Archbishop of Canterbury speaks during debate on use of chemical weapons in Syria

“In civil wars, those who are internal to the civil conflict fight for their lives, necessarily. Those who are external have a responsibility, if they get involved at all, to fight for the outcome. That outcome must be one that improves the chances of long-term peace and reconciliation.”

On 29th August 2013, the House of Lords was recalled to take note and debate the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd and Rt Hon. Justin Welby, spoke during the debate. He urged that all intermediate steps before opening fire should be taken and expressed concern that intervention from abroad would declare open season on Christian communities in the country and wider region, which have already been devastated. He argued that such a consequence needed to be balanced against the consequences of inaction and that intervention would have  to be effective in preventing any further use or promotion of chemical weapons and make it more possible for Syria and the Middle East to be places without millions of refugees.

Archbishop of CanterburyThe Archbishop of Canterbury: My Lords, I welcome very much the opportunity to speak later in this debate because of the extraordinary quality of many of the contributions that have been made and how much one can learn by listening to them. Like many noble Lords I have some experience in the region, partly from this role that I have and from recent visits and contact with many faith leaders of all three Abrahamic faiths, and through 10 years of, from time to time, working on reconciliation projects.

I do not intend to repeat the powerful points that have been made on international law, which is itself based on the Christian theory of just war. That has been said very eloquently. However, I want to pick up a couple of points. First, it has been said, quite rightly, that there is as much risk in inaction as there is in action. In a conflict in another part of the world—a civil conflict in which I was mediating some years ago—a general said to me, “We have to learn that there are intermediate steps between being in barracks and opening fire”. The reality is that, until we are sure that all those intermediate steps have been pursued, just war theory says that the step of opening fire is one that must only be taken when there is no possible alternative whatever under any circumstances. As the noble Lord, Lord Alli, just said very clearly and very eloquently, the consequences are totally out of our hands once it has started.

Some consequences we can predict. We have heard already about Lebanon and about Iran, particularly the effect that an intervention would cause on the new Government in Iran as they are humiliated by such an intervention. However, there is a further point. I talked to a very senior Christian leader in the region yesterday and he said that intervention from abroad will declare open season on the Christian communities. They have already been devastated. There were 2 million Christians in Iraq 12 years ago; there are fewer than 500,000 today. These are churches that do not just go back to St Paul but, in the case of Damascus and Antioch, predate him. They will surely suffer terribly, as they already do, if action goes ahead. That consequence has to be weighed against the consequences of inaction.

In civil wars, those who are internal to the civil conflict fight for their lives, necessarily. Those who are external have a responsibility, if they get involved at all, to fight for the outcome. That outcome must be one that improves the chances of long-term peace and reconciliation. If we take action that diminishes the chance for peace and reconciliation, when inevitably a political solution has to be found, whether it is near-term or in the long-term future, then we will have contributed to more killing, and this war will be deeply unjust.

In consequence, I feel that any intervention must be effective in terms of preventing any further use of chemical weapons. I have not yet heard that that has been adequately demonstrated as likely. It must effectively deal with those who are promoting the use of chemical weapons. It must also have a third aim, which is somewhere in the strategy: there must be more chance of a Syria and of a Middle East in which there are not millions of refugees and these haunting pictures are not the stuff of our evening viewing.

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire: …On the legality, we have heard a number of very expert speeches, in particular that of the former Attorney-General, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, who rightly said that we have to include a large number of considerations, including that force should be used only as a last resort. That picks up what the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury said about the just war doctrine. There are occasions when one has to use force, but one should be extremely cautious about how one approaches it. That is the approach that the Government are taking…

(via Parliament.uk)