Manning Julia 2013Julia Manning is Chief Executive of 2020Health. Follow Julia on Twitter.

What denotes a country’s international standing? It’s economic,
military or foreign policy? It’s record on human rights or humanitarian
assistance? It’s democratic procedures, or former empire or scientific
influence? Ask ten people and you will get ten different answers. Yet
international standing in the past few days has been construed by some
politicians and press as being the willingness to join the USA in military
action. The Sun’s ridiculous front page yesterday of the ‘death notice’ of our
special relationship with the USA summed up this opinion, as if Britain’s
greatness has depended all along on agreeing with our American cousins.

The truth is that I believe Great Britain’s international
standing rose last week. A democratically elected parliament voted not to
sanction airstrikes on Syria. Reporters on the ground in the Middle East
described the astonishment of local people, not that the vote was ‘no’, but
that we had a live, public debate in which men and women from all walks of life
and of different political persuasions were able to freely take part. The
powerful witness of democracy in action should not be underestimated. In a
whipped party political system where speeches on the floor of the House usually
have no bearing on the result obtained, integrity trumped loyalty for those who
could not accede to force. For the foreign secretary it was a salient moment:
in his biography of William Wilberforce, William Hague had said when remarking
on Wilberforce’s oratorical ability and persuasiveness that “the subsequent
rise of disciplined political parties would ultimately render [these abilities]
almost worthless”. The vote last week showed that debate, reason and persuasion
on the floor of the House has not been neutered.

Public anger at the use of chemical weapons is now being
added to by the disrespect that certain politicians and press are showing
towards both the democratic process and our country. “Britain’s head is held
low” they wail. “We have been humiliated” they cry, “We’re now just an
embarrassed spectator”.

What absolute rubbish. I am proud. Proud that we will not
be involved in military strikes, sugared with ‘clinical’, ‘small’, ‘controlled’
in the full knowledge that the bitter reality would involve the killing of more
innocent people and the release of chemicals into the atmosphere that could
spread for hundreds of kilometres. Untold numbers of civilians who have bravely
chosen to remain in their homes would be affected. A study published in
December 2012 showed that the bombing of Iraq’s chemical weapons plants in 1991
released the nerve agent sarin (suspected in the Damascus attacks) which
reached military encampments 600km away. That Syria has chemical weapons in the
first place is due to its decision to remain outside the Chemical Weapons
Convention, and the rest of the UN’s weakness in standing up to China who
refused to support sanctions against Syrian’s supplies of nerve gas. What is
inexcusable is that we let this situation persist.

Added to the chemical fallout, through military
intervention the UK would be getting involved in what has become a complex fog
of sectarian conflict: Shia is pitted against Sunni, not only in Syria but also
in Iraq and Lebanon. The lesson from Iraq is that it is incredibly naive to
think that military force is the answer. The army couldn’t even turn the water
on in post-war Iraq without the approval of the religious leaders. The only
long-term solution is to enable influential religious leaders to come together
to work for peace and reconciliation. There are no quick, easy or clinical
solutions however much we might want them. And there is nothing to fear from
taking a different stance to the USA. As broadcaster Justin Webb said in his
‘special relationship’ reflections in Notes on them and us, “America is
a foreign country…the relationship that develops from this awareness could be
so much healthier…we must not confuse ourselves with them.”

That a war crime has been committed is not in question; it
is right that the UN weapons inspectors lead on targeting the perpetrators as
we still don’t know for sure who was behind the attacks. As signatories to the
Chemical Weapons Convention and allies of Syria, Russia and Iran should lead on
the prosecution. No dictator must live to think that crimes against humanity
will go unpunished. Longer term there should be a redoubled effort to ensure
all countries sign and ratify the Convention (Israel and Egypt have not yet
done both).

Britain’s role should remain one of urgent diplomacy and
humanitarian assistance. Christians in particular have suffered in the Middle
East in recent years, and many of them are amongst the refugees. Persecution by
Al-Qaeda has meant there are now more Iraqi Christians in Chicago than in Iraq.
For all those in the enormous refugee camps in neighboring countries there is
much we can do: educational materials, food, medical supplies, sport equipment,
sponsoring a family. Having met displaced people before, it is of huge
importance for them to feel remembered. For civilians still in Syria, giving
people the means to protect themselves has to be our priority. Antidotes to
chemical weapons, gas masks, soap, advice on what to do are all cheap and
effective. If there is anything we should be dropping on Syria right now, it
should be medical parcels.

It is precisely because we voted against ‘clinical strikes’
in Syria that we can hold our heads high on the international stage. I want an
international standing that is based on reality and reason, not impulse and
rage. I want to be able to say: you were hungry so we sent you food; you were
thirsty and we arranged water supplies; you had lost all your possessions so we
donated clothing; you were sick so we paid for medical supplies; you were
strangers but our hearts were moved by your plight and we gave all we could. As
the grand-daughter of a British Army General I am proud of our military history
and our willingness to go to the aid of the oppressed. I know there are times
when we have a clear strategy that force needs to be used, but this was not
such a time, and our country is stronger for it.

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