when states act, he said: “Agreeing a threshold is difficult and highly contentious and achieving consensus about whether or not diplomatic options have been exhausted is fraught with difficulty. And yet, if we wait for evidence of genocide to become conclusive then it may be too late to do anything or to save anybody.”
“Now we do also have to deal with charges of selectivity and, at times, hypocrisy; that we have not been consistent in our choice of when to act, or that countries have chosen to act when there is much at stake for them but not when there isn’t.
“And yet the argument that just because you have failed to do the right thing everywhere you should not attempt to do the right thing anywhere is one I find profoundly unconvincing.”
He said one mother of a family of Syrian refugees who had fled to Jordan explained to him how her husband, a baker, was arrested, tortured and killed by President Assad’s forces.
He said: “The refugees from Syria I met in Jordan could not have been clearer. They said simply: “The world has forgotten us.”
As well as considering the need, duty and abilty to act militarily, more needs to be done to increase the number of British peacekeepers contributing to UN missions, as just 300 personnel from the UK currently work for the organisation.
“That simply is not good enough and I call on the Government to set out in the forthcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review how the UK canfoght in Galli play a much bigger part in UN peacekeeping in the years ahead,” he said.
Speaking just before a two-minute silence was observed to remember fallen soldiers at Coventry Cathedral, he referred to the musings of his own politician grandfather, William Wedgwood Benn, 1st Viscount Stansgate, who fought in Gallipoli in the First World War, who wrote ‘common folk the world over love peace and in the main desire good will’.
He said the international community now needs to make ‘politics work’ to ensure that hope is realised.