From the editor's desk
From the editor's desk > Hesitation in the face of evil

14 August 2014

Hesitation in the face of evil

There has been widespread criticism, entirely justified, of the British Government’s timid and complacent response to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in northern Iraq. This is not to question the bravery of RAF air crew flying missions to drop supplies to the tens of thousands of Yazidi refugees trapped on a mountain and surrounded by fanatical Islamists fighting under the sinister black banner of Islamic State (IS, formerly known as Isis). But British efforts fall so far short of what is needed that the operation looks more like a public relations exercise than anything else, or as one military expert put it, “gesture politics”.

By far the greater part of the international relief effort is being undertaken by the United States, though that too is inadequate. There is vague talk in Washington of a “rescue mission”, involving both helicopters and military personnel on the ground. But official thinking in both America and Great Britain seems allergic to anything that sounds like real engagement. There is no strategic thinking. This lack of seriousness is alarming. 

The West’s moral and legal duty is plain. After the international community failed to prevent the mass murders in Rwanda and Srebrenica, and in the light of the successful Kosovo intervention, the United Nations adopted the principle called Responsibility to Protect which now has the status of international law. This declares that every state has a duty to defend its population from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing; that the international community has a responsibility to assist the state to fulfil its primary responsibility; and that if a state manifestly fails to do so, the international community has the responsibility to act, with military intervention as a last resort.

In this case the Iraqi Government has not failed out of ill will but because it has been overwhelmed by the military threat from IS, though the partisan and anti-Sunni policies pursued by the Maliki Government did help to set the scene. For the tens of thousands of refugees, the “last resort” of outside military intervention is their one hope of survival. Given that IS’ intentions span all four of the categories mentioned by the Responsibility to Protect, from genocide to ethnic cleansing, the world has an undoubted obligation to see it is stopped. That is bound to entail rather more than a few American air strikes here and there against IS’ heavy weapons. The British have declined even to participate in that, and committed only transport and reconnaissance aircraft.

The systematic application of Western – including British – airpower now seems inescapable, whether or not the immediate refugee crisis finds a solution. Even the Vatican, which almost never approves of military action, has said so. Thus when Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster tells the British Government, as he did this week, that Iraq needs a “sustained focus on creating a more stable society based on respect for fundamental human rights”, that could well involve confronting, by all necessary means, IS’ evil campaign to wipe out every section of Iraqi society it disapproves of, whether moderate Sunni, Christian, Shia or Yazidi. Pope Francis, in his moving plea for intervention sent to the United Nations secretary general this week, invokes international law, implying that military action in such a case as this would have legal and moral sanction.

If the Government thinks it needs a democratic mandate first, then Parliament should be recalled immediately. But compliance with international law does not need parliamentary approval. The real problem is the lack of political will, particularly as both the British and American Governments have their eye on their forthcoming elections and both administrations believe public opinion would not tolerate further military interventions overseas. That may not be true much longer. The polls are fluid: people do not like reckless foreign adventures, but nor do they like cowardice in the face of evil.

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