Richard Butler. After Paris

Nov 17, 2015


The attacks in Paris were textbook in terms of the philosophy of terrorism: hit publicly, indiscriminately, affecting as large a group of innocent people as possible, attract maximum publicity, generate widespread fear. They also represented a continuation of terrorist actions within metropolitan Europe: Madrid 2004, 191 dead; London 2005, 56 dead; Paris January 2015, 17 dead; and now November 2015 128 dead and still counting. Naturally, statements characterizing this latest outrage have been flowing. It has been described as “France’s September 11”, and according to President Hollande, as constituting a declaration of war on France. IS has claimed responsibility for the attacks and it seems there is now independent evidence that it directed them.

Clearly military action against IS will be increased. Indeed, French bombing of IS headquarters in Raqaa, Syria, were significantly increased, beginning 2 days after the attacks.

King Abdullah of Jordan has described the actions of IS as constituting the conduct of “ a global war, a third world war, by other means”. Pope Francis has agreed, describing the existence of a “piecemeal” third world war.

It is beyond any doubt that the idea that citizens going about their ordinary, even banal business; attending a concert, a football match, eating in a cafe should be arbitrarily blown away is monstrous.

Equally, it is certain that citizens expect that arrangements in their community, policing etc., will deter or prevent such action. Politicians know this and routinely pledge it, but it is now clear in so many countries, that this promise can’t, reliably, be kept.

It must also be accepted that the continuing series of atrocities being committed across the middle east by a variety of parties far exceeds what has happened in metropolitan Europe, and holds the prospect of further massive destruction, beyond what has already occurred, particularly in Syria.

Thus, there is no alternative but to dig deeper into where this has come from and on that basis craft both an effective defense and a more elemental, hopefully enduring, solution.

There are a number of identifiable sources of the present situation, stretching back to the settlement at the end of the First World War and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. But, the continuous threads are western intervention, which has never been benign, and ethno-confessional disputes, mainly between Sunni and Shia, which the west routinely ignored, misunderstood, or sought to exploit.

Today, that disgraceful history is now assaulting the west. The invasion of Iraq, by the US, UK, and Australia in 2003 was: contrary to international law, mounted on the basis of fabricated intelligence, and in Australia’s case without parliamentary or constitutionally sound authorization. The number of dead it yielded, on all sides, the massive cost, were dwarfed only by the completeness of its failure as a concept ( to bring democracy to the middle east) and its fuelling of the enduring internal political and confessional conflicts within the region.

It’s major achievement was that it brought IS into existence, and if King Abdullah is right, a developing third world war. He sees IS as representing “a global franchise”, incorporating branches around the world responsive to directives from headquarters but more than prepared to do their own thing in situ, ranging from recruitment to training to executing attacks. George W Bush, Tony Blair, and John Howard, have so far avoided serious public recognition of their responsibility, although Blair might face a problem when the Chillcott report is issued.

What has been said above with respect to Iraq and Syria, is also similarly true of Libya.

Clearly, we will now face an indefinite period of yet further surveillance and security checks in a wider number of aspects of our domestic lives. We must insist that they be effective without vitiating the elemental constructs of our rule of law and human rights based society. Were the latter not to be the case then, ironically, the enemy would have won. Also, with respect to the latter, Australia needs a Charter of Human Rights

On the external sources, the roots of the problem, there are two key areas which now must be addressed in an entirely more committed way: the civil war in Syria; the situation in Palestine.

On Syria, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, in particular the US and Russia, must craft a joint policy and set of actions to bring about and end to the fighting, and a political settlement in Syria. It seems that this was in fact set in motion, last week, in Vienna.

The success of this seems to be the last hope for Syria and, if it moves ahead, should then enable other permanent members, particularly, France and Britain, to join with Russia and the US in mounting a serious effort to remove IS from Syria and Iraq.

Given the terms of the UN Charter, this is precisely the sort of action for which permanent membership of the Council was established and has been so shockingly neglected in the period since the end of the Cold War.

Russia’s recent unilateral entry into the fighting in Syria, for which it seems to have paid the price of one of its civilian aircraft being bombed out of the sky, seems to have opened up some willingness on its part to act in concert with the US.

On the problem of Palestine, there must be an end to both: US and Israeli insistence that the Palestine question has nothing to do with support for IS and other anti western political attitudes and actions; and, the continuing failure of the US to deploy all of its self-evident ability to insist to Israel on the conclusion of a two State solution.

Australia has a role to play in the international consideration of and development of actions to strengthen overall security, as well as its own. Our governments have tended to see this largely in terms of supporting the Americans, and participating in military actions, largely determined by the US. In what he has said, so far, Prime Minister Turnbull has shown a more sophisticated awareness, than his predecessor, of what is at issue in our foreign relations and the challenges revealed by the Paris events, including in Australia domestically.

Australia can contribute usefully in intelligence sharing, and should make diplomatic action the central contribution it can make as a new international response to IS, is developed. Its current military contribution to the coalition should not be renewed, or perhaps as Canada is doing, be withdrawn. It achieves very little, not because it is incapable, but because of the flawed nature of the US operation. (1). It does serve to expose us to an increased possibility of terrorist action within Australia. We could legitimately consider a military contribution, when an international plan of action, authorized by the Security Council is adopted.

(1) See, Patrick Coburn: “Too weak, Too strong”. London Review of Books. 5 November 2015

Richard Butler AC, is former Ambassador to the United Nations and Head of the United Nation Special Commission to disarm Iraq (UNSCOM).

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