Following Friday’s vote in Parliament, British armed forces will once again be engaged in action in the Middle East. Already flying reconnaissance and humanitarian aid missions, the RAF will now join the US-led coalition attacking the fighters in Iraq who call themselves the Islamic State (IS).
Despite the Government making its case for action and winning the vote, the issue is far from closed. The Government still lacks a comprehensive foreign and defence policy. It has talked about the urgency of the airstrikes but hasn’t fully explained how they fit into Britain’s approach to the Middle East. It is difficult to shake off the suspicion that it is making things up as it goes along. The issue is far too serious for that, especially since people are talking about the fight against IS taking years rather than months.
In particular, the Labour Party, to which my organisation, Christians on the Left, is affiliated, should develop its own approach distinct from the Government’s, stressing the need for humanitarian aid and the Just War tradition.
Labour has a duty to press the Government to get its act together. It should also engage in a wider debate about its approach to military action. MPs are likely to be asked to consider action in Syria at some point. The choice should be wider than having to decide between advocating no action or supporting whatever position the Government arrives at.
In the political debate and in the media there has been insufficient focus on the humanitarian aspects of the crisis in Iraq. There is great need here, with 1.5 million civilians displaced in Iraq and hundreds of thousands in camps or given emergency shelter by Christian communities so far unaffected by the violence. Humanitarian work must be properly funded and that funding sustained. We should also join other EU nations such as France and Germany in offering asylum to those most in need.
Although the decision to carry out airstrikes has been taken, the Just War approach can still inform the ways that military and any other intervention is carried out.
Even if we conclude that the cause is just, using armed force means people will be killed and injured, and it means too that we put people in our armed forces at risk. That is why it must only be a last resort.
To take action we must be reasonably confident that we will cause less harm than we prevent. We cannot know the future but we must make a clear judgement about this. The harm we want to prevent starts with the suffering now of people in Iraq – and especially at this time, the Christian and other religious and ethnic minorities who are being persecuted. They need more than abstract debate; they need rescue. Assessing the harm we may cause will be more difficult but a serious attempt must be made. The aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq illustrated what happened when governments get this wrong.
We must consider how we should engage in military action. The British Government should continue to be challenged on these points. For example, the innocent must be protected and the dignity of humankind upheld. This has certainly not happened under IS. The aims of any British involvement must be clear.
As the official Opposition, Labour can be confident in developing a distinct approach, – in no way for political gain but to challenge effectively the Government on the need for a mature foreign policy and a thought-through and ethical approach to deciding upon military action.
Stephen Beer is the political communications officer of Christians on the Left, formerly known as the Christian Socialist Movement and which is affiliated to the Labour Party. He blogs at www.stephenbeer.com. This article represents his personal opinion.