Breda O’Brien: British bombing of Syria does not meet test for a ‘just war’

Can you really say that air strikes on fighters dispersed among a civilian population fulfil the criteria of proportionate force and protection of civilians?

RAF Typhoons arrive at RAF Akrotiri to begin operations againts Isis in Syria in Akrotiri, Cyprus. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

RAF Typhoons arrive at RAF Akrotiri to begin operations againts Isis in Syria in Akrotiri, Cyprus. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

 

Saudi Arabia has executed 152 people in 2015, most of them by beheading, leaving so-called Islamic State, also known as Isis, in the ha’penny place when it comes to brutal, and often public executions.

They include people condemned for crimes such as drug use, renouncing Islam, and sorcery. There is no horror or condemnation comparable to that generated by executions by Islamic State.

Before the recent decision by the UK government to bomb Syria, author Symon Hill published a handy guide to the euphemisms employed by the UK government. For example, he defines terrorists as vicious killers the UK establishment does not like.

On the other hand, ally and trading partner is the preferred term for vicious killers the establishment does like, such as Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen for months, razing much of the capital, Sana’a. The Red Cross reports that more than a million and a half Yemenis have been displaced, and that over half of the population have no access to safe drinking water.

Most of the missiles involved are supplied by the US, although James Cusick of the Independent reported last Saturday that the UK government has been warned by legal advisers it may be in breach of international humanitarian law because it supplies specialist missiles to Saudi Arabia.

Unicef estimates that up to 10 children a day are being killed in Yemen. That has not stopped the UK allowing the arms maker Raytheon to sell £200 million worth of air-launched missiles to Saudi Arabia over the next two years.

Which brings me to another of Hill’s definitions: of ‘keeping us safe’, which he translates as ‘killing people whose relatives will then want to kill us’.

There is no doubt that Isis is a terrifying threat, largely because of its theology, including the belief that it is part of its mission to bring about the apocalypse. You cannot negotiate with people who think that the end of the world is a mighty fine idea.

Boots or bombs

David Cameron

As a message from Islamic State in September 2014 states: “So know that – by Allah – we fear not the swarms of planes, nor ballistic missiles, nor drones, nor satellites, nor battleships, nor weapons of mass destruction.”

It was disappointing to see the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, apparently endorse the air strikes, and the Catholic archbishop Vincent Nichols endorse a shoot-to-kill policy for suspected terrorists.

Archbishop Nichols has clearly forgotten Jean Charles de Menezes, an innocent man shot in the head by the police in the wake of the London bombings 10 years ago.

Just war theory grew from the writings of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, although it has been updated for the modern era.

Criteria

Archbishop Welby

Firstly, war must be conducted by a proper authority, for a just cause. It must be designed to encourage good and restrain evil. War must also be a last resort, it must only use reasonable force, and civilians should not be harmed. There must be a reasonable prospect of success.

Can you really say that air strikes on fighters dispersed among a civilian population fulfil the criteria of proportionate force and protection of civilians? Or a reasonable chance of success?

How do we even define success? Increased security in the West, and less chance of terrorist attacks?

Mind you, while Archbishop Welby did say the air strikes met the criteria for Just War, he included so many qualifications, it was not exactly a ringing endorsement.

He says: “The just war criteria have to my mind been met. But while they are necessary, they are not by themselves sufficient in action of this kind – where we can end up doing the right thing in such a wrong way that it becomes the wrong thing”.

He says the bombing plays into the apocalyptic expectations of Islamic State, and is likely to increase recruitment to their cause, unless it is accompanied by other measures, such as support for global mainstream Muslims and other religious leaders, and a greater welcome for refugees.

Which brings me to another of Symon Hill’s translations, this time of ‘doing nothing’, which he explains is a euphemism for doing something which does not involve war.

If you are facing a ruthless ideology that considers death as good an outcome as victory, surely the first thing you need to do is to start cutting off its supply of volunteers. Archbishop Welby’s recommendations for measures other than war would be a good place to start.

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