The House of Lords Constitution Committee to quiz three Ministers this week in the final of a series of evidence sessions of the peers inquiry into the constitutional arrangements for the use of armed force. This week’s session will focus on Parliament’s role in approving decisions to use armed force overseas, bearing in mind that MPs, from all parties, in the past few weeks were pressurising government not to supply arms to Syrian rebels fearing that might become a mission creep with British military involvement in that troubled and troublesome part of the world.
The House of Lords Select Committee On the Constitution (At 10:30am, Wednesday 26 June, Committee Room 1, Palace of Westminster ) will hear evidence from Andrew Robathan MP, Armed Forces Minister; Alistair Burt MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State ( for Middle East and Africa) in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, House of Lords Spokesman for the Cabinet Office. The session will cover the Government’s commitment to a Commons vote before a decision is made to arm the Syrian National Council and whether this will set a precedent for similar situations in the future, especially where the deployment of UK troops is not proposed.
Majority of MPs of all parties are opposed to idea for a number of reasons. First they are mindful of the grave error of arming Afghan Mujahedin in the 1980s, especially with anti-aircraft missiles which ended at the hands of the Taliban and were used against RAF in the past few years, while terrorist groups affiliated to al-Qaeda managed to get hold of those missiles and were used against civilian airlines in Africa.
Syrian rebels have asked for sophisticated anti-Aircraft missiles, which Foreign Secretary William Hague, in his commons statement last week, classified as ‘defensive equipment’. The other worry is that nobody knows who the Syrian opposition groups really are, especially that every single Syrian rebel group fights under an Islamist name (not a single group has a Syrian geographical, or nationalist, or cultural heritage name), raising Islamist slogans and most fly jihadists or al-Qaeda banners or flags. Mr Hague was in Qatar at the weekend attending ‘Friends of Syria Conference’ in Doha, Qatar. The Qatar participants, who included the French President Francois Holland, agreed that each nation will, independently, deliver supplies and support to the rebels as they see fit, all assistance will be channelled through the Free Syrian Army headed by General Salim Idriss. The group includes Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, and Turkey.
The Free Syrian Army is an umbrella organisation claim (without much evidence) to control most of the fighters. In reality, jihadists have committed atrocities in imposing their Shriaa interpretation of Islam including torture and beheading an 11 years old boy for making a light-hearted remark about Islam.
The British policy still as stated by Prime Minister David Cameron on his ministerial statement to the commons last week on the Enniskillen G8 Summit, which was dominated by questions on the Anglo-Franco drive to lift an EU embargo on supplying arms to Syria, seen by MPs as opening the door to arming Syrian rebels.
In addition the Arab countries which support the rebels in Syria with arms have, in the past, shown little interest in democratic reform and criticised by international organisations for human-rights abuse
The Lords Committee will also quiz the witnesses on whether the Government plans to introduce legislation formalising Parliament’s role in approving military action as suggested by the Foreign Secretary, what role the Government sees for the House of Lords in such a process and in what circumstances the Prime Minister might deploy troops even though the House of Commons was opposed.
Mindful of former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s infamous claim of 45 minutes warning, of Saddam’s alleged use of weapons of mass destruction ( which were never to be found) to secure a vote for war in Iraq, both Houses of parliament, are adamant not repeat what many see as misleading of parliament by government. Prime Minister Cameron has been increasingly using Blairite phrases and the phrase ‘despot using chemical weapons against his own people’ (which was verbatim what has been used by Blair and President George W Bush to justify the 2003 war in Iraq), adding to the concerns of MPs and Peers that the government might involve the country in another war without clear mandate from parliament. Some Parliamentarians see the mess in Iraq an Afghanistan, especially heavy losses as a result of no clear exist strategy or clear political plan to define the objectives of the two military campaigns. They believe when such policies are properly debated and backed by legalisation from Westminster then the government of the day will be forced to define the objectives more clearly. .
In 2006 the House of Lords Constitution Committee published a report on Parliament’s role in authorising the use of armed force overseas. It recommended that a convention be created whereby the Government should seek parliamentary approval if they are proposing to deploy British troops into actual or potential armed conflict overseas. Despite various initiatives in the years following that report, no action has been taken to bring any such proposal into effect. Therefore, the Constitution Committee has decided to look again at the constitutional arrangements for the use of armed force overseas. The inquiry will focus on four areas in particular the reasons for the continuing absence of a war powers resolution or other formalisation of Parliament’s role; changes in the Government’s internal processes for authorising the use of armed force, and the suitability of those processes. It will also examine the impact of the changing nature of deployments on the choice of constitutional process; and the implications of new techniques of warfare for designing a mechanism for parliamentary approval. Last week former Foreign Secretary and Lord Chancellor Jack Straw MP gave evidence to the House of Lords Constitution Committee on his s 2008 proposals when, as Lord Chancellor, he recommended a detailed parliamentary resolution codifying Parliament’s role in approving the deployment of troops overseas. The proposals were not implemented and the constitutional process leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Mr Straw was Foreign Secretary. The session also covered whether the current Government should seek to formalise Parliament’s role in this area.
The Peers are also interested in defining the difference between legality and legitimacy in the deployment of armed forces as well as the Government’s decision-making process for deploying armed forces, including the role of the cabinet. In addition the peers will formalise a report on the role of Parliament in authorising interventions which stop short of “boots on the ground”, such as the supply of weapons to the opposition in Syria.
Early this month the peers heard evidence from military staff, including Field Marshal the Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank, Chief of the Defence Staff 1997-2001; Air Chief Marshal the Lord Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff 2006-10 and General Sir Mike Jackson, Chief of the General Staff 2003-06.