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Benedict Rogers: David Cameron walks tall, but was failed by pygmies

Benedict RogersBenedict Rogers is a human rights activist, a former Parliamentary Candidate, and is Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.

Since Thursday night, I have felt a burning fury which I have seldom experienced before. Try as I might to put it out of my thoughts, it stayed with me. I found it hard to sleep. I hope Ed Miliband, and the Conservative MPs who rebelled, found it even harder. 

It is not fury at war being thwarted. It is fury at Parliament's unwillingness to even consider the possibility of action on Syria, fury at petty partisan behaviour from some, incompetence from others, at those who buried their heads in little Englander sands and in so doing have let Britain, the international community and most of all the ordinary suffering people of Syria down.

These are times for humility, because these are grave issues. So let me start by acknowledging some very real truths.

First, I do not know Syria and the Middle East personally. I readily admit that, and in writing this I am breaking my normal rule of commentating only on countries and issues with which I have first-hand knowledge and experience. I do so because the principles at stake extend well beyond Syria. 

Second, no option was easy. Yes, any military action carries with it all sorts of risks that have been well articulated by others. But of one thing we can be sure: inaction sends an unequivocal message not only to Assad, but to dictators - and terrorists - around the world: commit crimes against humanity and war crimes, inflict suffering on your people, flagrantly breach international law, and the British Parliament will look away.

Inaction may well also, as Maajid Nawaz argued, be a recruiting sergeant for Islamists, who will say that once again when Muslims are suffering, the West - or at least Britain - looks the other way. Of these two unpleasant choices, I simply wish Parliament had given further consideration to the former, in the certain knowledge of the grave consequences of the latter.

The reality we face

Although I do not know Syria, I do know conflict and persecution. As an undergraduate aged 20, I travelled to the war-torn Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh, struggling for survival against Azerbaijan, with Baroness Cox and Congressman Frank Wolf. I saw bombed-out buildings, I met families who had lost loved ones, I lay awake at night listening to gunfire on the distant front-lines even though a ceasefire had just been agreed.

In my work over the past 19 years, I have been to other places of conflict. I have walked through burned-out buildings in East Timor and will never forget my first visit, when a teenager approached me within an hour of my arrival. He spoke little English. He looked into my eyes and with a mix of words and gestures, explained 'My mother - dead'. Then he told me 'My mother with baby - both dead', and gestured a cutting motion across the stomach. 'My brother dead too,' he added, depicting cigarette burns and machete chops with his hands.

More than 40 times since then, I have travelled to Burma, often to its border conflict zones. I have seen smouldering villages, scrambled through thick jungle to meet the armed resistance, and I regularly spend time with refugees, former child soldiers and former political prisoners, rape victims, orphans and those who have been enslaved. I have spent time with survivors of the North Korean gulag, and metNorth Korean refugees. I have visited bulldozed churches and sealed Ahmadi mosques, Ahmadi and Shia Muslims driven from their homes in Indonesia. In Islamabad, I missed a bomb by five minutes and my friend Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated in 2011. So I have no illusions about the dangers of radical Islamism and the potential threat it poses in Syria.

What I have witnessed, and heard about from those I have met is not comparable in scale to the horrific crisis in Syria, but it gives me some insight into the principles at stake. Having seen the effects of war, I do not advocate military action lightly. Like everyone, I think we must learn the lessons of Iraq. But we must not allow the shadow of Iraq to paralyse us forever. 

The action proposed

Thursday's motion was not about authorising an invasion of Syria. It was not even about authorising limited military strikes. It was about paving the way for further debate and a further motion. It is worth reading the motion very carefully here. I ask those who voted against: did you read the motion? I cannot see what there is to argue with.

It is reasonable for MPs to demand further evidence before military action is taken, and supporting the motion would have given them that chance. It is entirely reasonable to press for more clarity of the objectives, and they would have had that chance, too. Instead, Parliament rejected action out of hand, without even waiting for UN inspectors to report.

David Cameron took a courageous stand, listened at every stage, and showed integrity and humility in giving Parliament a say. He was badly let down by others.

First, if reports are true, it seems that Obama set a timetable and tied Cameron to it. Now, Obama has adjusted the timetable by seeking a vote by Congress - and as Dan Hodges, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Paddy Ashdown are arguing, perhaps this gives Parliament a chance to reconsider. But originally, Cameron - who had pressed uphill for a long time to get Obama to where he is now - appears to have been pushed into a corner by Obama with an unhelpful timetable. Would things have been different if the US had been more flexible last week, and Parliament had not been recalled? Perhaps.

Second, news reports suggest that the US witheld key evidence from British ministers. If true, this is appalling. If the information US Secretary of State John Kerry released on Friday had come 24 hours earlier, the outcome might have been different. The rush, the rigidity, the incompetence and the vainglory of the US landed Cameron in the mess on Thursday night. He took a courageous position, and was let down by our friends.

Third, the whips. How on earth were 31 MPs, including 6 Ministers, two whips and two aides, allowed to miss the vote? Not all would have necessarily supported the Government, but with them there, the outcome may have been different. Ministers who failed to vote are guilty either of extreme negligence or shameless cowardice. Cameron's whips and some Ministers let him down, and deserve to pay the price.

Reasons for rebellion

Among those Conservatives who rebelled, there are a few whom I deeply respect. I would count them friends, I would not question their values or integrity, I know they are honourable and some care very deeply about human rights. They will have their reasons, which I look forward to learning. But there are others - the has-beens, malcontents and parochial pygmies - whose attitudes are sickening. One MP said we should not get involved because Syria was not a British colony, it was French. What kind of argument is that for an MP from the party of Churchill and Thatcher?

So Cameron was let down by some in his own party. But the betrayal - not just of promises to the Prime Minister, but of the people of Syria - by Ed Miliband is especially shocking. I had thought Ed Miliband was a decent person with whom I disagreed. Thursday revealed him to be a spineless little man prepared to do anything for political advantage. It should not surprise me that a man who stabs his brother in the back would play politics with Syrian childrens' lives, but it still appalls me. And then he says the next day that the Prime Minister should not give up on Syria. Ed, you don't need to worrry your pathetic little mind about that - the Prime Minister has already shown he will remain deeply engaged, despite your deceit. And for Labour MPs to cheer as the motion was defeated: well, just imagine how a Syrian enduring this civil war would feel about that. 

Several commentators have spoken with courage and wisdom: Charles MooreThe Times leader yesterday, a French philosopher, and Dan Hodges, who bravely resigned from the Labour Party because of Miliband's spinelessness.

I feel proud that Britain has a Prime Minister who did not look the other way, a Prime Minister with the courage to try, the decency to consult, and the humility to listen. Since Thursday I have felt ashamed that some MPs appear to have lost all balls, guts, heart, mind, soul and vertebrae. I hope Britain will now strain every sinew to seek to bring every help short of military action to the people of Syria, and I believe history will show that David Cameron and William Hague, and - yes - Nick Clegg and Paddy Ashdown, walk tall, but they were failed by pygmies. 


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