On 29th August 2013 the House of Commons debated possible UK military action to deter the use of chemical weapons by Syria. This Open Up topic is a summary of the arguments made in that debate on Syria. It
uses the actual words of MPs where possible, although in places they have had
to be shortened. It does not take
account of developments since the debate.
On the morning of 21 August 2013, there was a chemical weapons attack on
Ghutah, a suburb of Damascus (the capital of
Syria). Médecins sans Frontières is
an international, independent, medical humanitarian organisation that delivers
emergency aid. They reported that, in just three
hours, three hospitals in the Damascus area received approximately 3,600
patients with symptoms‘consistent with’
chemical weapons attacks.
At least 350 of those innocent people died.
There is video footage showing some shocking images of great suffering. Expert
analysts agree that such a wide array of footage could have been made up,
especially the scenes involving small children.
In 1925, in the aftermath of
the First World War, the Geneva gas protocol banned the use of such weapons. Of
the 196 recognised world nations, 165 have formally signed the convention on
the use of chemical weapons.
In 2005 world leaders and the UN signed up
unanimously to the doctrine of 'responsibility to protect’. ‘Responsibility to
protect’ was once called humanitarian intervention.
On the day of the debate, the coalition
published the key judgments in a letter from the Chair of the Joint
Intelligence Committee. The letter states that “there is little serious dispute
that chemical attacks causing mass casualties on a larger scale than
hitherto…took place on 21 August”.
The government’s motion envisaged the
possibility of military action without a UN resolution. In the
Attorney-General’s legal advice there are three very important conditions if
military action is to be taken in the absence of a chapter VII Security Council
- “convincing evidence,
generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme
- “it must be objectively clear that there
is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be
- “the proposed use of
force must be…proportionate…and…strictly limited in time”.
In the debate, Douglas Alexander, the shadow
foreign secretary, summarised the common ground in the House of Commons:
- “This House stands united
in its revulsion at the reports of the use of chemical weapons being
deployed against innocent men, women and children in Syria.
- The use
of chemical weapons is not just deplorable; it is both immoral and
illegal. Since the Geneva protocol of 1925, the use of such weapons has
Members are deeply concerned as to how to protect the international
prohibition of their use that has been in place for decades.
suffering and the scale of the slaughter in Syria. In the past two years,
more than 100,000 people have been killed and more than 6 million people
are in need of humanitarian assistance. Already 2 million refugees have
fled Syria, 1 million of whom are children.”
government’s motion, which could have led to UK military action to prevent and deter the
use of chemical weapons by Syria, was defeated by 285
votes to 272.